Donatella Versace is a brand herself. Artistic director, designer, and entrepreneur, she’s certainly left no stone untouched. A fashion legend of a kind, she is the artistic director and vice president of one of the biggest fashion houses, Versace. We caught up with her for a chat.
ELLE: When you look back at your journey, what do you feel about it? What would you call as your milestones and challenges? How has Donatella Versace evolved and changed?
Donatella Versace (DV): Times have certainly changed and the road has not always been downhill. It was challenging to remain relevant, it’s hard to keep up with the constant changes that technologies make us face every day. We have to be flexible and open-minded in order to understand how the public and the customers are evolving. Heritage is important but what’s even more so is to not remain anchored to the past. You always have to look ahead and be yourself, be creative. For many years I have lived under the pressure of expectations, judgments, wrong advice. Now after so long, I think I have found my own voice and that the brand is where I want it to be.
ELLE: How would you define Versace’s growth? And what would you say about the fashion industry–how has that changed in your opinion?
DV: Today, Versace is part of a cultural conversation that goes beyond fashion itself. I think that this means that our work has inspired people and supported communities. We have dared, broken the rules, and yet remained relevant. Fashion as we knew it 20 years ago has evolved into something completely new… at that time internet did not exist, pre-collections did not exist, there were two fashion shows a year and that was your collection, that was your moment. Today the dynamics of the fashion industry have changed, everything is so immediate and fast.
ELLE: What is your first fashion memory?
DV: To be honest with you, when I started, I did not think of fashion as a career. During my university years, I used to go from Florence to Milan to spend my weekends with Gianni. He wanted me to work with him, but at the beginning I was not sure. Little by little, he managed to involve me until I became part of this world without even realising it. Initially, I wasn’t much involved with the design process. I was working on advertising campaigns, on the image of the brand but Gianni would always seek my opinion when it came down to the collection.
ELLE: In one of your interviews, you’ve said, ‘We need more women in politics, more women CEOs. Women becoming top models, that’s not enough.’ You have always been a champion when it comes to women empowerment and feminism. What are your thoughts on the current global scenario when it comes to women in general? A lot has changed but a lot more needs to change. Tell us more.
DV: I still do. And I think that the change must start from us. In fact, today at Versace women represent 64 per cent of the employees and 48 per cent are executives. Regardless of all the progresses that have been made, still today, women have to prove themselves more than men have to, women have to fight harder to have their voices heard. I think there is still a problem of credibility when it comes to women in positions of authority: it is still hard for them to have their opinions and actions validated by others. I say this from my own experience. I was the only woman at the helm of the company. It took me a long time to really be heard, trusted, and recognised as capable within my own company.
ELLE: You once said, “I don’t care about the sketch, I care about the fit. I drape the fabric, I try everything on, I work so that when you put on Versace, you feel better. You should feel impenetrable. And that needs to happen for a size 38 and for a size 46.” You have always been very heavily invested in your collections, physically and emotionally. How do you feel about the younger generation of designers? How different is the young crop of designers, you think?
DV: Of course, I look around, I see what young designers are doing. I like to be surrounded by young talent because they make me see things from a different perspective. They are creative, brave and I get to know better the new generations that are different from mine. Being with people of different ages, cultures, backgrounds is key for me to keep doing this job. I always like to know and see who’s out there and discover new things. First and foremost, for myself. Then if I stumble on something that might have an impact on my work then I am even happier.
ELLE: You have worked with the biggest names–Madonna, Jennifer Lopez, Christina Aguilera, Demi Moore, Beyonce, Lady Gaga and many others. How did each of these women inspire you? Do you have any fond memories with them that you can share?
DV: Too many to count!!! They are women who are certainly successful in what they do, but most importantly they inspire people, they inspire positive change, they fight for what they believe in. I am always inspired by women who stand together and fight for their rights, who are self-confident, strong, supportive of one another and that are not afraid to speak their minds.
ELLE: Supermodels like Carla Bruni, Claudia Schiffer, Naomi Campbell, Cindy Crawford, and Helena Christensen have walked the ramp for you. And then there have been Kendall, Gigi, Bella and the younger ones as well. What is different between the two generations of models? Has your approach changed over the years to accommodate the ever-changing fashion industry?
DV: Personality. That is what makes the difference. The girls of today are very different from the original group of supermodels because they have a tool that Cindy, Naomi or Claudia did not have: social media. Social media has allowed them to let people into their lives. To witness what it is to be a model. That it is not all glitters and parties, but hard work and a lot of travel—it does not matter whether you are sick or not, tired or rested. I look around me and what I see is individuality, is diversity, is personal style. Now, more than ever before. Being a woman today is more of an attitude than a set of physical characteristics. It means being self-confident, being aware of who you are, being inclusive and supportive of other women, but also being ironic, being able to not take yourself too seriously, being authentic…As a designer, aesthetic is of course important, but that does not mean that there has to be only one version of it. What is important to me is to give to everyone what they are looking for and give them whatever they need to express themselves through their style choices.
ELLE: One of the recent Versace shows saw inclusion of three plus-sized models. What are your thoughts on body positivity and inclusivity? Do you think the fashion industry is doing enough?
DV: My hope is that we are becoming more open to inclusion and that we will get better at it. Nowadays, fashion companies are held accountable for their actions in ways that have never been experienced before. It is not just the message that matters, but the actions connected to it that turn words into something concrete and authentic that people look at and care about. We have always presented one kind of body as representation of an ideal, and unfortunately, our society has turned it into a goal that all women had to aspire to reach. This is as far from reality as it can possibly be. Inclusivity for me means also understanding the moment we are living in. As we foster and encourage individuality and self-expression, in the same way we should give everyone the possibility of doing it also with what they choose to wear, no matter their size. Personally, I have never believed in a single definition of femininity. I do not even like to call them plus-sized models to be honest with you. It is true I cast them for the first time in the last show—I think that what I went through during the months of lockdown, the time spent thinking also about the things I say, helped me realise that I was not doing enough yet. That talking about inclusivity and diversity did not make things different, that I had to commit at a deeper level. The decision of casting girls that are of different sizes was a result of that and I do not want to go back.
ELLE: What keeps you inspired and motivated?
DV: I am inspired by everything and anything! This means it could be art, a film, an actor, music or just a person walking down the street. Then I bring this inspiration to my design team, and we work together to develop and create something that might become completely different but always very Versace. We like to tear things apart and put them back together in a new, unexpected way and see what happens.
ELLE: If you could give a piece of advice to the young Donatella, what would it be?
DV: Be yourself! Don’t be afraid, dare and never give up.
ELLE: Define Versace in three words
DV: Sexy, daring, and ironic.
ELLE: What do you think women in 2022 should remember and celebrate? What are you most excited about for year 2022?
DV: Hopefully for the end of this pandemic!
ELLE: With the digital landscape becoming so strong, how do you see this change? You have always been at the forefront of adapting to change and new trends. What are your thoughts on the growth of social media?
DV: Social media is definitely the most radical change I have seen in fashion. These young people around the world are the ones who started a revolution in the fashion industry and will write fashion’s future. I’m not afraid of other people opinions and I am interested in what is different from me, especially younger people’s thoughts. The challenge, of course, is to keep the brand relevant and to keep it evolving. If you are not on top of your game, you’ll easily be left behind: it is a very demanding society we live in.
ELLE: What is Donatella Versace like at home? What would you say is your comfort wear?
DV: My comfort wear? High heels of course!!! The minute I wear them I walk in a different manner, I feel different, I can be whoever I want to be.