The Haute Couture Queen: Donatella Versace
She’s an illustrious figure in the world of fashion, a smoky-eyed siren whose life in the industry to date has combined high classicism with modernity, sex, excess and tragedy. Even as her eponymous brand enters a brave new era, Donatella Versace stays true to herself and remains as timeless as one of her company’s designer creations.
Written by PETER WALLACE and PAOLO BIANCHI
An unmistakable aura surrounds Donatella Versace. Perhaps it stems from her chosen industry — fashionistas are often considered steely, aloof and intimidating — or from her standing as a woman at the head of a billion-dollar business. Perhaps it comes from her instantly recognizable look; with her long, bleached-blond tresses and charcoal-edged eyes, she is distinctive, even when standing among the world’s most renowned models. She has a natural exoticism, with her rolling vocal cadence that’s as rich as the taut black leather with which her brand staked claim to the fashion world’s heart.
Her image is a product of her family name — Versace, a whispered sibilance — and her name is a product of her image. Neither has meaning without the other. For although her company was brought to life by the innovation of her late brother, Gianni, it is Donatella who has carried the burden of the business on her impeccably tailored shoulders. Few brands can claim to have survived and thrived in the manner that Versace has.
Various former members of the company’s senior management can attest to Donatella’s iron will, but — incredible as it may seem — behind her self-described “facade” of bleached hair and makeup is a tendency toward self-criticism.
“Being strong doesn’t mean being invulnerable,” she explains, her heavily accented words filling the air like a heady perfume. (Versace has claimed to wear four combined scents at any one time.) “Even a strong woman has her weaknesses — but that doesn’t make her weak, it makes her human. Being a strong woman for me means to play the game following the rules, pushing the limits and breaking down barriers, overcoming weaknesses and fighting for what you believe in.”
Even a strong woman has her weaknesses — but that doesn’t make her weak, it makes her human”
It could be argued that the successes of both the Versace family and the brand were tied to these very principles. During the late ’70s and early ’80s, they certainly pushed the limits, flying in the face of convention with bold prints, flesh-baring overt sexuality and a rejection of the concept of “good taste.” It was Gianni who, from the relatively humble beginning of his Milan boutique, opened in 1978, powered the family name into the national consciousness, but Donatella’s influence on her brother cannot be overstated. She acted as her brother’s muse and alter ego all at once, pushing the notoriously controversial Gianni’s designs even further.
“When we were doing fittings with Gianni, he’d say, ‘Let’s shorten the skirt a bit,’ and then pin the skirt’s hem just above the knee,” she reminisces. “But as soon as he turned his back, I’d sneak in and hike the skirt right up to the crotch and pair it with thigh-high, stiletto-heeled boots. I’d be like, ‘Let’s go for it!’ and he would scream, ‘You’re going to destroy me!’ But ultimately, he would embrace it. We’d all be laughing our heads off, having a great time. He enjoyed taking risks.”
Even now, some 20-plus years since Gianni was murdered on the steps of his Miami Beach, Fla., mansion, the reverence that Donatella feels for her company’s pioneering namesake is obvious. Tales are told of the family’s guarded nature, their closing of ranks, when it comes to some aspects of their history, and yet, Donatella holds absolutely nothing back in her effusive praise of her late brother. Her sultry, thick voice grows even thicker with emotion whenever she talks about the lasting impression Gianni has had.
I discovered that our immense archive is something that can teach me a lot and that can be reinterpreted with the eyes of today”
“He was a true revolutionary and completely changed the course of fashion,” she says. “He was the first one to use black leather and bondage for women’s evening wear, for example. In the ’90s, all the other houses followed suit and used leather in their collections, but when Gianni first did it, black leather was only to be found in a handful of seedy gay bars in downtown New York. Gianni never played it safe; his work was radical and divisive. You either loved it or hated it,” she says.
“He brought a lot of courage and he broke a lot of rules. What he was doing, no one else was doing at the time. That’s why he became Gianni Versace, and young people today like to hear our brand’s story — it’s a story of love and of suffering, and we do something different than everybody else.”
That story could easily have suffered an end as premature as its originator’s, had Donatella not stepped up. Indeed, the modern incarnation of Versace has all the same swagger and braggadocio as it did during its stratospheric rise, but it is owes as much to Donatella as it does to her brother. Perhaps even more so, given that her 21-year tenure as creative director outnumbers Gianni’s by a full two years.
