"Santo Versace has had the courage to come back here and help us out," says Vittorio Caminiti, an entrepreneur and president of the region's hotel association, at a rally last week for the Versace campaign for Parliament.
All eyes are on Versace, the chairman of the family-owned fashion company who has been greeting well-wishers and is sitting center stage, thinner than usual and impeccable in a pin-striped suit and cerulean sweater. "I came back because I think it can be done," says Versace, who has been constantly traveling around Calabria for the campaign.
Energetic and passionate, Versace is running for Italy's Parliament as a candidate in Silvio Berlusconi's party, Partito delle Libertà (Freedom Party), for the city of Reggio Calabria, in southern Calabria, from which the Versaces hail.
The elections will take place Sunday and Monday. Versace's election doesn't depend on whether Berlusconi wins, but rather on the number of votes the Freedom Party scores in Reggio. Because of the rules, Versace probably will take a seat in Parliament because his name is at the top of the list in his region.
The glamorous world of fashion appears aeons away from Calabria and its struggles, including everything from high unemployment to a stranglehold on key sectors by criminal organizations, which stall the area's development. But Versace is undaunted and has high hopes for the future.
"I want to revolutionize politics," he says.
He dislikes the use of the word 'Ndrangheta, which is Calabria's equivalent of the Sicilian Mafia or the Neapolitan Camorra, and would rather speak of malapolitica or "bad politics." "Good politics lead to well-being and prosperity," says Versace, whose mantra is to work in the interests of the people. "If you don't, you are not a politician."
Versace is deeply committed to Calabria, the "toe" of Italy's boot-shaped peninsula, because he and his siblings, Gianni and Donatella, were formed here. "Gianni was culturally from Calabria — he left when he was 25 and the message he sent out to the world was shaped here," said Versace, who still spends much of his time in the family's house in Reggio Calabria, next to the first boutique that sold his brother's designs. Versace's fame is undoubtedly attracting the media to Calabria, which, located across from Sicily, has always lagged behind in terms of tourism and entertainment.