MILAN — Donatella Versace at last feels strong enough to talk about the good times and the bad, having finally learned how to deal with the emotions they stir.
This story first appeared in the June 29, 2012 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
The telling evidence is that returning to the Ritz Paris is no longer too painful for the designer to bear. Versace has decided to hold her Atelier runway show on Sunday at the prestigious hotel, a choice of great importance for her. Celebrated and opulent as the Ritz is, having lodged countless powerful and famous guests, it is also strongly linked to her late brother Gianni, who began staging his couture shows there back in 1990.
“It was a moment of my life that I had a hard time remembering, I couldn’t face the past with ease. I could not think of the last time I saw Gianni, in the lobby of the Ritz, two days before he died,” said Versace in a candid interview, sitting on a black leather sofa in her office, filled with flowers, scented candles, family photos and Versace Home pillows. “I went back over the years, but I was in a cloud, I did not really realize it.” Versace’s last Atelier show at the Ritz was in January 2004; she held a couture presentation in January at Beaux Arts de Paris.
“It’s very important for me to face this. I’m afraid, my nerves are shot, yet I’m excited, but I can do it for me and for Gianni. This is a collection I think he would really like — it’s very rich,” added the designer, clad in a short-sleeve black top and turquoise bell-bottom pants embellished with the brand’s iconic Greek frieze, her tiny waist cinched by a belt with a gold Medusa-head buckle.
Versace’s newfound strength and serenity are also reflected in how easily she talks about Gianni — her conversation is peppered with references to her brother. “Couture belongs to us as a company, it’s inside us,” she said, underscoring the craftsmanship of the seamstresses, now totaling 35, some who also worked with her brother at the maison. “Yes, I did mass market with H&M, but people must not forget couture goes way back for us and how distinctive that is.”
Versace noted that it’s an exciting time for couture: Industry watchers wonder what Raf Simons will do at Dior, Dolce & Gabbana is experimenting with couture, and new, wealthy customers from emerging countries are increasingly hungry for unique, luxurious fashion pieces. Versace’s own company is expected to log a 32 percent increase in its Atelier business in 2012, compared with last year. However, the designer stressed that, when it comes to couture, she does “not think in commercial terms — it’s about being loyal and faithful to our DNA.”
Returning to the subject of the Ritz, Versace said Gianni was “fascinated” by the hotel. “It represented history, the Kennedys, the economic and political world. They all passed through the hotel,” she explained, adding that, “as with all other issues,” she was entirely “in sync” with her brother. That said, she has made changes to the setting for her own show “to do something more in line with the times, a more modern set in contrast with the luxurious surroundings.”
The runway will be made of aged copper, and lights will help create the choreography with different color hues. “I’ll return behind those stairs, but they won’t be visible this time,” said Versace, referring to how models would walk down the two staircases on each side during her brother’s shows, held at the Salon Vendôme, or the pool room. “Gianni was the first to cover the pool with the runway.” While her show this season will be held at the Salon Vendôme as well, the stairs will be covered. “They represent Gianni’s couture, with his supermodels,” she said, remembering how she and her brother would stand behind each staircase during the show and sing into their mouthpieces.
Sunday’s shows, to be held at 7:30 p.m. and 8:30 p.m., will be followed by a dinner thrown by the Ritz and then a party that Versace is planning with hyped entertainment venue Le Baron. “We are turning the space into a night club,” she said.
She also has a positive attitude toward the two-year closing of the Ritz for renovations. “I would like to end on a high note, one chapter closes and another begins,” she said.
Apart from her inner stability and well-being, Versace is bolstered by the performance of the company, which has struggled in recent years but in 2011 returned to profit, posting earnings of 8.5 million euros, or $11.8 million, compared with a loss of 21.7 million euros, or $28.6 million, in 2010. In 2011, revenues rose 16.4 percent to 340.2 million euros, or $472.6 million. “I see that the firm is working well and the management makes me feel more confident,” she said.
Her confidence took determination to achieve. “I never compared myself to Gianni. He was a genius, how could I even think of comparing myself to him? But others did. I have my own voice, and for the past two years I have no longer been in fear. I am happy with what I am doing, I believe in it,” she said with a smile and no trace of recrimination.
Versace quelled rumors about a possible sale of the family-owned company: “I have absolutely no intention to sell. I’m holding on to this company with my nails and we want to be independent.” Siblings Santo and Donatella hold 30 and 20 percent stakes, respectively, in the firm while Donatella’s daughter, Allegra Versace Beck, owns 50 percent. “Yes, it would be easy to sell, but it’s not an idea. An initial public offering is not out of the question, but nothing at all has been decided. Gianni created such a famous brand in the world, it has an enormous prestige — why sell it? We are building it on our own and we are opening stores around the world,” she said firmly.
Asked about her daughter’s involvement on the design front, she was quick to point that no favors are granted. “Allegra works under my design director. She is intelligent and prepared, but she is humble and in no way is she privileged here. She has also worked for other companies to see what’s out there,” said Versace, confirming that her daughter also works on the Atelier line.
The lineup for Sunday comprises 25 looks and is a play on “construction and deconstruction,” she said. Textured fabrics with embroideries, silk treated with silicon, light organza with a metallic effect and swatches of crystal mesh all in diverse sizes were stitched together with leather or chiffon strips for a patchwork effect, at times further embellished with tiny rose gold buckles.
“I imagined [Pablo] Picasso disassembling the images and then putting them back together,” said the designer of the silk prints with patterns that refer to tarot cards — another inspiration. “Tarots are a symbol of the future — I prefer a link with the future rather than with the past or the present,” she said, adding with a laugh that she believes in card-reading “only if it’s a good prediction.”
As for the collection’s colors, Versace underscored the focus on contrasts of different materials and shades. “See, this gown is not lilac, there are different hues from lilac to violet, each dress has a group of colors,” she said, previewing a look during a photo shoot for this story. “I like fluidity a lot now, but also body conscious styles.
“This is very stimulating for me — I do with Atelier things I couldn’t do for ready-to-wear, but I get many ideas that I can use for ready-to-wear. Certain brands must do couture,” she continued, adding that, generally, their most expensive items are their best selling ones.
Versace is also launching a new Atelier Jewelry collection on Sunday — 16 custom-made designs of hand-sculpted rings mounted with precious stones including diamonds, yellow diamonds, emeralds, sapphires, amethysts, aquamarines and citrine. “I prefer yellow or rose gold — I find it more modern,” she said.
Then showing a sketch of a ring that revisits the brand’s iconic Les Trésors de la Mer marine pattern, she responded, “There’s our Baroque touch.” Another motif features an intricate design of leaves. “Gianni designed an ivy pattern once,” she said.
While sharing a passion for jewelry with her brother, Versace said she’s responding to a market request with the line. Other couture accessories — footwear, for example —could be further extensions of Atelier over time, she revealed: “Strangely enough, although the economy is struggling, luxury is paying off when identified with special and unique pieces.”