It was Donatella Versace who negotiated the famously capricious industry, steering the company through the loss of its founder and into the contemporary era. It was she who, by virtue of her connections with the entertainment A-list and her own implacable celebrity entourage, ensured Versace was the brand that the showbiz elite turned to whenever they wished to turn heads on the red carpet. Think Liz Hurley’s safety-pin dress in 1994 (a design so memorable that it has threatened to overshadow its wearer’s career ever since) or Jennifer Lopez’s famous emerald-green dress in 2000. And it was Donatella who oversaw the company’s forward-thinking transition into the social media age, teaming up with brands like H&M to bring luxury designs to a new generation of fans, followers and buyers.
“The biggest challenge has perhaps been to keep this brand alive and relevant,” she says. “It is not easy to keep up a brand DNA while still making it appeal to the new generations. What has always helped me is my interest in the contemporary world, as well as the fact that I have always surrounded myself with young, creative people who have been able to bring the outside world in to the Versace maison.
“We’re not the same thing we were in the ’90s. I always try to be in touch with reality and with what’s going on in the world and how young people think and what young people want. You have to have the courage to evolve. My goal is to keep the brand relevant in today’s society and culture, while still promoting those messages of women’s empowerment, equality, freedom that we have always supported. Versace will also always evolve and be excited about the future.”
You’d be hard-pressed to find a better expression of Versace’s enduring success than those words, as spoken by one of fashion’s most prominent figures over the last 30 years. Indeed, to meet Donatella Versace is to see a fashion goddess incarnate. And her mythic quality is fitting, as her brother plucked Medusa, the snake-haired gorgon, straight out of Greek mythology to serve as the emblem of the family brand.
A staunch supporter of the seismic shifts that have recently brought women’s rights to the fore — “I wish #MeToo had happened before … Finally, we can talk about it.” — Donatella is all too aware that, like many woman before and after her, her career and her life are analyzed differently than those of the Armanis, Vuittons, Hilfigers and Lagerfelds of this world.
“Everything is more difficult for a woman!” she says. “We can’t compare a man’s experience of the workplace to what women have to go through. They’re more likely to be scrutinized and criticized than men. Even in fashion, which is meant to be a progressive industry, there is much more pressure put on women.”
Perhaps due to the stereotypes often ascribed to successful women, never mind intimidating matriarchs of fashion brands, Donatella has sometimes been portrayed as cold and distant. But that mischaracterization is directly contradicted by her obvious love for collaborative work.
“When I get into the studio in the morning and am surrounded by my design team, I feel this is my family,” she says. “I believe in my team and the faith they have in me and my sense of duty and work ethic. I want people to feel free to talk, to tell their thoughts, even if I don’t like it. I push people to do that to me because I like to be challenged. I respect what’s different from me and allow people to be who they want to be. When [Gianni] founded the company, I became the one person who dared to contradict the king. He was annoyed, but listened. And he had the good sense to correct his decisions when he needed to.”
Gianni’s spectre still looms large over the brand. But whereas a lesser designer might have written off her own creative efforts as insignificant compared to her sibling’s groundbreaking achievements and retreated entirely, Donatella Versace emerged from the challenge triumphant. She will likely never be free of comparisons to her brother in the media — neither would the fiercely loyal Donatella wish to have that blood tie forgotten — but just as she has surpassed Gianni’s reign as the company’s creative director, so, too, has she proven herself as an innovator of record in her own right.
“At the very beginning, I felt I was a bit trapped by my brother’s genius. I was afraid to go too close to his creations, or use the archive for inspiration, because I was scared people would then say, ‘Look, she’s copying her brother; she’s not as good as him!’ So I tried to do different things. Sometimes I also tried to move away from our DNA. Some experiments worked, some didn’t — but that’s OK, it’s life!
“Recently, I feel I have finally found my own voice. I discovered that our immense archive is something that can teach me a lot and that can be reinterpreted with the eyes of today, and that respecting our DNA does not mean copying my brother, but to bring the DNA of Versace into today’s world and in a completely different way.”
The pioneering spirit in that sentiment echoes Gianni Versace’s efforts to expand the brand ever outwards, from clothing to jewelry, soft furnishings and home textiles. Gianni worked outward, bending external elements to the sheer force of his creative will, making everything around him a concept for the catwalk. It was this ideal that led to his creation of the supermodel. “Linda Evangelista, Cindy Crawford and all the girls who Avedon shot for our campaigns would never do the shows because they were considered to be print models,” Donatella explains. “But when Gianni saw the pictures, he asked, ‘Why don’t we put these girls on the runway?’”
