Donatella Versace has confronted death and addiction and come out the other side. Still staying true to the baroqueinspired sexualised and glamorous aesthetic established by her late brother, Gianni, she is staging the ultimate comeback, one that is totally Donatella.
Donatella Versace can be drawn in cartoon strokes: the blinding platinum hair, the tan, the eyes panda’d with mascara, the teensy body in regulation rock-chick gear. It has been an act of mass distraction on her part. I must have been face to face with her dozens of times over the years – but I’ve never really looked into her eyes before; I mean deep into her eyes. Windows of the soul and all that. It’s not just because exposure has always been quick, controlled, limited. Donatella herself has also deflected the gimlet stare by disguising herself as Donatella. Not anymore, however. Before her haute couture show in Paris a few weeks ago, we sat chatting in a staging area in the basement of Hotel George V and I was transfixed. It was as though a totally different person was staring back at me from a face I thought I knew so well. And it was all down to the eyes. She has changed. And the change is all over the current Spring/summer 2016 collection, which she showed in Milan last September. Donatella marched a Versace army down her catwalk, a fiercely militant vision of an empowered woman in khaki and camo, matched to a celebration of Amazonian femininity in draped, slashed, knotted animal patterns. On paper, that reads like a fashion show but with the Portuguese producer and DJ Violet’s update of the old Underground Resistance rave piece, ‘Transition’ on the soundtrack (“There will be people who say you can’t/you will”), the live production surged with the irresistible force of a manifesto. It was a kind of coming out for Donatella. “For so long, I had so many people around me telling me, ‘This is Versace.’ No, this is Versace. They were all hired years ago, so they knew what Versace was. But if you want that, go to the archive – of course, I respect it a lot but that’s ridiculous to me. So, for the first time, it was totally me. I didn’t try to please anybody else. I had the courage to say no, to say to them, ‘You help me to give the message, not what you think, because what you think is you.’” Change has been a long time coming. “I took too many years already,” Donatella concedes. “There were my problems, which everybody knows, so I was confused. And I was afraid if I didn’t do things like Gianni, people would think I was finished.” So she listened to everyone else until she couldn’t hear it any more. “This thing of ‘print, print, print, print, you’ve got to do print’ – Versace is not print,” she snorts impatiently. “Versace is tailoring. Gianni’s tailoring was impeccable, with the most beautiful jackets.” In fact, Gianni left her a blueprint for the very same, with the last collection he showed before his murder in July 1997. But the gears really began moving for Versace about five years ago: a new CEO for the company, new people around Donatella and a new partner in the form of New Yorkbased Blackstone Group, which bought a 20 per cent stake in the business – it’s a lot of change, both professionally and personally – and the impact on the business has been obvious. It has expanded to include precollections, children’s wear, beachwear and the rebirth of Versus, the second collection that was Donatella’s domain under Gianni. After returning to profitability in 2011, the business posted total revenues in 2014 of