an interview with donatella versace, from the who's that girl? issue, 2008
Get ready for the Versace extravaganza and get together with the Queen of Italian Glamour herself, from The Who's That Girl? Issue, March 2008.
Blonde hair, high heels, nipped waist, pouting lips, fur, luxury, decadence, design, fashion, fabulousness, airplanes, medusa, logos, gold, champagne, sex, drugs, rock'n'roll, body beautiful, hip hop, celebrity, hotels, money, supermodels, family, Italy, cigarettes, perma tan, parties, ultimate glamour, ultimate everything, everything in excess, too much is never enough... We are talking Versace; we are talking Donna to the Tella, Ella, Ella, Eh, Eh, Eh... In an exclusive portfolio showcasing the new season Versace collections, photographer Alice Hawkins cast herself as the Donatella role to be played out against her ultimate vision of man. A lover of Versace because of the sex appeal and glamour, Alice admits the task of dress up came like second nature. "I've got about five iconic blondes who I love. Donatella is one of them, so it was easy for me to take on her look, just another Saturday night for me love!" Of the experience, Alice admits silver daddy Tony was her favourite fella. "I cast the men from this website mostbeautifulman.com and Tony was a favourite. He is such a hunk. He lives in Brooklyn with his wife Tina and their dog Tiny, so named as a blend of both their names! Priceless." And what was the best thing about photographing Donatella? "When she said to me, 'It's nice to be photographed by a sexy photographer for once!"
When I'm shopping I don't even look at the price, I'm ashamed of myself, I just sign the credit card. Luxury has no price. I think it is where the market is going, exclusivity, luxury and opulence.
Donatella Versace's legend is sealed in the vaults of fashion history, as people like Donatella only emerge when the planets align, solar systems crash and genius is spat forth. She is a living icon, a caricature and a designer whose talent is sometimes overlooked due to the glare of her blinding jewels. But before we bow down and pray at the altar of fabulosity, let us take a second, catch a breath and take a look back to the beginning as to who, where, when, what shaped her Swarovski covered path to genius. Born in the town of Reggio, Calabria right in the toe of the boot shaped Italy, Ms D was the youngest of 3 children (with brothers Gianni and Santo), who under her fathers' watchful eye, set about studying languages as way of making her money, but this gal was always more Carol Vorderman - primped, preened and super smart - than plain Jane superbrain, and her sexuality and love of fashion couldn't remain shut tight in dusty tomes for too long... It was around this time that Gianni - (shortened from Giovanni), embarked on a fashion career in knitwear at Florence, and Donatella would visit in her spare time and critique, praise, dress up and display his burgeoning designs. The siblings grew up tighter than a twin; more under each other's flesh than blood and bones, and despite their 10-year age gap, Gianni connected with his sister in such a way that nothing could separate the two.
Back home and inspired by their dressmaker mother, Gianni would experiment with cloth and creation, and use a young Donatella as his personal mannequin, and she even admits to turning to bleach aged 11 encouraged by his approving gaze. Following a tenure designing at Genny, Complice and Callaghan, Gianni launched his own house in '78 named, of course, Versace. With brother Santo on hand with accounts, (he is now 30% business partner); Versace has always been, to this present day an independently owned, family run business.
On completion of her studies, the beautiful Donatella looked to putting her language skills to fruition and acted as the brand PR, but straight up, the siblings realised her main assets were way more than just Public Relations. With her impeccable taste, her styles, her way of life and tantastic glamour, Donatella was the living embodiment of the brand, and lived a life as muse and inspiration as well as harshest critic and biggest fan. To celebrate their partnership and in homage of his sister, Gianni launched the diffusion line VERSUS and the perfume Blonde, both of which Donatella directed. She also helped establish Versace through its imagery by hooking up the biggest names in fashion photography, most famously Richard Avedon whose iconic imagery and long term working relationship with Versace reinforced the legend of the supermodel, the body beautiful and Versace as symbolic to a luxurious lifestyle.
The Versace name quickly won accolades, fans and press attention as the business doubled, tripled, quadrupled in profit, with the fashion remit ever expanding to the realms of theatre design, red carpets, hotels, helicopter, airlines, exhibitions and album covers. Then the first part of impossibly beautiful fairytale came to an end when Gianni was tragically killed outside his home in Miami in a motiveless attack. Following a period of bereavement questions as to what would happen to Versace were raised when it came to light that Donatella's daughter Allegra, then aged 11, was left heir to 50% of the fortune, but 3 months later, after removing the family from the glare of the prying eyes of the media, Donatella emerged on the catwalk at the end of the mainline Versace show taking her bow in place of Gianni, representing her brother and all his achievements like only she could.
