MILAN--Donatella Versace has almost completed the cycle. The fashion world has been watching her every move since the tragic death of her brother Gianni. Every milestone has been scrutinized. Every rumor has been splashed across the front pages of the world. Yet despite the pressure, she has already designed two ready-to-wear collections, two bridge collections and two men's wear collections for the Gianni Versace and Versus labels. For the most part, the reviews have been favorable, although she suspects at least some of that has been out of compassion. Now, this year-long trial by fire is almost over, and she has just a few more things to do for the very first time. On Saturday evening in Paris, she'll show her first couture collection. To prepare for it, she'll have to walk into the Ritz--the last place she saw her brother alive--for the first time since then. And if that's not enough, it will all happen three days after the first anniversary of Gianni's death. And now, on a beautiful July afternoon in Milan, the slinky blonde designer sits down to do her first interview on haute couture. One of the charming things about her is that she giggles when she's nervous. "I'm petrified," she says, crushing a cigarette and letting out a giddy laugh. "Over the last couple of months, I haven't thought too much about all of this. Now that the day is coming closer, though, I'm finding it difficult to think about anything else." Versace, wearing a short black, clingy dress and a pair of black Ray Bans, is perched on a tall stool in her well-air-conditioned design studio in the company's palatial headquarters on the Via Gesu. She has cleared the room of the eight or so publicists, design assistants and stylists who were there earlier. In front of her, next to the brimming ashtray, is a folder stuffed full of notes on her couture collection. She doesn't refer to it even once. "It's important to make one thing very clear up front," she says, pausing for a moment. "I'm not a grand couturier and I don't want to be. I'll never be Coco Chanel." Having said that, she hops up and begins pacing in front of the sketchboards like a caged panther. "I needed to find my own formula for the couture," she adds. "I kept thinking, what is couture today? Because a lot of what you see is pretty unreal." Versace's formula wasn't to look to the past for ideas, but to what she considers the future. She decided to concentrate on fabrics and technology. While shape is certainly important, she believes that true fashion innovation lies in textiles and technique. So she's had computers installed in the studio and has even flown in experts from Silicon Valley to help her realize her visions. "I love all of this new equipment, even if I don't know how to use any of it," she says. "This couture for me is a series of experiments. We're even doing some seams with lasers." But it isn't just the technology that's changing. Versace pulled her own couture team together, keeping only a few people from her brother's studio. On the design side, she brought in two young women, one from Sweden and another from Italy. For fabrics, she hired a Japanese woman and an English one. And, of course, she's been working with stylist Lori Goldstein. The outcome will be an offering of 54 looks--the number Gianni always showed--with an even split between day and evening. There'll be suits of ostrich feathers handwoven into silk; horsehair dresses, and Swarovski crystal embroideries. With the exception of the occasional splash of red, Versace is using what she calls "cold" colors, including a lot of white, black and muted pastels. "The colors need to be cold," she says. "This woman is in couture. Her dress needs to tell people, 'Don't get too close.' She needs to be detached." Dress silhouettes, as ever, are narrow, slim and very close to the body. But the designer claims that it will be a different kind of Versace look. "It's not trashy or loud, which Versace can be sometimes," she says. "These are things you can wear somewhere and really make a statement, something that will get you noticed when you make an entrance--and exit, which is always much more important." Versace knows that the couture is in many ways her most difficult test, but she's still surprisingly confident. And for the first time since she's been designing, she hasn't turned to her brother's work for guidance. "I think everything I'm doing is a continuation of what Gianni was doing, except for this collection," she says. "This is much more strict and severe, with a bit of irreverence. Like me." Her favorite piece is the floor-length horsehair jacquard dress with mink stitching. "What woman wouldn't want to wear horsehair?" she says. "Especially in red. I love how stiff and severe horsehair is. I love the contrast of the stiffness of the fabric and the sexiness of the shape." She has the distinction and advantage of being the only Paris couture designer who can--publicly at least--try on a look during the design process. "I think sometimes men have a different concept of a woman," she says."They idolize a woman too much. Women are real people. Not a sketch. We have a brain. We have a life. Sometimes the designer creates things for the woman in his mind. But she's not real. I am." Maybe even more so now than ever. In this past year, she has gone from rookie designer at Versus to design director of the entire house. Even a full year later, she's still not sure how comfortable she is at the helm. "I wasn't waiting for this position," she says. "I was always much more comfortable being next to Gianni. He was always the first person to take the blame, even if he'd just turn and blame me. "But life has made me more responsible," she continues. "I mean, I was always responsible, even if I don't look like it." Versace says she often goes home at night and thinks about how many people depend on her. She doesn't sleep as well as she used to. "If I'm not good enough to organize everything properly, so many people are going to suffer," she says. "It's a responsibility I gladly accept, but it's not always nice. Gianni was a big designer. A big, strong man. Everybody always felt safe with what he was doing. I don't know how safe people feel with me. But I'm trying to do what Gianni would have done." She has even had to learn the business side of fashion. She now works closely with her brother Santo, the company's ceo, discussing the future of the house of Versace. "It's important for the business people to know what I'm doing," she says,"where I'm going with ideas." The house has decided to take 15 pieces from the couture collection and put two of each in every Versace boutique in the world, something started last year after Gianni's final couture show. "They're going to be made to measure with delivery in 20 days," she says."You have to give the service in order to get the business. The idea of couture fittings only in Paris is an old thing. It needs to be moved into the future. It needs to be modern." There isn't an ounce of doubt in her mind that her brother would love her first couture collection. "I'm sure of it," she says. "Gianni was always more insecure about a collection than I am. He was always acting like a nervous design student. I'd always have to yell at him, 'You're Gianni Versace. Stop acting like this already."' In a way, the only reward Donatella needs is the thought that Gianni would be proud. She's tired of fashion criticism with a sympathetic approach. "I hope it will end," she says. "Look, my brother was a genius. I'm not him. I'm my own person. I'm trying to do my work. If people don't like it, well, I do." She is concerned that, during this couture season, all anyone is going to want to talk to her about is the anniversary of her brother's death. "It's enough already," she says. "Ready or not, I have to be on my own. I just wish the press would leave it alone. I don't want to talk about the past anymore. The past will stay inside me forever. But these reporters come up and ask me how I feel without Gianni. Well, I'm destroyed without Gianni, but I'm still working. "The victim attitude and the victim look don't work anymore," she adds."I want people to stop saying, 'Poor Donatella. Can she stand on her own two feet?' I've lived such public pain. Gianni left us with a very healthy company. I'm doing what I can to keep that going. But if I wasn't here to do it, it's not as if the house would close. We would have just hired another designer, and that would have been that. Fortunately, I love doing it." And so, on Wednesday, July 15, the day her brother died, after a brief mass in Como with her family, Donatella left for Paris, where she walked into the Ritz and began the final stages of planning her debut couture show. "That's the best way to celebrate Gianni," she says, "don't you think?"
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