Donatella Versace: “You can’t achieve things if you don’t go through hell first”
He was the founder of one of the world’s most famous fashion brands. She had big boots to fill. Twenty years after her brother Gianni’s death, Mick Brown talks to Donatella Versace about stepping into a very bright spotlight
When I meet Donatella Versace in a suite at The Dorchester hotel, she is wearing a minidress imprinted with vintage Vogue covers. The cut and fabric of the dress are contemporary, but the print, she explains, is “from the Gianni archive” — one garment from a new collection, celebrating the life and work of her brother. It is 20 years since Gianni Versace was shot dead at the gate of his mansion in Miami by a gay hustler, who had already murdered four people and was apparently driven to kill Gianni — whom he had never met — by a toxic resentment of his wealth and success.
For the 19 years that Gianni ran the company, Donatella was his most constant companion — helpmeet, muse, provocateur. But as she points out, she has now been creative director for longer than Gianni was. A milestone then, I say.
“Well, it was better for me before. He was in front, I was behind. Then I could say whatever I want; I can be pushing, I can scream; now I have to be careful, there’s only me.” She gives a husky laugh.
She is diminutive — just 5’6”, and a slave to high heels — and as wiry as a pipe cleaner, her toned arms and legs the fruits of her daily 45-minute workout in her gym, listening to punk rock. “I think it’s good for your mind.” Deep-black eyes — framed by layers of eyeliner — peer out from a curtain of peroxide-blonde hair. She speaks in strangulated English, mangling vowels and meanings, which has you leaning forward to follow the thread of her conversation, and examine even more closely the glaringly obvious surgical enhancement.
She is accompanied by her English PR man, who remains standing to one side, as if at attention, throughout the interview. Her head of international communications, a slim-hipped young man, with a shaven head, named Valerio, takes a seat beside her.
She is in London to attend the opening of a new Versace store, and to receive the Fashion Icon Award from the British Fashion Council, celebrating her role in maintaining the brand’s “creativity and innovation, glamour and power” — an acknowledgement, she says, that makes her “vairy ’appy”. And would have made Gianni “vairy” proud.
Gianni…it all goes back to Gianni. He was her elder brother by nine years, growing up in the town of Reggio di Calabria in Italy, where her father sold household appliances and her mother ran her own dress shop. Gianni petted her, dressed her, cossetted her — and corrupted her, spiriting her out of the house when her mother’s back was turned, to spend time with him and his friends. She drove her mother mad.
She laughs. “But Gianni made me drive her mad. I was going out with him at night, disco and things — I was 11 years old, 12 years old. My mother was, ‘Why do you do this? Don’t listen to him.’ I said, ‘Why not?’”
By the time Donatella went to the University of Florence to study Spanish and English, Gianni was already a successful designer, and her future was cast. “I finished university and just ran to work with him. Actually, I didn’t have a choice. He said, ‘You come, and you don’t move any more.’”
She became her brother’s right-hand woman, his female alter ego. More than a muse, she says, she was “a disturber. I was always pushing him — do more, don’t listen, be yourself. He trusted me. He knew I wouldn’t tell him something just to please him. And actually I never did. I did the opposite. And he liked that.” He depended on you? “He did.” And you on him? “Absolutely. We were very close.”
Versace’s designs, with their splashy baroque prints in migrainous colours and figure-hugging cuts, were brash to the point of vulgarity, overtly sexy, eye-poppingly expensive and beautifully tailored. As the Vogue writer Joan Juliet Buck once put it, “One only had to try on a Versace dress to find that one’s tits went up, and one’s ass went out, and one’s waist went in.” Their go-to-hell flamboyance — and price — epitomised the bling-laden, celebrity-obsessed, conspicuous-consumption age that was the ’90s. And nobody embodied the Versace style more than Donatella herself — a life of operatic excess, champagne, cocaine, expensive jewellery, private jets. When she stayed at Hôtel Ritz Paris — as she often did — she would fly in her own florist from Milan, deeming the hotel’s inadequate.
