June 16, 2024

Fashion Design

Fashion Designs that Enlighten the Soul.

The Real Donatella Versace

10 min read
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VANINA SORRENTI

Versace in her office in Milan

Watching Donatella Versace have her photograph taken is like watching the word fabulous emerge out of a seashell, Botticelli’s Venus-style. She reclines on a white leather sofa in her office in Milan—amid eight black-and-silver pillows covered in Versace scrolls, Medusas, and Greek-key meander vectors—and purrs for the lens. Pop music plays, and her longtime hairstylist stays nearby, while his hairbrush, like a paintbrush, hovers just outside the frame, ready to make the most minute adjustments to the most famous bleached locks in fashion history. She is diminutive, even in six-inch wedge boots. Her black pencil dress fits like, well, the paint on a pencil, and when she stands up to greet me, an assistant gives her a little cropped cardigan while her hairstylist lingers behind, stroking her blond hair with the brush as she shakes my hand.

Fabulous.

Ah, that we could all understand so fully what we bring to a room. For going on five decades now—she and her brothers, Gianni and Santo, started Versace in 1978—Donatella has always known how to give Donatella. Versace was a collaborator and muse to Gianni, whose clothes challenged the tasteful titans of European fashion with their melodrama. When Gianni was murdered in July of 1997 outside his Miami mansion, Versace took over as artistic director and shocked the fashion industry when her designs were just as poignantly flashy as her brother’s. (The brand was sold to Michael Kors’s Capri Holdings Limited in 2018.)

And yet a few minutes later, in a crisp white conference room, a crystal-covered Versace travel cup before her (even the straw is bedazzled), she is fiddling with the diamond bands that are slipped over every one of her fingers. She rocks her chair on its back legs, away from the table; she glances often at a paper before her that has lengthy notes typed up in Italian. They relate mostly to the Fall 2023 collection she will reveal at a show in Los Angeles—the brand’s first in the city in more than 20 years—in early March, just two days before the Oscars.

“[There is an] ENERGY that I think lies in the clothing that Versace has been able to CONTINUE to AMPLIFY.”

“I’m very excited,” she says. “At the same time, I’m a little bit scared. I dunno.” Her voice becomes small: “I don’t know why I’m scared, but I am. I’m very nervous.”

Really?! How could the woman with such a fierce exterior, the woman behind such bold and commanding clothes, ever feel fear? “I’m always insecure before the show—but this is, you know, a worldwide showing, during the week that all the parties are going on in L.A., everybody’s there, all the celebrity.”

Beneath the eyeliner and the hair—achieved, if you must know, with “Clairol 7th Stage Creme Hair Lightener, with one sachet of activator with oxygen at 30 volumes,” per her hairstylist—Donatella Versace is modest and kind. She is almost compulsively empathetic, fretting endlessly over women’s wants, which is to say their insecurities. The brand that her late brother took to unprecedented global prominence in the 1990s was one of the first to revere real women as muses. While most high-fashion brands put only society women on pedestals, Gianni designed clothes that celebrated mothers, middle-class career women, sex workers, and his shy little sister. It was never about imposing a vision on a woman; instead, it was about bringing something out of her. Arming her. Reminding her, you are fabulous!

Versace’s resilience is “what really makes her different and what makes her clothes different,” says Precious Lee, the American model who walked in Versace’s Spring 2021 show and starred in the subsequent campaign. “You are not walking around in Versace and feeling timid!” Lee says there is an “energy that I think lies in the clothing that Versace has been able to continue to amplify. I’m just grateful she’s able to share it with us.”

