There’s no denying Donatella Versace is in top form.
This story first appeared in the June 15, 2016 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
She’s clearly relishing the latest phase of the company that bears her family name, energized by a new chief executive officer, an initial public offering on the horizon and an evolving aesthetic that displays a more controlled and assured hand. Svelte, bubbly and expansive, wearing a patchwork blouse and black pants from her fall collection, she punctually breezes into her spacious office for an exclusive conversation at the Versace headquarters in Via Borgospesso in central Milan. The office is furnished with unmistakable pieces from the brand’s home collection, including a black lacquered desk, silver chairs and a white sofa strewn with golden fur-trimmed pillows embellished with the brand’s Medusa head and Greek friezes.
As she settles down to an interview, the designer seamlessly turns the talk to the time slot for her men’s show in a playful tug-of-war with her head of communication. A nighttime creature, Versace isn’t exactly comfortable with the slot on June 18 at 4 o’clock in the afternoon.
You don’t like your time slot?
I wanted to do it later, at 6 p.m. Bruce Weber is coming; he photographed my latest campaign for men and women, and he did two or three videos and he’d like to show one. He never goes to shows, and I wanted to do a dinner for him after. And psychologically, I like to show later in the day.
Tell us about your spring men’s collection.
What is new in this collection is the fluidity, its lightness and transparency. There is a very big parka, but it weighs nothing. Lightness is the important thing. The fabrics are all either nylon or silk. We all travel, you put clothes in a suitcase, with jeans and T-shirts. There is some technology so it’s all light and transportable. It’s not all ironed out, but more lived-in. I did not distance myself from my iconic prints, but they are unrecognizable. Or from Gianni’s prints with angels. They are washed, printed with another color; you can glimpse things from the past, but these today don’t jump out at you right away. It’s wrinkled, not perfect; there’s imperfection in perfection. I like it very much; it’s more contemporary.
There’s moss green and burgundy in the collection. Is it more of a fall palette?
It’s more lived-in, but there are flashes of colors — yellow, for example. Seasons don’t exist anymore. I always try to add green, which is a very difficult color.
Are the prints archival? How did you choose them?
[Customers] tend to ask us for Baroque, but I have to give them something new, not always what they ask for. It’s a little difficult, this passage of style in Versace, especially in men’s wear.
[Men] are always looking for Gianni’s [staples] from the Nineties — leather jeans, studs — it was very recognizable. Young boys want this, too, but I have to evolve. Sooner or later this will end; Gianni has been copied by all. Everyone has done studs now. I maintain the identity but in a more modern way.
Your models also look very different.
Yes, it’s a different man — thinner, less muscular. Their muscles are defined, but they are less gym buff. He doesn’t need to say, look how beautiful he is. This is a casting of men that have an attitude, an inner attitude. There’s a surfer from Australia who’s flying in. Working with Bruce Weber, we did a casting, and nobody was a model. There were 28 of them. One was selling ice cream on a beach in Miami. You have to see him; he is so handsome. There’s an opera singer, a soprano. He was singing while we were shooting the ads. All of them will be on the runway. Working with Bruce boosted me. There is no single look. There is a group of different men, with different aspirations. They are more real men, not perfect. Perfection in men is not true. [One] is not beautiful but so intelligent. I couldn’t stop listening to him speaking. [Another] is studying to become a magistrate. There’s an Asian boy — Asia is one of the biggest markets for everybody. There’s a soldier from the Navy.
Could you tell us more about the clothes you will show for spring?
There is a lot of outerwear, bombers, jogging pants with wrinkled and printed silk, worn with a blazer. I don’t believe in one look; I like items, mixed in different ways: a T-shirt with a smoking jacket, as if you were pulling out from wardrobe [randomly]. Pants are softer than usual, with a low waist, tight at the bottom and larger on top, but not super baggy. That doesn’t really work on anyone, not even on models. I like to listen to models and to get direct feedback from them. There is a lot of daywear; it seems easy, but details are important, the fabrics are important. It’s not in-your-face.
