New Zealand Woman’s Weekly - - THIS WEEK IN... - Mick Brown

Glitz, glam­our and Gianni

When New Zealand Woman's Weekly meets Donatella Ver­sace, she is wear­ing a mini dress im­printed with vin­tage Vogue cov­ers. The cut and fab­ric of the dress are con­tem­po­rary, but the print is from the Gianni ar­chive – one gar­ment from a new col­lec­tion cel­e­brat­ing the life and work of her brother.

It’s 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 Ver­sace – 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 her brother’s most con­stant com­pan­ion. But as she points out, she has now been cre­ative di­rec­tor for longer than he was.

“It was bet­ter for me be­fore. He was in front, I was be­hind. I can be push­ing, I can scream; now I have to be care­ful, there’s only me,” she says with a husky laugh.

She is diminu­tive – just 1.57m 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 home 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 a 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.

We’re talk­ing be­cause she re­cently re­ceived an award from the Bri­tish Fash­ion Coun­cil for her role in main­tain­ing the Ver­sace 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 a town in south­ern Italy, where their fa­ther sold house­hold ap­pli­ances and their 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.

By the time Donatella went to univer­sity, 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. “I was al­ways push­ing him – 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.”

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.”

And no­body em­bod­ied the Ver­sace style more than Donatella her­self – a life of op­er­atic ex­cess, Cham­pagne, co­caine, ex­pen­sive jewellery and pri­vate jets.

If Gianni Ver­sace cre­ated the brand, it was Donatella who built it. She schmoozed and cor­ralled the celebri­ties – Madonna, Demi Moore, Court­ney Love – and cul­ti­vated the soon-to-be su­per­mod­els, who would be­come in­sep­a­ra­bly as­so­ci­ated

with the brand: Naomi Camp­bell, Christy Turling­ton and Cindy Craw­ford.

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. But she wasn’t.

“I think I hid my­self be­hind this mask, first be­cause I was in pain for so long for the way Gianni died. I couldn’t show my pain or my in­se­cu­rity be­cause if I did,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.’

“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 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. Nine months later, she mounted her first cou­ture show, at the Hô­tel Paris Ritz, build­ing her run­way over the ho­tel’s swim­ming pool, as her

‘ I’m very in­de­pen­dent... I don’t need a hus­band or com­pan­ion’

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 and its prof­its plum­meted to the point that in 2004, the com­pany al­most went un­der. And so too did Donatella.

Her co­caine habit was mak­ing her in­creas­ingly er­ratic and un­sta­ble. Ac­cord­ing to Deb­o­rah Ball, the author of House of Ver­sace, 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 staff.

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 go to a re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion clinic in Ari­zona. She was taken that night by pri­vate plane and emerged af­ter two and a half months, re­born.

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 cut the com­pany’s pay­roll.

These days the Ver­sace fam­ily owns 80% of the com­pany, hav­ing sold a 20% stake to the pri­vate eq­uity firm Black­stone in 2014.

Fol­low­ing Gianni’s death, Donatella shifted Ver­sace away from the hyper-charged designs in gar­ish prints to­wards a more min­i­mal­ist and sober look.

“When Gianni did all this it was the right time. The fash­ion world was, one part, very safe and so­phis­ti­cated, and the other part was Gianni – bright colours, you know.

“But af­ter Gianni’s pass­ing, I need to look around at what was hap­pen­ing in so­ci­ety, what was go­ing on. It was not the same world, ab­so­lutely.

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.”

Leapfrog to 2018 and her new Tribute Col­lec­tion is a riot of slinky lines in the splashy prints cre­ated by her brother be­tween 1991 and 1997 – leop­ard skin, col­lages of Mar­i­lyn Mon­roe and James Dean por­traits, and the Vogue cov­ers.

The col­lec­tion, she says, is a tribute to her brother’s ge­nius for a new gen­er­a­tion.

“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.

“For me, the fash­ion busi­ness is not only about the clothes.

It’s about women. In a sense,

I am an ac­tivist – women have been treated dif­fer­ently from men, paid less than men. Now we have this con­ver­sa­tion about women and power, and that is ex­cit­ing for me.”

Donatella says she has felt dis­ad­van­taged be­cause she is 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.

“Well, my ex-hus­band was not the last per­son, let’s say...

I’m very in­de­pen­dent. I like to travel. I don’t need a hus­band or com­pan­ion. I don’t like to live with any­body. I’m very happy and ful­filled with my pri­vate life.”

Left: Gianni adored his younger sis­ter. Be­low: She was her brother’s right- hand woman. “He trusted me,” she says. Bot­tom: Some of the designs from her tribute col­lec­tion for Gianni this year.

Donatella rub­bing shoul­ders with fa­sion roy­alty, Vogue ed­i­tor-in- chief Anna Win­tour.

Above: Ver­sace’s 2018 col­lec­tion. Right: Donatella with Clau­dia Schif­fer, Naomi, Cindy and He­lena Chris­tensen.

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