Donatella Versace still marvels at the world’s reaction to her spring show — literally the world, as social media went into global overdrive after the designer presented her tribute collection to her late brother Gianni, closed by five of his favorite models who helped crystallize his groundbreaking aesthetic.
“Such a positive response was so unexpected. I was very anxious and scared ahead of the show, because to pay tribute to Gianni is difficult, for what he represented, for what he did in fashion, for all the barriers he broke down,” says Versace, her tiny frame clad in an all-black sweater, body-hugging pants and platform boots combo. As she easily and brightly engages in a conversation that spans from the merits of sustainability to the elusiveness of Millennials — and those recurring rumors about young designers coming on board the brand — the blonde designer adds an edgy and modern touch to the stately and impressive surroundings of the company’s Via Gesù headquarters, the storied palazzo brimming with antique furniture and art.
“I did not expect this success, it was as if the room was coming toward me — like a [soccer] pitch invasion and I asked myself, what’s happening?” says Versace, widening her eyes and referring to the finale she orchestrated, with Naomi Campbell, Cindy Crawford, Claudia Schiffer, Carla Bruni Sarkozy and Helena Christensen back together on the runway for the brand. Wearing Versace’s iconic metal dress, the models posed in a tableaux vivant reminiscent of Richard Avedon’s photos for the house and then walked the catwalk with the designer to the tune of George Michael’s “Freedom” as the crowd gave them a standing ovation and cheered, iPhones stretched out to catch the Instagram moment.
“It was a tribute to Gianni, so it was necessary to have the women from back then,” explains Versace of the show, which marked the 20th anniversary of her brother’s murder. “I know them, we have always seen one another over the years. They are very intelligent women, they are incredible businesswomen. Cindy has built an empire…I called the ones I share more memories with. I really wanted Christy [Turlington], too, but she couldn’t come; she was busy with her charity [work].”
Versace still marvels at how they all accepted right away. She says she wanted the finale to be “an absolute surprise.” To this end, she didn’t even tell the other 69 models in the show about it. “Perhaps the most beautiful moment was when I told them backstage that there was a surprise and they first saw Naomi passing like a goddess, then Cindy, and so forth and they all started clapping with tears in their eyes. It was mad. These were their idols, they couldn’t believe it. It was great behind the scenes, too, not only out in the room.”
Versace planned fittings with each supermodel two weeks earlier so that everything would be “just right.” But, with a hearty laugh, she says that, before hitting the runway, each wanted to swap dresses. “At one point, Naomi had three in her dressing room. We were back in the Nineties, with that competition I adore.”
In that vein, she says she never planned to try out the tableaux vivant in advance. “I knew I would be in trouble if I did. Each went out and did what they wanted, without any direction — although each wanted to stand in the center,” she says with a chuckle, speaking ahead of a trip to New York to photograph the spring ad campaign, “which will be at the level of the show.”
Could the supermodels be making an appearance in those images, too? The designer laughs, but doesn’t reveal any details.
Gianni Versace launched the era of the supermodels and his sister picked up the baton, hiring beautiful models for the catwalk even when the waif look took over. “We’ve never been afraid of sexuality, Gianni and myself. Designers were sometimes intimidated by beautiful women, with breasts and buttocks, and what was seen as vulgar. Bah, vulgar…A woman must be a woman,” contends Versace, emphasizing the assertion with a movement of her hands.
“Gianni was so brave to propose what he did. He was in your face at a time when everything was safe,” she continues, before adding of her spring collection, “It was also hard for me to choose which part of the archives to focus on.”
While the collection hinged on five archival prints from the Gianni Versace years, she credits today’s models of the moment, from Gigi Hadid to Kendall Jenner, as well as her daughter Allegra Versace Beck for their influence on the decision. “They told me they want to wear printed shirts and I felt it was the right moment. Today, you need to understand what [potential customers] want before designing a collection,” observes Versace, who chose her favorite patterns, replicating the shapes and designs of the looks and refreshing the fits to make them more contemporary. There was only one item, a black-and-white skirt worn by Natasha Poly, which could not be reproduced, with its 250 chiffon tubular details embellishing the front. “It would be super expensive today and the seamstresses that created it back then are not around anymore,” says Versace. “Today all this is relevant, and nobody else did it so well, we owe this to Gianni.”
The designer went back to the original textile suppliers that worked with her brother and the prints are exactly the same as they were originally. “Today, fabrics are all jet printed, only on one side, but I asked to have them done as they were back then — printed on both sides. It’s costly, but it’s worth it,” she says.
She lists the printed leggings and jeans as the bestsellers — “they are flying out” — and notes how the sexiest designs were hits. “People want the sexy stuff. [Anthony] Vaccarello is always sexy. I like what Balenciaga is doing, although they are looking for a different beauty, but you don’t find sexy dresses anymore. It’s a moment when young people want everything — and sex appeal. I look at what Millennials wear — they don’t have a single style, one day they are Gothic, or super cool, wearing Balenciaga (I really like it), one day they are dreamers and wear Gucci, then they wear Versace. You are way off base if you think you know what they want. They like to dress up, to change every day. I look around a lot, and I see that they change, they don’t want to conform with one style; they think it’s from the past.”
Versace also keeps an eye on the brand’s online purchases to keep shoppers in focus and understand their spending habits. “It’s a very positive moment for Versace now, for what it represents.”
The designer admits her nervousness over the collection was eased once she saw how the models backstage “went crazy” for the clothes and she explains how she could finally bear marking the anniversary of her brother’s death. “I feel strong and more confident. I did it because I felt that I could do it. I wasn’t 100 percent sure I could, but then I saw how enthusiastic my team was and those who did not see [Gianni Versace] in the Nineties. Of course, I can’t do it every season, but I once again presented what Versace meant back then and in a way, that speaks to Millennials. Mixed with other things, it’s still relevant today,” she contends.