What do you think of combining men’s and women’s in one show?
I don’t believe in gender mixing. There are women and men; my fashion is totally different, with the same mentality [behind the design process], but different. I like a strong, daring woman who has no fear of showing who she is, her force. The same with men. You can’t translate it in the clothes in the same way. Absolutely not. They are very different. I am banking on tailoring for women, shorts under [jackets] and high heels and even more daywear. I’ve changed my style, with less cocktail, less evening and more daywear, for more occasions during the day. I have always done it for men, too. My man is daring, he does not hide behind anything. Even with the more classic suits — I care for quality and fabrics — maybe he wears it with a T-shirt and jogging pants. He likes to mix and challenge himself. Versace has always been very successful with men’s wear, from Gianni’s time. It’s always been very recognizable, compared with others. It’s very important to have a strong identity. My dream would be to see the clothes with no Versace tag inside.
How do you feel about the different take on seasons and genders?
The calendar is in shambles; I am fed up with this system. I think the business model of luxury brands is about to change in a radical way. We are all thinking about what to do. My solution is not to do men’s and women’s together in the same show. Maybe in the same week, but in two different moments. I have to divide them — not one right after the other. With one show, you would have to use the same fabrics; I don’t want to do that. I like more freedom.
Your revenues last year rose 17.5 percent to 645 million euros, or $709.5 million. How much of that is men’s wear?
Today it’s 50/50. We’ve sold our sneakers with the Medusa like sandwiches. They are aspirational. [For the campaign with Weber], we worked with street artists, hip-hop and break-dancers, and I gave them to them. They are so thankful, you wouldn’t believe it. They still write to me saying it’s the best thing that happened to them in the world, and they feel they can dance even better. That’s what they told me. They are so sweet.
You seem to be having fun and enjoying designing men’s wear.
Yes, I don’t know why. At this moment, I am really very excited about what is happening for Versace. I like to change, and I feel there is a radical change in fashion. The men’s and women’s shows together, all this traveling, shows in New York, London, Paris, Milan — I think this will have to change.
Do you mean the brands who have gone on the road to show cruise?
Yes. I don’t understand this, and I would never do it. I am perplexed — for the press. I don’t want people to have to travel too much. I think the runway show is one, maybe I am the only one left who thinks this. What should the press do — review one show, then another one after a month? Also, with see-now, buy-now, we’ve been pioneers on this. I must say, I believe in it, but for Versus, for lines that are less important, especially for young people on the Internet.
Would it be possible for Versace?
We can do capsules. For quality, you need time, especially with prints. The goal is to deliver more quickly, not in six months. We had eight looks from the fall show in store in the last week of May. We should divide the deliveries into two or three drops, because I don’t want to wait either. I see it with myself, and I understand other women.
You are very much in tune with this digital mentality, aren’t you?
Yes, today it’s like this. We are selling much more online. I don’t know what’s happening; people go out less, they go to stores less, they buy from their mobiles. But that said, you can’t buy some looks online. You must try them.
With your recent collections, there is a clear change in your style.
I want to launch a new message. The public buys Baroque by the kilo, but I want to launch a new message: You have to change with me.
That’s part of the role of a designer, isn’t it?
Yes, I should not follow what the customer wants [but lead]. I made a radical decision. I have many skilled merchandisers. There’s one, with a lot of experience, and she adds in a lot of super, new things. She says that if you do half and half, customers will never understand the message, and it’s true. There is so much confusion and overlap in designs and style today.
There are so many changes in the industry, with a revolving door of designers that have some observers questioning their role and relevance for the brands. What do you think?