Donatella Versace with Gianni Versace
If Gianni created the brand, it was Donatella who built it. “Branding,” as she once said, “is what I do.” It was Donatella who schmoozed and corralled the celebrities — Madonna, Demi Moore, Courtney Love — who became walking billboards for the brand. And it was Donatella who cultivated the soon-to-be supermodels, who would become inseparably associated with Versace — Naomi Campbell, Christy Turlington, Cindy Crawford et al — by persuading them to step on to the catwalk (traditionally the poor relation of a model’s work: all that sweat and bother for a paltry return), lavishing them with first-class flights and sky-rocketing fees that raised their price across the fashion industry.
When Linda Evangelista boasted, “We have this expression, Christy and I: we don’t wake up for less than $10,000 a day,” it was Donatella she had to thank.
People last September, at Milan Fashion Week, unveiling the Versace Tribute Collection to mark the 20th anniversary of her brother’s death, Donatella reassembled the ‘icons’, as she puts it — Crawford, Campbell, Claudia Schiffer, Carla Bruni and Helena Christensen — dressed in shimmering gold sheath dresses for the finale. Towering above Donatella, they resembled pedigree racehorses.
When Gianni died, there was no obligation for her to pick up the mantle of artistic director of the company. She was married (to model Paul Beck), and the mother of two small children. She could have done anything.
“Yes, but it was the only life I knew. And when I realised all these people in the company were looking at me, like, ‘What are you going to do now?’ I felt I couldn’t let them down. It was a big company. People who gave their soul and all their strength to work for Gianni, night and day, and who never said no. I was very attached to them, and they were very attached to Gianni and to me. I wasn’t going to let them down, so I said I’m going to try my best to take the company forward.”
People, she says, got the impression that she was strong. “They think, ‘She knows what she’s doing.’ ”But she wasn’t and she didn’t. “I think I hid myself behind this mask because I was in pain for so long for the way Gianni died. He was my brother. My children were very close to him. And all of a sudden, my world, this big castle was crashing. I couldn’t show my pain or my insecurity, because if I did, then I couldn’t go ahead. Everybody else in the company would be like, ‘We’re not going to make it.’ So, I decided to wear this mask. I say, ‘We’re going to make it, we’re strong, don’t worry.’ Inside, I was really very insecure and struggled for a long time.”
“I was looking at Gianni for years and I didn’t realise how hard it is to be in front, and to listen to all the criticism that comes to you. But when he died, I realised this.”
Were there lots of sleepless nights? “Lots of sleepless nights. ‘What am I doing? Am I doing the right thing?’”
Lots of tear-filled nights? “Yes. And it went on for so many years. The first question I was always asked in interviews was, ‘How do you think Gianni would feel today, looking at you?’ So many people asked that. That was a question I could not answer. If he would be happy…who knows? Sometimes I had nightmares. I am ready to do a show and Gianni comes and says, ‘This is horrible! Take it away!’ Aagh! In the middle of the night!’’
She once said that “hell is life”. She nods. “I went through hell. And I realise that you can’t achieve things or make people around you better or feel secure, if you don’t go through hell first. You need to experience that kind of insecurity, of people being against you. Because Gianni was such a genius — and who am I? This is what people were thinking.”
“I think that 80 per cent of people in the fashion world thought I couldn’t do it. That was my feeling. And in a way, they were right. Gianni was really a genius. He broke all the rules. He was fearless. And I always pushed him too. But it’s easier to push somebody than to be somebody. I’m not like Gianni. I’m not a genius. I’m a more practical woman who lives in the real world and tries to understand everyday life. So, I had to prove them all wrong. And that’s hell. To have that feeling.” It was not, she says with commendable understatement, “a smooth ride…”.
Less than three months after Gianni’s death, she received a standing ovation at the end of her first show in Milan. But the fashion world is fickle. Nine months later, she mounted her first couture show, at Hôtel Paris Ritz, building her runway over the swimming pool, as her brother had done every season, although this time using sheer glass. It was a car crash. The New York Times wrote that the show “exposed the gulf that lay between Ms Versace’s aesthetic and her brother’s”, suggesting the clothes betrayed “a hint of madness”.
