How Donatella Versace Stepped Up to Run Brother's Empire After He Was Murdered by a Serial Killer

The 1997 murder of designer Gianni Versace was so shocking for his family that, years later, they were still reeling, one friend tells PEOPLE

The 1997 murder of designer Gianni Versace was so shocking for his family that, years later, they were “still in pieces,” a family friend tells PEOPLE.

“I met them several years [after Versace’s death] and … it took several years for the pieces to settle and for the family to deal with the reality of what had happened — both personally and professionally,” the friend says.

Versace, 50, was returning home to his mansion in Miami Beach, Florida, on the morning of July 15, 1997, when he encountered 27-year-old Andrew Cunanan, who had already killed at least four other people.

What happened between them is still unclear, but Cunanan almost immediately opened fire on Versace, fatally shooting him twice in the head, before fleeing. Cunanan later killed himself on a houseboat as authorities closed in.

The case, which has already generated years of attention, will be featured in the next season of Ryan Murphy‘s anthology drama American Crime Story, on FX. Starring Darren Criss, Penelope Cruz, Ricky Martin and Edgar Ramírez, it is set to air in 2018 and is previewed in an exclusive first look in this week’s Entertainment Weekly.

Versace’s broad-daylight slaying rattled both the fashion world, where he was a star, and his closest relatives, who worked alongside him at his eponymous Italian fashion house. His brother, Santo Versace, ran the company, while sister Donatella designed the Versus line and served as his muse.

After Gianni’s murder, Donatella stepped in as Versace’s new creative leader.

© Rose Hartman/Globe Photos/ZUMA

“Donatella found herself being the central voice and spokesperson for something that she genuinely never wanted to be the main figure of,” the family friend explains. “I believe she very much enjoyed her role being the sister and the sparkly participant on the side, without having to carry the burden of the entire house.”

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“They were an exceptionally close family, particularly Donatella and Gianni,” the friend says, “and … the loss of someone who was the undisputed leader, the undisputed vision, the undisputed creative force and eccentric leader of this incredibly passionate and emotional family, there was extraordinary pain.”

Gianni’s friend Hal Rubenstein, echoes that, telling PEOPLE: “This falling on her was brutal. The fact that this company is basically successful and still existing 20 years later — some of that credit has to go to that lady. She was strong.”

‘She Had to Hold up This Temple’

Less than six months after Gianni died, Donatella debuted her first collection as Versace’s chief designer, at Milan Fashion Week. It was met with raves.

“The collection was fantastic,” Demi Moore, a front-row attendee, told PEOPLE at the time. “It had everything of [Gianni] and so much of her.”

Even so, it was a struggle. “I miss my brother very much,” Donatella, trembling, reportedly said as fellow designers rushed backstage to congratulate her afterward. “I wanted to run away, thinking about coming out here without him.”

“There were two brands, two polar opposites, in Milan in the ’90s in Italian fashion: Armani and Versace, and everybody else sort of fell in the middle,” Rubenstein says. “And so she had to hold up this temple. It was a lot. It was an awful lot.

© Marice Cohn Band/MCT/

In the years after Gianni’s death, Donatella, now 62, and the family were left with both enormous personal grief and, professionally, a renowned brand that had a hole knocked in its center.

“How do you paint the truck while you’re still driving it? It’s that kind of thing,” Rubenstein says. “And when you have that kind of trouble, when you’re presented with that kind of issue and situation, it’s rare that you come out the other side in a good place. So props to everybody.”

Friends say that as FX’s new series approaches, those who knew Gianni are focused on celebrating what was best about him: his intelligence and what Rubenstein terms his “creative genius and his absolute joy about being alive.”

“He [Gianni] has a legacy that’s still vibrant,” Rubenstein adds. “And I think that’s the true test of somebody’s greatness and I think that’s what the family has done.”

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