MILAN — In what can only be described as one of the most emotional fashion moments ever, Donatella Versace showed her first signature collection after the death of her brother Gianni. The series of three shows, which closed the collections here Thursday night, was an event Milan will not soon forget. In a show of support, a host of designers turned out; Giorgio Armani, Karl Lagerfeld, Miuccia Prada, Donna Karan, Romeo Gigli, Narciso Rodriguez, Antonio Berardi and others were scattered throughout the front row. And so were celebrities, from Cher, who flew in from London, to Anjelica Huston, Trudie Styler, Demi Moore and Rupert Everett. Boy George did the music, Madonna lent “Candy Perfume Girl,” a cut from her album that won’t be released until next year, and the supermodels proved why Gianni loved them so much. They were all there — Kate, Naomi, Amber, Shalom, even Linda — and they were on as they haven’t been on in a long time.
Donatella, who just days ago had seemed jittery but upbeat, was overcome by emotion. After the first show, she walked only a few feet down the runway when she quickly retreated backstage. Then, according to a number of models, she — and just about everybody else — broke down in tears. “The atmosphere was so intense backstage, everybody had to let go,” one said. “It was a comforting release — not sad.” At the final show, Donatella made her way to the end of the catwalk as the entire audience, led by Demi Moore, jumped to stand, cheering wildly.
Before the shows, which were held in the atrium Gianni had built specifically for fashion presentations, green laser stars danced around the crowd. The mood of poignancy was heightened by a dedication, projected on a black curtain, in both Italian and English. “This show,” it read, “is dedicated to our brother Gianni’s love of work and to our entire staff whose incredible love and devotion was so precious to our brother and means so much to us. We thank each and every one of them.”
As the clothes hit the runway, Donatella was very much in control, with a strong debut collection of steamy, sexy looks. “I’m a Versace girl, I grew up with Gianni,” she said recently. “I’m not going to have another philosophy.”
That doesn’t mean she’s not prepared to make changes. Already, Donatella has done some juggling of the Versace and Versus staffs, and she ordered up a dramatically different runway, made from Lucite, only slightly elevated and U-shaped, with extra audience seats in the middle. It was lit from below with intertwining tubes of bright color. And it suited the clothes perfectly.
Donatella opened with suits and dresses in men’s wear grays — but there was no androgyny here. These jackets had a bit of stretch, molding like clay to every glorious inch of those supermodel torsos. They were shown not only with real-life skirts and pants, but with the cheekiest short-shorts imaginable, and were given a jolt of color with bright, spike-heel shoes. Along the way, Donatella — never one to tread on the undone side of fashion — gave a little nod to the artsy mood of the moment by shredding parts of the fabric, along the front seams of a strapless dress or the back of a jacket. “Around here,” she said of the distressed effect, “we just call it stressed.” Also artsy were sheer hip slashes cut into lean pants, and numerous asymmetric insets, angles and extras, including abstract angora lines jutting across silk sweaters.
In fact, such details were a theme of the collection, but a minor theme. First and foremost, Donatella champions the Versace philosophy: “Break the rules. Do not be afraid of your sexuality.” And why not do it in a gloriously glam beaded black leather swimsuit? Or a goddess gown cut to the nether regions in back? Of course, there were clothes for quieter moments as well — lovely silk dresses in discreet layers of pattern on pattern. But these were merely a breeze between heatwaves. Donatella’s evening dresses were as hot as it gets: black rubber gowns lined in vibrant silk and cut for super-maximum exposure, gently beaded columns that seemed ready to fall off the body, that racy Versace metal mesh. And much of it had those low, loose backs, just daring the curious to try to sneak a peek inside.
Well-wishers were effusive in their praise, with models, friends and celebrities voicing pride and admiration. “I told Donatella that the collection was very beautiful and I think Gianni would be very proud of her,” Cher said after the show.
Giorgio Armani was more analytical. “It was a very beautiful collection,” he said. “Obviously, Donatella is following in Gianni’s footsteps. It was a show of strong effect — obviously very different from what I do.”
Was it a perfect collection? No. There were a few awkward fits, and some obvious references to Alexander McQueen and Daryl K. Yet this was no neophyte effort, but a bold, smart and well-polished presentation. Showing great grace and confidence under pressure, Donatella proved to the world that — though she may not yet be the world’s most powerful woman designer — she is a designer to be reckoned with.