Versace knows what it’s like to need the armor. “The most insecure person I know is me,” she later tells me. And perhaps the reason she’s so eager for it now is that, less than two months after we are speaking, in mid-January, she’s about to present what might be one of the strongest collections of her career.

linda evangelista, fall 1990

ART STREIBER/WWD/PENSKE MEDIA VIA GETTY IMAGES

Linda Evangelista, Fall 1990

claudia schiffer, spring 1995

COURTESY VERSACE

Claudia Schiffer, Spring 1995

kirsty hume, spring 1995

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Kirsty Hume, Spring 1995

shalom harlow, spring 1995 couture

Steve Wood/Shutterstock

Shalom Harlow, Spring 1995 Couture

nadja auermann and kristen mcmenamy, spring 1995 ad campaign photographed by richard avedon

©THE RICHARD AVEDON FOUNDATION

Nadja Auermann and Kristen McMenamy for Versace, New York, January 1995, photographed by Richard Avedon

AFTER I SIGN THE CHICEST NDA of my life, with a Medusa on the letterhead, Versace’s team brings out the mood boards and fitting images for her new collection.

“The collection is very tailored,” Versace says. “Very precise. There isn’t anything that will take your attention away from the shape.” Working with images of blonde heroines from 1950s and ’60s cinema and Kate Moss, Nadja Auermann, Kristen McMenamy, and Linda Evangelista in Gianni’s super-tailored collections from the mid-’90s, Versace developed an understated collection of suits, car coats, pencil skirts, little black dresses, and opera coats. The models wear little black gloves. Most of the pieces are made in wool and silk—quality fabrics that hold their shape. The design team used techniques usually reserved for their couture Atelier line. Nearly everything is black, caramel, or gray, with a few snaps of orange and electric blue. The silhouettes are gently cocooned and rounded, with squarish but unexaggerated shoulders; the waistlines nip in.

It’s a marked departure from the logo-laden clothes Versace has been doing for several seasons. As she says, with all the chaos in the world, “we need to be more …” She searches for the word, and someone from the design team throws out “elevated.”

“Bravo,” Versace says. “Elevated!”

“It’s all about less,” she says. “Which is a word I never use!”

These are the clothes that led Princess Diana to call up Gianni and ask him for a makeover in 1994. The people’s princess, freshly separated from Prince Charles and in the throes of the publicity furor in its fallout, reminded everyone that she had a role to play, as both a mother and a public figure who could project a certain standard of elegance and humanity. She looked powerful in Gianni’s suits but still so graceful, so soft.

Versace has a touch for creating clothes that reference another era’s iconography without seeming costumey. She has a black dress in this collection with a waistband that dips in the back to create a long, lean bodice, which is the sort of detail Edith Head might have used during Hollywood’s golden age. Versace took a lot of those little details from old dresses for this collection—but they look simply like well-made clothes instead of something dug out of the Paramount back lot. The vintage inspiration, she explains, is more “in the construction of the collection—the way it’s made. Everything was made much better then. So we tried to bring back that part of the method.”

Versace’s eyes light up as she talks about the power of a good silhouette. “What I desire,” she says, tossing her hair back slightly and laughing, “is that I feel powerful in a dress with big shoulders [and a] small waist.” When you have a fitted silhouette, she says, “it doesn’t matter the shape of your body, really. But you just look better. You look more classy too. It’s stronger. Absolutely timeless.” Her clothes are, she says, “all about that, I think: Make a woman more confident. Give her more power to express herself. You can do that through clothes.”

princess diana, 1995

JAYNE FINCHER/GETTY IMAGES

Princess Diana, 1995

carla bruni, spring 1995 couture

POOL PAT/ARNAL/GAMMA-RAPHO VIA GETTY IMAGES

Carla Bruni, Spring 1995 Couture

carla bruni, claudia schiffer, naomi campbell, cindy crawford, and helena christensen, spring 2018

VICTOR VIRGILE/GAMMA-RAPHO VIA GETTY IMAGES

Carla Bruni, Claudia Schiffer, Naomi Campbell, Cindy Crawford, and Helena Christensen, Spring 2018

kate moss, spring 1995

COURTESY VERSACE

Kate Moss, Spring 1995

nadja auermann, spring 1995

COURTESY VERSACE

Nadja Auermann, Spring 1995

bella hadid in archival versace, 2022

LIONEL HAHN/GETTY IMAGES

Bella Hadid in archival Versace, 2022

What makes Versace unique as a designer is that she is a woman ruled by her own instincts. She is a pop-culture obsessive—she calls contemporary streaming television “cinematic” and loves Wednesday and Euphoria in particular—but she is also committed to creating clothes that speak to her own desires and feelings. So this collection started not as some response to the zeitgeist but with Versace herself. She was wearing a lot of these pieces to the office, and her design team started to say, “Wow, this is so good,” she recalls. “Can we have this to copy?” Her team is filled with young people, and “when you see the excitement in their eyes, you know you’re doing the right thing.”