I like to dress men that have an attitude, I don't want them to copy the models, I like seeing men wearing clothes in their own way, I like to see their personal interpretation
So what happened next? Rumours spread that business was in financial difficulty, that prior to his death Gianni was selling up and one of the most important fashion houses ever realised was soon to close its gilt doors. But nothing could be further from the truth. Donatella is a businesswoman of the illest repute and has more than excelled any preconceptions in regards to her capabilities.
Fashion to Donatella is a way of life, she isn't someone who lives glamour in the camera eye then comfort in her private life, she is strictly heels, make up, hair, nails, 24-7 all day, every day. On the afternoon of the interview, being escorted through the accompanying hotel corridors to Donatella's room, the lifestyle I was being privy too for a snatched moment was like meeting a Hollywood actress rather than fashion designer, but it is this level of celebrity that Donatella has expertly cultivated for herself. Walking up to her bedroom further established this fact as a big burly bouncer stood guard making sure she was safe inside her penthouse apartment. Ushered past various assistants, I wandered around, and sat on one of three sofas to be politely told 'sorry, can't you sit there, that is Donatella's seat'. A fact which became glaringly apparent as I glanced down at the water glass and Swarovski covered Versace lighter and cigarette case, sat waiting to be touched by her heavily glossed lips. Five minutes later and Donatella has arrived, swept through adjoining rooms with her trusted aides flanking her side. Smaller than imagined, dressed top to toe in immaculate black trousers matching body conscious top, waist nipped to nothing, hair big and quaffed, up close, her stunning face looked remarkably like Naomi Campbell, all oval eyes and pouting, kissable lips. Then the heels, lets start with the heels. 'Donatella, I love your shoes, they are SEXY! Do you ever wear flats?' "I never, ever wear flats. Everytime I wear them I fall over! The only flats I own are my sneakers, which I only wear when inside the gym and always with black and diamonds. I only wear Versace and some vintage Alaia, but always Versace shoes because then they can be as high as I want... it's a luxury actually."
Travelling the world as much for work as lifestyle, Donatella (like her friend Madonna), is a cultural sponge who soaks up information wherever she goes. She consumes movies, music and information with the appetite of a particularly hungry teenager, never satisfied until she feels informed and full to the brim with the who/what/where and how of everything going on at that particular moment in time, as she confirms, "I love to learn and filter things. Through my eyes I see something differently to other people." She takes information and translates it into each collection, through casting or in her choice of music at the shows. So onto music. This lady is not just Queen of the catwalk and the red carpet; she is the don diva of rock 'n' roll and hip hop because she rolls with these cats. Whether sipping champagne with Pharrell, sending frocks to the Notorious K*I*M or dancing around her apartment with Kizzy Rowland, Jay-Z and Beyonce during last fashion week, Donna to the Tella has received her props from every emcee worth their weight in bling. She loves life, loves fashion, lives it to the fullest and confesses to loving MEN. Indiscriminately as long as they are flexing some masculinity, "I like individuality, men with personality, an attitude. I think men are interesting, each one is different, and I hate to design for a type. I don't like stereotypes."
Since 2006 the venue for the Versace menswear show has been the Versace Teatro, Donatella's very own theatre in Milan's historic Teatro Alcione, slap bang in the centre of Milan's Piazza Vetra. The venue itself is a cultural icon in Milan and show goers are always met by an abundance of flowers, champagne and jaw-droppingly gorgeous, immaculately presented waiting staff. Luxury and polish is fused into everything 'cos baby, its all part of the Versace experience. The spring summer menswear collection subtly played with proportion and traditional values, by shortening a trench or by removing the collar from suiting, Donatella left the trace of an illusory neck which was once there. Gianni once claimed that as a gay man he couldn't design for a woman without having a strong woman around, hence Donatella, so how does this strong woman approach designing the menswear side of the empire? "Of course it's a different approach for me, being a woman and designing for men. But... I like looking at men! (laughs) I feel it's very important as a designer that when you design men's clothes you don't lose the masculinity. You have to break boundaries, challenge yourself and make exaggerations, but you always have to remind yourself this is a menswear collection."
