Versace spring/summer 18. Photography Mitchell Sams.

cocaine, death and ego: this candid donatella versace q&a might be the best fashion interview ever

The beloved Italian designer opened up about the pressure placed upon her by Gianni’s death, her subsequent drug addiction and Versace's legacy.

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Apr 10 2018, 11:41am

Versace spring/summer 18. Photography Mitchell Sams.

Ask any veritable fashion fan for the most iconic catwalk moment in recent history and the answer will be, emphatically, when five of the world’s biggest supermodels of all time -- Naomi, Claudia, Carla, Cindy and Helena -- appeared in formation from behind a curtain in slinky, sheer gold Versace dresses. Striding out alongside creative director Donatella at the end of the spring/summer 18 show in Milan, the finale, as well as the entire collection, was a stunning tribute to Donatella’s beloved brother Gianni, as much as it was a powerful show of her own strength at the helm of one of the most renowned fashion houses. Where high fashion has become heavily influenced by ugly aesthetics, the extreme shapes and silhouettes of streetwear, Versace remains resolutely bold, wonderfully Italian and totally sexy under Donatella’s leadership.

But DV’s succession to the Italian fashion throne hasn’t been easy. Speaking to Michael Ebert and Sven Michaelsen for SSENSE, the designer opened up about the harsh realities of inheriting such a beloved brand. Cutting straight to the chase, the first question asked is of Gianni’s death. Donatella’s openness is striking. “The sight of my dead brother haunts me to this day. One bullet hit his neck, the other his face. After identification, I drove to Gianni’s villa on Ocean Drive. Madonna was waiting for me inside.” At no point does it slow down from there. We picked out some of the instantly iconic quotes from what may be the most engrossing interview of 2018…

On Gianni’s will, which left Donatella 20% of the company, her brother Santo 30%, and her then 11-year-old daughter Allegra 50%...
The will was crazy, but all creatives are crazy. Gianni idolized my daughter and always called her “my little princess,” but he put a tremendous burden on her with his will. Making headlines at the age of 11 -- I wouldn’t wish that on any child.

By giving half of Versace to my daughter, he forced me to take responsibility for the company until she came of age. Without this trick in the will, I might have left the company after his death.

On the pressure and her cocaine addiction…
I made one mistake after another and tried to give people Gianni. But it was never enough Gianni. Whenever I tried something new, people would shake their head and say, “What’s she doing now?” It was only after seven or eight years that I became stronger and learned to bear the pressure of succeeding a genius.

In the few moments when I was alone with my addiction, I realized that I was very, very ill -- but then the next appointment was waiting for me again. Some evenings I couldn’t function anymore and embarrassed myself in front of my children. My self-hatred became more and more intense.

On her appearance…
My hair got blonder and blonder, my makeup thicker and thicker. I felt like the whole world was looking at me with daggers in their eyes and I created a mask that would give me protection. I didn’t want anyone to see what I was going through.

I was the new face of Versace. Who buys fashion from a weak, unstable designer who’s out of her mind because she takes drugs and therefore can’t stand herself? Nobody! So I created a second Donatella: cold and aloof, aggressive and scary.

On her outfit when Elton John convinced her to go to rehab…
Nobody thought I would accept Elton’s offer, but a few minutes later I traded my evening gown and diamonds for a jogging suit. I made my way to the airport with a ponytail and no makeup.

Interviewer: Flat shoes?

No! No way!

On her brother Santo, who at one point joined Silvio Berlusconi’s party...
I changed almost the entire management of the company two years ago. Santo still advises us, but he is no longer involved in day-to-day business. To this day I do not understand why he was for Berlusconi.

On American Crime Story: The Assassination of Gianni Versace
I had not heard of the book [it’s based on] until last year. After reading it, I sent a list of factual mistakes to the production company working on the TV series.

On Anna Wintour’s claim, “Armani dresses the wife and Versace dresses the mistress”...
Yes, I love this allocation of roles. Mistresses have much more fun than wives do.

On the happiest time of her life…
Gianni made me his closest confidante at the age of 12. He made cool leather mini-skirts for me, took me to discotheques, and treated me like a woman. I loved his craziness and felt the envious glances of my girlfriends whenever we went to a rock concert late at night. It was the happiest time of my life. I felt like an adult, but had the long-term perspective of a child. I thought my whole life would be like this.

On Gianni’s sexuality…
He was one of the first men in Italy to deal with it openly and confidently. I was 11 when he explained to me exactly what was going on with his sexuality. I thanked him for his openness and felt ennobled.

On her ego...
I’m not afraid of people who might be able to do more than me. On the contrary, I’m looking for them. Because any fashion designer who keeps only his or her own council will soon find themselves on the sidelines. My ego can stand saying to a 25-year-old employee, “Yesterday I thought your idea was wrong, but now it makes more sense to me than my own.”

On what will happen to Versace if she were die today…
90 percent of the employees will applaud loudly.

On new generation designers...
Ridiculously inflated egos only exist with the old guard. A designer under 50 who thinks he’s a god would make a fool of himself.

On whether she’d change her hairstyle...
No, because then I wouldn’t recognize myself. Karl Lagerfeld wouldn’t recognize himself without sunglasses. Besides, blond is a way of life. You face the world like an Amazon. I survived the catastrophes in my life because of the strength that my blonde hair gives me.

On her “dog” Audrey...
Please do not say “dog” to Audrey! Audrey would be offended if she were listening to us, because you are not referring to her by name. Audrey has the intelligence of a human being and a strong personality.

Interviewer: Whose?

She thinks she’s me.

On her single image…
Why do women need men nowadays? Certainly not to prove strength, determination and independence anymore. Men are needed only for love affairs and for physical relaxation.

On how she’d dress if she had to go before God…
I would wear high heels. I’m sure God hasn’t seen them.

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