The success has come because of her instincts. She was one of the first designers to recognize the powerful symbiosis between fashion and Hollywood; she says she thinks of which celebrities should wear each look in a collection as she’s creating it. This foresight has produced some of the most memorable moments in red-carpet history, including the plunging-below-the-navel jungle-print gown that Jennifer Lopez wore to the Grammys in 2000—and then reprised on the runway during Versace’s Spring 2020 show. (Versace is also proud to talk about how demand to see the dress online was so great that it inspired Google to create its image search.)

She was also one of the first designers to sense how the fashion industry, which is of course in the business of creating new clothes, might participate in the fervor for archival fashion, re-creating some of Gianni’s famous looks in runway tributes and smartly updating them for contemporary audiences. When she started working with Gigi Hadid, she says, “the first thing Gigi asked me, ‘Do you have a pair of jeans from the ’90s?’ I looked at her”—she pulls a shocked face—“Why?!”

“Because we convey a very positive message, especially Gianni,” Versace reasons. “We’re not too intellectual; we are more to express yourself. And sometimes people in the young generation are afraid to express themselves. And they need a little bit of help. I think clothes can do that.”

Versace is one of the few designers remaining who is a bona fide pop-cultural icon, like a Lagerfeld, an Armani, a Ralph Lauren. She is a celebrity, but she’s a designer first. (Not the other way around.) The world is schooled in her persona, the tragedies of her life, and her philosophies on beauty and style; rather than cultivating an imagined lifestyle through products, as luxury brands often do, her entire world seems imbued with her ideology of glamour, maximalism, and feminine conviction. “We’re a lot more emotional than men,” she says. “But also [we have] a lot of strength. And it’s up to women to make a change, to make a difference.”

“It’s ALL about LESS.
Which is a WORD I NEVER USE!”

She seems to charge forward in life against the odds, pausing often to question herself and then quickly lacquer herself up. “I have to see the sparkle inside the world,” she says. “That doesn’t mean I don’t take care of the other part of the world. The world is a mess right now. So it’s a friction within all this.”

Mostly, though, Versace remains fixated, with an almost can-do attitude, on giving women a sense of confidence through clothing. She calls the supermodel “one of the first feminist movements.” “For the first time on the runway, you see a woman empowered, with strength, courage. And women looking at them like an example for freedom.” Designers usually tell models how to walk; she and Gianni never said anything except “just be yourself.”

At the root of her obsession with self-assurance is her own admitted lack of it. What does she think about her own runway walk when she comes out at the end? “That’s the worst part of my job,” she moans. “Oh, no, no, no, no. I don’t want to come out.”

Before we finish, Versace adds that she has just one more thing to say: “At this stage in my life, I’m really content for myself, but still I feel the same fear I felt the day, the first day Gianni was not on the runway. I feel the same fear. Nothing’s changed.” She’s worked hard to keep the brand relevant. “That makes me feel happy, but this fear inside me, this insecurity, is still there,” she says. “Even if I don’t show people, people think I’m so sure of myself. I’m not.”

Maybe her clothes are less like armor than garments that share her spirit of empathy—supporting you, listening to your fears and dissatisfactions, and commanding you with their joy and brashness to keep your chin up. “The idea of the collection is empowering women,” Versace says. “And to convey the message that you can do it to everybody. You can make it.”

Headshot of Rachel Tashjian

Rachel Tashjian is the Fashion News Director at Harper’s Bazaar, working across print and digital platforms. Previously, she was GQ’s first fashion critic, and worked as deputy editor of GARAGE and as a writer at Vanity Fair. She has written for publications including Bookforum and Artforum, and is the creator of the invitation-only newsletter Opulent Tips. 

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