Each season the emphasis expertly swerves toward suiting, as Donatella confirms the rationale behind the impetus, "I really like tailoring so I always try to include at least one piece in each outfit, whilst looking at proportion and shape. I love fabric also, and do a lot of research. For me, I feel lightness is key today, we all travel, and men who buy my collection like to spend money. Of course they travel around the world and need to bring luggage so need to bring clothes that fit in their luggage. At the moment I'm looking at these amazing fabrics which are weightless, I look at mens shoulders, their waist, the thinness of a lapel, I love all this type of detailing."
Versace comes so hand in leather glove with music, that Donatella confirms if it weren't for her lineage, she would've definitely pursued a career in the music industry. "If I hadn't done fashion, for sure I would have done something with music, not singing because I don't have a voice, but something like defining a look for a musician." So what is currently playlisted on the Versace i-Pod? "At the moment I'm crazy about the Foo Fighters. I swear I discovered them, like fifteen years ago! They were just amazing and they still are now." A fan of Josh Hartnett and Sean Penn, her true heart belongs to one man only, the dude who represented Versace at the last Fashion Rocks event in London, the one, the only, Iggy Pop. "I love Iggy, he is a close friend, I asked him to perform at the Versus show, and he just flew off the stage and into the audience, he was amazing," laughs Donatella. So is Iggy her ideal man to dress? "Iggy doesn't like to wear many clothes, really, but I like to dress men that have an attitude, I don't want them to copy the models, I like seeing men wearing clothes in their own way, I like to see their personal interpretation." Her love of music has been passed down to her son Daniel, who plays in the punk rock band, Nucleus, of which Donatella, it seems is their biggest fan. "They are a punk rock band and I love their music, I really do, but I hope he finishes school. He's totally punk rock; he's not into fashion, unlike my daughter Allegra. He picked his wild side up from me."
Juggling life as an international businesswoman and head of a fashion house, with being a parent must be the single most difficult thing in the world, ever, so how does she manage to balance such mammoth tasks and be so damn good at them both? "Being a Mum right now is easier than when they were little children. It's interesting because I justify my chaotic life and myself - I travel so much, and work so hard - by spending quality time with my children. We have open discussions about everything. They are teenagers not little babies. Both Allegra and Daniel are very opinionated, they are quick to criticise and say 'this is old', you know? It makes me hysterical but they are my best critics, I believe them. They open my mind to many things that I wouldn't necessarily have time to be aware of."
Donatella is also about finding and encouraging new talent, none more so than the newest most sparkly name on the fashion scene, Mr Christopher Kane, who came to her attention via brilliant fashion journalist Sarah Mower, who recommended the two touch base. "Sarah sent me photocopies of two outfits of Christopher's and I was so impressed. He seemingly made them out of nothing, like he took a pair of stockings and made two amazing outfits. He was a big fan of Versace and he wanted to come and meet me, so I invited him to the show to see some clothes and he was like 'WOW'!" Sarah had previously introduced Christopher to Anna Wintour, so backstage after the show, it was Anna who introduced Christopher to Donatella. "I asked him to come and work with me on the couture collection. He didn't have to think twice. Christopher and his sister Tammy remind me so much of me and Gianni working together, they are so sweet. I really think he is going to have a big, big future. He is great... my personal favourite right now."
So how does it feel to be referenced as an icon, a fashion legend, a walking, talking, living, breathing megastar? She laughs, "I don't think I'm an icon, when I think of icons I think of dead people, and I can assure you, I'm not dead." The living epitomy of decadence ("I have everything Swarovski, I love Swarovski, my lighter, my everything is Swarovski, it's fabulous of course"), I depart wondering what has been the single most expensive thing Donatella has ever purchased? "When I'm shopping I don't even look at the price, I'm ashamed of myself, I just sign the credit card. Luxury has no price. I think it is where the market is going, exclusivity, luxury and opulence."
Text Ben Reardon
Photography Alice Hawkins
Styling Michael Philouze
Hair Dai for Redken/Cutler New York
Make-up Dotti at Management Artists
Fashion assistance Hisanori Higarashi
Casting Douglas Perrett
Models Robert Youells, Kristofer Macklin, Jasper Williams and Bryan Thomas at Silver Model Management. Enrique Palacios at Wilhelmina. Mark Ricketson and Oraine Barrett at Major. Tom Pricone and Josh Button at Ford. Anthony Catanzaro at www.anthonycatanzaro.com and Michael Lucas at www.lucasblog.com
Thanks to Mark at HenHouse and Fabien Azoulay from Iguazu day spa NY
All clothing and accessories Versace.