Byline: Bridget Foley

MILAN — In many ways, it is a typical fitting in the frenzied days before collections. Assistants bustle, a gorgeous, unknown teen model displays a level of patience sure to wane with time and success, a nip here, a tuck there, opinions flow, and ultimately, the designer makes the calls.
But this fitting is far from typical, because the designer is Donatella Versace. Just two months after the death of her brother, Gianni, Donatella is calling the artistic shots at the house that bears his name. In the next two weeks she will show three collections, including her first Versace signature collection, which has her attention for the moment, and the Versus and Istante lines.
In the best of times, the ultimate ascent at a major house is wrought with challenges, tensions, expectations. For Donatella Versace, these are not the best of times. Almost immediately upon returning from Miami to Milan she had to get to work. At the same time, she has been struggling to help her children, particularly daughter Allegra, come to terms with the tragedy, as she is herself. In an exclusive interview with WWD, Versace talked about taking charge, about what women want from fashion and about life without Gianni.
“I’m panicking, totally. Who wouldn’t panic?” she asks. But left unspoken, the panic wouldn’t show. Versace seems the picture of professional control, underscored with a certain vulnerability, her lean blonde and black countenance utterly focused on the task before her. Revealed as well are a confidence and determination born of the dual responsibilities of reality and legacy: Versace is directing the design endeavors of a $500 million company that last month issued a statement that it was moving ahead with plans to go public, and she wants to do it in a way that would make her brother proud.
“A certain kind of energy pushes me,” Versace says. “I don’t want to be all obsessed. I want to try to do something good. I want to please Gianni — that’s the beginning — and bring the company forward, like Gianni would want me to do.”
Along the way, Donatella knows that comparisons are inevitable, although she bristles at the thought. “I hope people won’t make comparisons, because I’m one person, and Gianni is irreplaceable. But it’s human nature to compare.” And the person she is today is very much the product of a lifetime spent at Gianni’s side, from sneaking out to dance clubs as an adolescent to the years spent as his sounding board, muse, collaborator.
“I’m a Versace girl, I grew up with Gianni, I started to work with Gianni, so I’m not going to have another philosophy.” She articulates that philosophy with the forcefulness of the true believer: “Break the rules, do not be afraid of your sexuality. Show the attitude and personality which all women have. Say something. Play hard and soft, discipline or revolt.”
This message goes hand-in-hand with an embrace of glamour, which Versace believes underscores fashion’s current mood. “Fashion is back, and I believe strongly that glamour is back,” she says. “But a new kind, not too perfect. Something has to be off.” She indicates an asymmetric evening dress, fitted on one side, loose on the other, a rubber dress caged in netting, and ample beading, some ethereal, some shaped from industrial metals. A refined Prince of Wales fabric has been shredded in places; “We call it stressed,” she says. She uses the fabric for a group of suits slated to open the show, one with sheer georgette breast insets and micro-short-shorts.
The way Versace sees it, she is playing to what women want. “Women yearn to be sexy,” she says, and insists her designs are grounded in reality — a blessed reality, judging from the looks of Kate Moss and Naomi Campbell on these pages.
“I don’t forget that today women go to the office, work, have things to do during the day — and I do realistic day clothes,” Versace says. “I think women will continue to cover different roles in the new society, and important roles that we didn’t cover before. But we shouldn’t be afraid of our femininity, we should be proud of it.”
That’s not to say that most of the collection will be as steamy as Naomi’s barely there rubberized silk frock from the show’s finale, which will feature other, more manageable cutouts as well.
“You exaggerate to make the point, but then you go from there in a subtle way,” she says. “It doesn’t have to be a big, loud, fitted outfit. It can be a little detail that makes an outfit sexy.”
“You know,” Donatella continues, “the good combination between me and Gianni was that he was a man designer, and I was a woman next to him, telling him, you know, ‘I’ll wear this, I won’t wear this, this is no good for women.’ Yes, I think sometimes men designers will forget about that, and design too much for an ideal woman. A real woman, a woman on the street — that’s my ideal woman.”
In fact, that theme of reality runs throughout Versace’s conversation, and she speaks with both the enthusiasm of a designer and the cool head of someone with her eye on the bottom line, even though it’s brother Santo who is president of the company. “Even the inspiration today must come from reality,” she says. “It can’t come from dreams anymore, dreams don’t work with reality.