Relevance is one of Versace’s priorities and a recurring word. To this end, she believes it is key “to always measure yourself with young designers.” She has championed the likes of Christopher Kane and Vaccarello by singling them out to help develop the Versus line. After the hyped tie-up with Riccardo Tisci fell through — one that was never confirmed by the company — sources now point to Kim Jones as the designer who is likely to join Versace, although his being contractually tied to Louis Vuitton is proving an obstacle hard to overcome, according to sources.
Asked to discuss the topic, Versace is game. “Who should be coming now? I’m losing count,” she says with a laugh. “Listen, there is no scandal here. I’m open, if I want someone in-house to bring Versace with me into 2050, let’s say, I will do it, if I think it’s the right person, if it works. The designer alone is not relevant. What is relevant is the team, those around the designer. People were saying I was retiring. No. And there is nobody [joining] now, but this does not mean that if I see someone, I won’t take them in. I’m always looking around. I took [designers] in for Versus. What is the difference if I want them for the signature line? I’m here, too. It’s the team that counts, the exchange of ideas. Putting yourself to the test is key, to understand if what you are doing is still relevant, and you can only do so if there is an exchange with other designers.”
Versace says she often goes to Los Angeles now to check out the artistic, musical and design scene. “I like it a lot, there are no barriers. In the past, I looked at it more from the Hollywood angle. I look at people who make me think. There is a sneaker designer who did incredible things looking at our archives,” she reveals.
Segueing into her long-standing relations with Hollywood celebrities, asked about the Harvey Weinstein sexual abuse allegations and the fashion industry’s own investigations into the treatment of models, Versace admits “there was something going on in the Nineties, but not now.”
She says she was aware of the behavior of “some people in some modeling agencies, not all. Gianni and I would call them up if something happened with the models and Gianni would scream that he would not work with them anymore. The models would talk to us, we were close. Yes, some men would try something on them, but I don’t believe it was real harassment. The models were young and accompanied by their mothers, they were more protected than actors, who don’t travel with their parents. Cindy [Crawford] came with her parents, it was normal, she was 17. Some agencies were extra careful because they knew there were these people that gravitated to the industry and that would try to do something. It happens everywhere, though. I can’t stand it, I am all for women’s empowerment. I am very protective [her worldwide head of public relations and communication adds she is a ‘mom with everyone here’]. In my collections, I want to give women strength and that strength is also to speak up.”
With sexual abuse, women feel guilty, she continues. “I know Harvey, he always sponsored amfAR, Cannes [Film Festival], but nobody talked about this there. I never heard anything, but then I don’t live in Hollywood. I am not very surprised because of his attitude, but I am surprised that it’s at this level.”
There is no lack of energy in the words of Versace, who ticks off a number of new projects in the pipeline. “I’m thinking of men’s and pre-collections now. There is no end. The market is always asking for new collections, but I think there is too much. I was talking to the ceo [Jonathan Akeroyd]. We should do smaller pre-collections, we should do smaller capsules — 10 outfits — to refresh the stores, to keep the attention high.”
Versace confesses she is “very happy” with Akeroyd. While crediting his predecessor, Gian Giacomo Ferraris, for his work with the company, she says she enjoys Akeroyd’s different mentality — one that is more focused on merchandising. “He is cool and open to everything.” A new ceo brought a new team and the changes are revitalizing Versace, who admits she is having fun learning. “I love to ask for new things to be explained,” she says.
With Akeroyd, Versace is also masterminding a new strategy for the brand’s network of stores. “In the past, it was about introducing new store concepts, with new architects. But then we realized all this is not important anymore, it’s irrelevant. It’s the product that is more important, and how you display it with the merchandiser, in a cleaner, better lit space. We have refreshed the Via Montenapoleone store [in Milan], we did very little, we took out some of the furniture, there’s more light [and it’s working better]. In the end, it’s about how you display things.”
On Dec. 5, Versace will unveil a new store in London’s Sloane Street, the first on that street to sport a LEED certification, and all new stores will align with this requirement. “What counts for me, for the company, for young people, is sustainability, maybe even more than creativity, and it will be an increasingly important theme. We are now working with Nativa [Corp.], which is teaching us about sustainability, which is not only about avoiding the use of certain materials, but also about company culture, how behavior must change. It’s very interesting,” she remarks, also pointing to her own and her company’s “strong connection with London.” Over the years, 30 designers have worked with Versace, who in September launched the Gianni Versace Scholarship for a student starting the MA Fashion Course at Central Saint Martins this fall.
At the end of 2018, the company will also move its headquarters to a sustainable building in Milan’s new Porta Nuova district. “I can’t wait, I keep asking why is it taking so long,” says Versace, shifting in her seat, explaining that “there will be no doors, all is open,” allowing interaction between different offices.
Asked about the upcoming “American Crime Story: The Assassination of Gianni Versace” series, which is based on the book “Vulgar Favors” by Maureen Orth, Versace says she “doesn’t comment on fictions,” and reiterates she had “nothing to do” with either.
“I spoke with Penelope [Cruz, who plays her], she is a friend, she said she will treat me with respect — yes, but I don’t know what will be [shown], from a book that says incredible falsehoods. The book came out [in 1999] and [Orth] has written [only] two books in 20 years, this and another one full of gossip [titled ‘The Importance of Being Famous’],” Versace says dismissively.
Will she be tempted to watch the series? “No, I won’t,” she says firmly.