Celebrities are an integral part of the weave at the House of Donatella.

As New York fashion enters its biannual feeding frenzy over which A, B or even C-level celebrity is in the front row, one designer can teach the others lessons about how to lasso the big name: Versace.

From Elton John and Madonna to Chelsea Clinton and Britney Spears, Versace has been filling its front rows with flashbulb popping names since the Eighties. But the mingling doesn’t only take place in January and July, February and September; celebrities are as much a part of the Versace mix as champagne and caviar. Over the past 20 years, celebrities have become so tightly woven into the Versace family fabric — and into their daily routine — that it’s hard to say who’s the flavor of the season and who’s the friend, or whether a certain celebrity is there to make a splash or just to make quiet conversation.

Indeed, Versace insists it’s all about friendship — not marketing.

"The celebrities at all my shows should be the clothes. I don’t think of any of these people as celebrities, I think of them as personalities who have intelligence, talent and new ideas to offer," she said in an interview. "I like having these people as friends — and I love mixing them up at dinners and parties to see the kind of conversation that comes out."

It’s perhaps no surprise, then, that she spent New Year’s Eve at her Upper East Side town house eating sausage and lentils — the traditional Italian end-of-the-year dish — with people like Woody Allen, Brian De Palma, Lil’ Kim and Christina Aguilera.

In the future, Versace said she wants to add a few political heavyweights to her guest list. She said she’d love to invite — and dress — Madeleine Albright and Bill Clinton. She’s already a Chelsea fan — "She’s got a brain and she’s not a fashion girl," said Versace, who nonetheless turned her into one in dark eye makeup, straight hair and figure-hugging dress for a front-row appearance in February 2002 that was another one of the designer’s seemingly endless celebrity coups."Donatella Versace gets more under celebrities’ skin than other designers do, and you always have the impression that she’s in tight with them," said Paul Cowper, a branding consultant at Brandsmiths in London. "The result is a less overt, less marketed way of selling. If you think that Brad Pitt is in tight with Versace and he’s wearing the clothes, then somehow it’s more real that if he appears in one of their ads. That appearance of friendship adds a whole aspirational dimension to the product."

The house of Versace first began cementing its celebrity ties in 1983 when Gianni Versace’s clothes appeared in Paul McCartney and Michael Jackson’s "Say, Say, Say" music video. Soon after, the costumer for Miami Vice traveled to Milan and bought 55 outfits for Don Johnson to wear on the show — and it didn’t take long for the actor to start wearing Versace on his days off, too.

But it was Bruce Springsteen, who wore Versace for his "Born in the U.S.A." tour, who talked up Versace — and his fabulous Villa Fontanelle on Lake Como — to his fellow glitterati. "He was the one who gave it all the publicity and told everyone about the way we treat people there, and that we like to have lots of friends over," Gianni Versace told W in 1989.

It wasn’t long before celebrity wrangling came into vogue, and then it was every designer for himself. In 1992, Gianni Versace took a swipe at Eric Clapton and Liz Taylor, who had defected to Giorgio Armani and Valentino, respectively. Versace said Clapton looked like "an accountant," and Taylor looked like "Nero’s wife" in her tunic.

Donatella Versace’s first big celebrity coup was Sting, whom she approached in the early Eighties after seeing his concerts during a European tour. Since then, she has specialized in ferreting out — and promoting — less established talent.

Her shows have regularly featured pop stars — either in the front row or performing — including Jennifer Lopez, Robbie Williams, All Saints, Back Street Boys, Blue, Moby, Oasis, Lenny Kravitz and Propellor Head — before they went big.Versace officials say they’ve never paid celebrities to appear at shows, but will fly them to shows, pay for their hotels and dress them for events. And make no mistake: when you’re dealing with the A-list of the moment, those costs can get mighty steep. Repayment comes in a myriad of ways — and often in kind: Versace has been mentioned in songs by Lil’ Kim, Missy Elliot and Guns N’ Roses and Donatella appeared in a Puff Daddy video filmed at the Versace store in New York.

But it’s not all champagne and kisses on the celebrity circuit.

At last year’s summer couture show in Paris, Versace and her audience were forced to wait 45 minutes for Puff Daddy to arrive. On the flip side, for a celebrity appearing in the front row at a Versace show isn’t necessarily a ticket to divadom. Witness Jade Jagger, who was very publicly overshadowed by Britney Spears at Versace’s spring 2003 rtw show in Milan last fall.

The relationship between Versace and its stable of celebrities has always gone deeper than fashion show gigs and front-row seats. In the early Eighties, the house began pre-packaging "editorial" shoots featuring stars like Jon Bon Jovi, Elton John, Prince and Madonna — shot by photographers including Mario Testino and Richard Avedon. Versace would then give them to magazines and newspaper supplements, including London’s Sunday Times magazine, Italy’s Panorama and Paris Match, for free to be published as editorial.

Versace hasn’t always relied on celebrities to generate buzz. In the late Eighties and early Nineties, Versace was nourishing another celebrity subculture: the supermodel.

"There was no backstage like Versace’s backstage," said one fashion journalist who regularly watched shows from behind-the-scenes. "There was champagne and caviar everywhere — and the girls were there with their celebrity boyfriends: Claudia Schiffer and David Copperfield, Stephanie Seymour and Axl Rose, Linda Evangelista and Kyle McLaughlin. The buzz was amazing."

So, what of Donatella Versace’s last couture show in Paris, a static presentation sans celebs? "Sometimes it’s easier to see the clothes, and appreciate the details without all the glitz," she said. "I liked the simplicity of the Paris show, and I liked it because it was Versace delivering the unexpected."

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