A brand collapses without a designer. If there is no pure creativity, a company shuts down. It would be convenient for companies if managers did it all. But they are wrong. Raf Simons exited Dior. He is my dear friend, I have tremendous respect for him, he is so talented. Dior is not Dior anymore. I’m not saying that Raf was perfect for that position, but he refreshed it, he brought a breath of novelty to the brand. It’s very difficult to replace someone who has left a mark. At Calvin Klein, they are both out [Francisco Costa and Italo Zucchelli]. Someone strong must be coming. With designers, creativity is fundamental. It’s not true that a company can simply go on with good managers. Managers and designers must work together closely. Look at what Alessandro Michele did for Gucci. He came and revolutionized everything, whether you like it or not, and it’s new. His identity is strong. I adore him. I loved what he said in an interview: I don’t do new things; I add.
There’s a generation of really nice designers — Maria Grazia [Chiuri] and Pierpaolo [Piccioli] at Valentino, too. They are so much fun.
Speaking of young designers, you’ve turned out to be quite the talent scout.
I have some great designers now working with me, and I will never say their names. You know, Christopher Kane was just out of Central Saint Martins when he came to work with me.
How do you recognize creativity and designers who can fit with your aesthetic?
Well, there may be things that I don’t like, but if I see even only one thing that makes me think it has a Versace [style], that works. But you know, at first, I ask them to work on couture, not Versace or Versus. They have a less finished touch that you don’t expect. These guest designers on my next couture collection — I handed them the fabrics and asked them to show me what they can do. They are wonderful, and I was speechless. You should see the draping they did.
How do you see the future for Versus after the exit of Anthony Vaccarello?
Just because Vaccarello isn’t there doesn’t mean it’s not Versus anymore. I direct it. I already have someone there, who will remain nameless. He worked with me after school. He left for the U.S. for six years and then called me and asked me to come back. I’m evaluating holding an event, show or presentation in London, but it’s still not confirmed, maybe in September, with 30 looks. Vaccarello had a precise image, but now I want to go back to my own Versus when I was young, the first collection shown in New York, when Gianni gave it to me. It’s so fresh, it’s a capsule and helps to divide my take on Versus from Vaccarello’s. I returned to my origins linked to rock. It’s called Heritage Capsule — Limited Edition and will arrive in stores in mid-June. [For the future], I see rock guest stars, not designers for Versus. And the first will start in January.
The pace of fashion is getting difficult for some designers. Are you very disciplined?
You know we’ve changed our chief executive officer. Jonathan [Akeroyd] came down today when I was doing the rehearsals and saw the collection for September. He was surprised. He could not believe I was so organized. But if you are not, how can you work?
Does this change in management also give you new energy?
Yes, very much. I will always thank [former ceo Gian Giacomo] Ferraris. He was exceptional, he led the turnaround, we worked together very well, there was an open relationship between manager and creativity, and he drove us to great success, but a moment comes when you need a manager with different expertise, not financial, but strategic and focused on retail.
Is it a new phase for the company?
It’s a phase of strategies, of growth, retail, and [Akeroyd] is an exceptional person. He was [merchandising director] at Harrods for 11 years. I was looking for that kind of expertise. Sometimes you have to change, or I change myself. I’m all fired up; I speak with a person that really understands fashion, the product. I am working with designers I enjoy working with, I give them freedom, I want creative talents, not someone to merely execute sketches.
Is your daughter Allegra, the majority shareholder of the company, still working in the design studio?
Yes, Allegra works on Versus, she has a lot of responsibilities. She is someone who doesn’t want to talk about herself, but she is a good designer, and not because she is my daughter. Actually, when I complain to the group, she takes the brunt of it because she has to check on the others.
There are some brands that are sitting out Milan this season for different reasons. You remain one of the main names kicking off the week. What do you think of the city’s fashion week?
Milan remains very important. There are still important names: Giorgio Armani, Dolce & Gabbana, Prada, Gucci, us. It’s international. Not that I have anything against Florence, but how many places can we show? Pitti is more presentations, it’s something else, but we should join forces. It’s strange that men’s wear should have two different locations. It’s too much. We should optimize.