AFTER HER BROTHER’S DEATH, SHE STEPPED INTO THE SPOTLIGHT
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.