Donatella’s creative energy, on the other hand, is an integrative whirlpool, constantly pulling in new inspiration from outside the industry and translating it into her chosen medium.
“What is healthy is to look around you and know what’s going on in the world. You shouldn’t ignore anything that isn’t related to fashion — it’s important to know about people’s worries, what they are interested in. The world constantly evolves, and it’s important to stay informed and keep up with the times. Having this sharp perspective is absolutely crucial. In today’s society it’s even more important — and easier to cultivate, thanks to the Internet, where you can follow the opinions of different generations and cultures. To produce good work, you need to keep your eyes open.”
Also crucial to Donatella is maintaining a work-life balance. “It’s vital,” she says, nodding fervently. “I live far from my office, and I do certain activities that have nothing to do with my job, which are important for me to re-energize myself. I like to talk to my children about music, books and movies — anything that isn’t related to my job. I think that thinking about your job 24-7 is a mistake that many designers make. They convince themselves that it’s the only way to survive, and in my opinion, that’s not healthy.”
Donatella’s opinions carry an undeniable weight. Her sure-handed direction of the company and mastery of public relations — which has evolved from being personally close to the celebrity sphere into having at least one Versace piece on every red carpet — have only strengthened the intangible sense of awe that accompanies any mention of her family name.
“Nothing gives me more pleasure than seeing the strength of Versace right now, and how women around the world are responding to my family’s brand,” she says. “It gives me the confidence to do more, push further and make Versace the best it has ever been.”
And Versace will not be forging ahead alone. Fluctuating profit margins since the turn of the millennium have led to the recent sale of the company to Michael Kors Holdings (MKH) Ltd. for a figure in excess of $2 billion. The acquisition was hard to stomach for some of Versace’s followers. Days after the announcement, Donatella’s personal social media pages were filled with outrage about what fans saw as the intrusion of MKH Ltd., an American company that has sold luxury fashion for more than 30 years, into the world of haute couture.
However, it is evident that the sale of Versace to the ambitious MKH Ltd. (which will be renamed Capri Holdings Ltd. after the acquisition) will allow Versace to continue serving the values it passionately upholds, as befitting its Italian heritage. Modernity and classicism, tradition and innovation, the past and the future: these juxtapositions have always been at the heart of the Versace concept. And to emphasize this point, Donatella herself took to Instagram to deliver a rebuttal of the criticism over her decision to sell:
First of all, I wanted to let you know that I am NOT going anywhere, so for those who wanted to get rid of me, well…it ain’t happening! I also wanted to reassure you that Versace will remain ITALIAN, made in Italy, and that it will keep its GLAMOUR, DARING and INCLUSIVE attitude that has made you all love it. This is just the beginning of an exciting, new adventure that I hope you will live together with me!
Versace is a dream. It’s a dream that people want to be part of
Donatella Versace would not be the designer she is known to be, were she to shy away from such controversy. The impact of the acquisition on the brand will reveal itself in time, of course. No doubt its creative process going forward will cleave to the Versace traditions, as it has since 1978.
“Take the legendary Versace prints: back then, they were made in just four colours, while [Gianni] printed them with 18, sometimes even 20 colours!” she exclaims. “He used the past to move forward and describe the future. He had the courage to transform the story into joie de vivre and thereby give [it] a living language.”
Gianni passed on his mission — “to develop the line and to make it innovative, elegant, while at the same time staying true to the Versace DNA and roots” — to Donatella long ago, on the steps of the Miami Beach mansion. Her actions ever since have made her as influential a figure in the industry as her brother. They are two sides of the same Medusa-head-emblazoned coin. Whereas Gianni had the pleasure of overseeing his brand’s meteoric rise, Donatella uses every collaborative tool at her disposal to preserve that legacy.
Dare to question, as some have, her commitment to the brand that bears her name, and you’ll see the warmth in her eyes replaced with a fiery defiance. After all, she is Donatella Versace.
“Being a family always matters, in every history,” she says. “I am lucky because my brand is also my family. In Versace, we laugh and we work hard, we fight and we reconcile. Family is everything to me, and by family, I mean everyone who is connected to me — not only by blood, but through their souls, also. I mean my friends, my collaborators, the big Versace clan made of all those inspiring men and women who throughout the years have crossed paths with me,” says Donatella.
“Versace is a dream. It’s a dream that people want to be part of. To be part of the dream,
you don’t need to have the outfit to wear. You can have also a little thing — an ashtray,
a little thing for the house. And you’re a part of Versace forever.”