Sales began to fall away, while Donatella’s extravagance continued unabated. As Versace’s rivals, Gucci, Prada and Armani, consolidated into corporate behemoths, rolling out flagship stores and dominating the burgeoning global fashion market, Versace began to look tired and outmoded. Its profits plummeted, to the point that in 2004, the company almost went under. And so did its figurehead and artistic director.
Her cocaine habit was making Donatella increasingly erratic and unstable. According to Deborah Ball, the author of House Of Versace (Crown Business, 2010), a tell-all about the rise, fall and rise again of the Versace empire, she rarely turned up at meetings before noon, insulated herself within a tight circle of assistants who behaved more like enablers, and, on occasions, openly snorted cocaine in front of her staff. She was also turning into a camp joke. In 2002, she featured in the notorious worst-dressed list compiled by the waspish fashion commentator Richard Blackwell, along with Princess Anne and Kelly Osbourne. Her pneumatic lips, peroxide hair, inebriation and extravagance were lampooned mercilessly by actor Maya Rudolph on Saturday Night Live. (To her credit, Donatella took the joke in good part, sometimes joining in, appearing as herself in the 2001 Ben Stiller fashion send-up Zoolander.)
In June 2004, an intimate 18th birthday dinner for her daughter, Allegra, at the Palazzo Versace in Milan, was interrupted by the arrival of close friend Elton John, who, unbeknown to Donatella, had arranged for her to be admitted to a rehabilitation clinic in Arizona. She was taken that night by private plane, and emerged after two and a half months, reborn.
Any discussion of this is off the agenda. It’s old news. “But I feel in a good place for a few years now, more sure of myself, and more sure of the business.” In 2004, shortly after her return from rehab, Giancarlo Di Risio, who had previously run Fendi, took over as CEO of Versace. He imposed order on the company’s haphazard management style and swingeing cuts on the company’s payroll. He shed loss-making stores and lines, and focused on intensifying its presence in the luxury market, concentrating on the wealthy, and extending the brand by customising the interiors of Lamborghinis and private jets, and opening luxury Versace-branded hotels in Australia and Dubai, as well as apartments in China and India.
In 2016, Jonathan Akeroyd, who had run Alexander McQueen for 12 years, nursing the company through its most turbulent period following the death of McQueen in 2010, became CEO. The Versace family presently owns 80 per cent of the company, having sold a 20 per cent stake to the private equity firm Blackstone in 2014.
Following Gianni’s death, in her new role as creative director, Donatella shifted Versace away from the hypercharged revealing (“in your face” as she puts it) designs in garish, vividly coloured prints that had been her brother’s signature, towards a more minimalist and sober look. “When Gianni did all this, it was the right time. The fashion world was, one part, safe and sophisticated, and the other part was Gianni — bright colours, you know.”
“But after Gianni’s passing, I needed to look around at what was happening in society, what was going on. It was not the same world. And I realised what Versace was missing, and that was day clothes. We were very concentrated on doing cocktail, evening clothes. So, why don’t I try to make a woman go to the office wearing Versace? She didn’t need to be so loud, but she could be empowered through her clothes, because if you feel good, comfortable in yourself, more secure, that’s a good way to help you have a better job, to be better paid, to be more equal.”
So, how, I ask, would she sum up her philosophy of fashion in just one word. “One word?” She looks momentarily stumped. Her English PR man fills the silence: “Brave!” “Iconic!” says Valerio.
“Empowering women,” Donatella says. “That’s two words. Let me say, fearless. My fashion’s fearless; I’m not fearless. I’m very insecure — I mean, not in general in my life, but when I have a collection, of course I’m insecure; I question myself over and over again. I confront myself with my fear…”
Empowerment. It is the word she uses most in our conversation. And clothes are empowerment? “Absolutely. Which person doesn’t want to look better? Nobody. If you buy something, put it on, you want to look better and feel better. That’s a kind of empowerment.”
It is also an expression of — or a means to — sexuality, a quality her brother’s designs exuded. She shakes her head. “I’m not like that. I think sexuality is something not important to me for clothes. Is more about being sensual, and being attractive in a different way, which is more about an attitude, and less about the clothes.”