“Fashion is one of the main parts of our contemporary culture. It’s very important; the way women present themselves is through clothes,” she says. “Many people don’t dress well, but many people give us inspiration, the way they put their clothes together, and some have a style that goes beyond the clothes. “
Like Gianni, Donatella thinks the only way to stay current is to saturate one’s self in pop culture. “I’m listening to the newest music from London, the newest groups, and one of them is performing live for the Versus show,” she says. “The Crystal Method — their music is fantastic, sort of an electronic beat. I saw this movie, ‘The Pillow Box.’ It’s so beautiful, the photography and the color and everything. You cannot live in an ivory tower and make fashion or anything artistic, no you can’t. You’re to live in the real world.”
In the real world of fashion business, Donatella has been anything but a shrinking violet. On the subject of one recent trend, she proclaims herself ardently “anti-retro,” and another she all but dismisses. “Minimalism,” she says, “has become too fashionably fake.”
Already, she has restructured her design staffs, shifting around members of the Versace and Versus teams and bringing in some additional people.
Among the newcomers are stylists Lori Goldstein and Victoria Bartlett, working, respectively, on the Versace and Versus collections. “Lori’s philosophy is glamorous and kind of feminine. Joe McKenna [who has worked on previous collections], who’s a good friend of mine, is simpler,” Versace says. “It’s good when your collection is almost finished to bring in someone else with an outside eye. It’s also very risky, a week before the show to ask somebody, what do you think? They may want to turn you upside down, but it’s a risk I like to take.”
In fact, Versace says she fears being surrounded by yes men. “I don’t like people who agree completely with what I like. I’m looking for a kind of confrontation.”
Jousting was an integral part of Donatella’s relationship with Gianni.”We’d have a pretty good fight, and then he’d go to Santo and say, ‘Listen, who’s right?”‘ she says. “Santo is very calm. He’s very reasonable, very businesslike. The two that made more noise were Gianni and me, and Santo was the one in the middle, always to try to calm things. We’re very united. We have a lot of trust in each other, I trust Santo completely as the president of the company, and he trusts me.”
In expanding the company, the Versaces are focusing on the U.S., South America and the Far East, and Donatella maintains the greatest potential lies with the secondary collections. “Versus is growing around the world,” she says. “There are many more people who can spend less money than people who can spend a lot of money. That’s a reality, so that’s where the future is. Santo and I were talking about this, and he said to make sure that every secondary line has a special edge. Even Santo, who’s such a businessman, such a strategic person, knows that to stay strong you have to give every collection an edge.”
Growth plans aside, Donatella is speaking professionally and personally when she says her immediate goal is “to get through this next show.” The two are, of course, inextricably linked.
“I went to see the backstage for the show, at our place,” she says. “It is impossible that Gianni will not be there, it looks impossible to me still. I feel like he’s traveling somewhere. It’s so tough for me to really know that I’m not going to see him again, Oh my God.”
Asked how she has gotten through it all, she says simply, “I’m not through, no…I have this guilty complex because when I wanted to push for something, generally Gianni listened. I didn’t push enough for security. I would tell him all the time…’Gianni, you really should have security.’ ‘No way.’ Sometimes I think I should have been stronger about that.”
Donatella displays a quiet strength as she deals with the business and her family’s personal loss. “Allegra, she is devastated,” she says. “She was very, very close to Gianni. Daniel doesn’t quite understand yet. He’s six years old, Daniel, and Allegra, she is 11.”
And as her shows near, Donatella is spending more and more time between the Milan atelier and the factory in nearby Navarro, stealing away each evening for dinner with the children before returning to work for several hours. Such a schedule leaves little time for her own recovery.
“It’s a lot. At the moment I’m not thinking of time for me,” she acknowledges, although she has tried to maintain certain norms, such as early morning jaunts to the gym. “It sounds stupid, but it makes me feel a little comfortable.”
Eventually, she wants to return to Miami. “At the moment, no. But in a way, I have to find the courage on my own to go, and go to those steps,” she says. “When I arrived there [just after Gianni’s death], there was so much press and photographers, night and day they were filming. I wanted to go to the steps and see where my brother died, but I couldn’t. There were so many people outside…My brother died there, but I couldn’t get out of the house. It was scary, all the people outside.”
Despite the horror of the event, Versace bears no ill will against the city her brother embraced so eagerly. “Even if the tragic event happened in Miami, I have nothing against Miami, because the people there are awfully nice and…the house, you know, it was Gianni’s favorite place for vacation…It’s a coincidence, he died in the place that he loved the most. He did love it the most — the glamour of Miami, the house, everything.”
Such memories are painful, but Donatella is dedicated to making Gianni’s legacy thrive for the future. “I had a wonderful mentor,” she says. “And I’m a Versace girl, head to toes. Now, I have to get back to work.”

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