Her new Tribute Collection is a riot of slinky lines in splashy prints created by her brother between 1991 and 1997 — leopard skin, collages of Marilyn Monroe and James Dean portraits, and the Vogue covers.
It was on display at the opening of the new Versace store in London: two floors of glistening marble and glass; leggy models dressed in the new line hugger-mugger with fashion editors, social influencers and a smattering of prized Versace customers, dressed head-to-toe in the brand. Donatella was holding court upstairs, fenced in behind a wall of minders and bodyguards.
The collection, she says, is a tribute to her brother’s genius, for a new generation. “I think millennials don’t know the history of Gianni; they don’t even know what he did in the ’90s. So, I get the feeling that it was the right time to do it, because in a way, fashion has become so uniform. Everybody was doing more or less the same thing — I wouldn’t say exactly the same, but we were going for a safer world, and I thought it was about time to give the courage to people to be themselves.”
As someone who does not write about fashion, I say, it sometimes strikes me as a sort of witchcraft. She looks startled. “You’re saying I’m a witch?”
Not exactly. But you have the power to dictate trends, determine what people wear. You say something is fabulous and by a strange, alchemical consensus, everybody agrees it is. How does that happen? “Charisma?” She laughs. “That’s one way to describe it.”
You have charisma? “They tell me I have. But actually, today, it’s difficult to do that. It was much easier in Gianni’s time, before the Internet. Now everything starts from the market, looking at young people in the street. It’s not like a designer can decide, this is how I dress and everybody has to dress like me — it’s not that time any more.”
“It’s more a conversation; you gather information, and you go through it and take it out in the way you think it should be. And make it right for people to listen to you.”
The fashion business now, she goes on, is more than just a matter of appearances; it is, she says, “more intellectual. Before it was clothes, clothes, clothes. Now it’s not only about clothes, there is more discussion; why these clothes? What are they saying about our society? Especially the younger designers coming up, they think a lot, and their vision is very attached to their world. It’s more complete.”
“For me, in the fashion business, in my life, you have to have a goal, and the goal is not only about the clothes, it’s about women. In a sense, I am an activist — women have been treated different from men, with less opportunity, paid less than men. I’m not against men — I love men, of course; but now we have this conversation about women and power, and that is exciting for me.”
Had she ever felt disadvantaged because she was a woman? “Absolutely. Not now, but in the past I did. I sit in a boardroom where important decisions are being made, and there are only men wearing ties and me…I’m blonde, with make-up and clothes like this. So, sometimes when I said something, the first reaction was, ‘What’s she talking about?’ But eventually, I had the courage to push for my ideas, and now everybody respects me, I think.”
Donatella and Beck divorced in 2000. Does she have anybody in her life now? “Maybe, ” she laughs. “I don’t know. I don’t like to talk about my personal life. It’s not part of the job.”
But it is a part of you. “Well, my ex-husband was not the last person, let’s say…” Would she like to marry again, or see herself with a life partner? “I don’t think so, no.” Why not? “Because what is a married life today? You know, men are expecting certain things from a woman — to come back at night and the wife is there, ready for them. It’s still like that. Men’s mentality is like that.”
“No offence…” Valerio chips in.“No offence, but it’s still like that — the woman should be there when you come back, ready to listen to the husband. It’s the same with all men. But who’s going to listen to me?”
She was raised as a Catholic, of course, and she has met the last three popes, at the Vatican. “I was invited. But it’s not like I have a conversation, like me and you. The one two popes ago… John Paul II, he was a rock star.”She prays often, she says, “but not in a conventional way. Sometimes I find myself praying when I really need something, but that’s not right. I should be more attentive. This is not a world I like right now.”
“I am happy in my job and in my life, and I feel so blessed to have this opportunity to work with so many people — artists and designers. My brother, in a way, prepared everything for me to have this kind of experience — to be enriched by other people’s thinking. But then I look at the world and all the horrible things that are going on and I think all of us, in fashion, people who have a voice, should use that voice and help.” She pauses. “This what I think, that designing clothes is not enough.”