In the big leagues of fashion, there is only one designer who has consistently challenged the paradox of power and sex — and she’s done it with a laugh, a cigarette and a billion dollar business. “Ah, my kind of girl – blond!’’ These were Donatella Versace’s first words to me, and they were spoken with the campy, self-conscious irony that gilds most of her accelerated speech. The 60-year-old fashion designer’s husky voice sounds more Slavic than it does Italian, and she assumes a breezy, faux-entitled lilt when joking, which she usually is. Versace exhaled happily as a Labrador — her son’s — loped over and dropped his head into her lap. She adjusted a leopard-print pillow on the white leather couch. ‘‘He has no intention to leave,’’ she said, staring into the animal’s eyes and roughly rubbing his neck. ‘‘He will stay, if you don’t mind.’’ We were sitting in her Milan office, which is bright and glossy and bears a striking resemblance to the interior of Roman Abramovich’s yacht. Like the clothing that bears her family’s name, the space Versace inhabits most often proves that gaudiness can be redeemed by lush production values. In an industry famous for its ephemerality, the brand has remained more or less intractable.
Versace is a blunt instrument to be wielded in times of post-traumatic exuberance — after a breakup or a pregnancy. It tends to evoke a conspicuously literal sex appeal premised on showing off: teased hair, metallic miniskirts, animal-print accessories. It’s what a dad imagines when he hears the word ‘‘fashion.’’ And yet the clothes themselves, despite the loud patterns and abbreviated hemlines, are substantial, well-engineered and of a quality so obviously high that $3,000 can seem like a reasonable amount of money to pay for a dress. They are unexpectedly consoling, too. ‘‘When I do fittings, I always listen to what the girls have to say,’’ Versace said. ‘‘I ask them, ‘Do you feel good in this? Do you like yourself?’ We are women — I mean they are models — but we’re both women.’’ Her explanation made sense to me. The few times I have worn Versace, I’ve felt ‘‘outfitted’’ in a way no other brand has ever succeeded at. It’s strange to say, but the clothes provide a sense of physical safety. Like their creator, who speaks constantly of her children and is known to order enormous dinners for late-working employees, Versace clothing is at once outwardly outrageous and surreptitiously generous. ‘‘We know our insecurities,’’ she explained. ‘‘Male designers work for an ideal woman; female designers work for real women.’’
I met Versace in mid-December, which in central Milan is a time of acute, even oppressive opulence. Hidden municipal speakers play Christmas carols into streets spangled with tiny white lights and brimming with conservatively Botoxed people in chinchilla-lined parkas. Decorative ornaments lie in piles in the windows, amid marzipan cakes and glistening leather boots. In the bosom of all this fabulousness are the Versace company headquarters. The brand was founded in 1978 by Gianni Versace; Donatella, the baby sister, has helmed it since he was murdered in 1997. It is here that she spends upward of 50 hours per week, designing 10 collections a year and overseeing a billion-dollar business. ‘‘I have started over a few times in my life. After Gianni died and I took over the company I made a lot of mistakes,’’ she said, referring obliquely to a period of strife that included drug addiction and a poorly received collection of pastel separates. ‘‘Then I found my voice,’’ she continued. ‘‘But when I found my voice? It wasn’t enough.’’ Versace, who conducts herself with the assurance of a person to whom the worst has already happened, twirled an e-cigarette. It gave the false impression that she was about to hightail it to the nearest balcony. But Versace remained seated and sighed. ‘‘I’ve taken my time to find the moment for a big change.’’
The big change — or ‘‘bih shenze’’ as she pronounces it — was Versace’s spring 2016 collection, shown this past September in Milan. It garnered universally ecstatic reviews and also appreciative tears from front-row attendees. The looks included vaguely militant jackets, cinched at the waist and paired with tiny shorts; unbuttoned camouflage suiting; sporty little dresses — all worn with backpacks and rubber-soled platforms. Whatever was inaccessible about the unadulterated sexiness of seasons past had been tempered—just enough that it was suddenly possible to imagine the clothes actually being worn outside of Ibiza, in a world of conference calls and commutes and after-school pickups. When she took her bow, people in attendance noticed that Versace’s once waist-length platinum hair had been cut to her shoulders. ‘‘I figured the day clothes are more important than the evening clothes,’’ she explained. ‘‘Because most of the day you are wearing ‘normal’ clothes, not long evening dresses!’’ Versace delivered the sentiment as though it was a revelation, which for a certain cadre of world-famous European multimillionaires it might very well be. She tugged at her persimmon-colored top, recentering the brand’s Medusa logo onto the middle of her sternum. ‘‘I was leaving my comfort zone, and I really wasn’t sure the show would be successful. I wasn’t secure because it was such a change for me.’’ It was a change in the opposite direction for everyone else.
For the first time in at least five years, other designers seemed to veer toward the cast of raciness that the Versace brand has been honing for decades. Gone was the industry-wide minimalism — the brogues and camelhair outerwear; eyelashes got extensions and bare lips were suddenly red. At Givenchy, Riccardo Tisci sent girls down the runway in exposed lingerie and liquid bedroom robes; Marc Jacobs’s collection was showgirl-inspired; Paco Rabanne’s was heavy on the chain mail. Versace herself noticed it, and seems to have taken it as neither compliment nor insult. More exciting to her than the newly sex-positive design pivot or her own rave reviews was the behavior of the models themselves. ‘‘The girls are competing again!’’ she almost-screamed. ‘‘Oh my god, you can see it. I haven’t seen this kind of competition since the ’90s! Since Naomi! Since that stomp.’’ When pressed, Versace admitted that she does indeed encourage a certain affect. ‘‘I want their personalities to come out,’’ she explained, ‘‘to walk as they walk in the streets. In the street you don’t do this’’ — here she imitated an exaggerated hip thrust — ‘‘I don’t understand why you do this to me!’’ ‘‘This show was for women,’’ Versace said. And later: ‘‘Wherever you look — in books, in movies, in the news — women are not empowered yet. We are paid less than men, there hasn’t been an American president who is a woman,’’ at this she cocked her head and raised her eyebrows — an appreciative allusion to Hillary Clinton, personified.
‘‘We are not yet as empowered as people think we are.’’ As artistic director and vice president of Gianni Versace SpA, Versace reportedly owns 20 percent of the company; her older brother Santo owns 30, and the remaining half is owned by Allegra, her 29-year-old daughter — all this was specified in Gianni’s will. Versace’s general sense of success and excitement is reflected in her business’s current financial trajectory. Twenty percent of the company was sold to Blackstone for 210 million euros in 2014, the same year they opened 40 new stores. In 2015, they opened 30 and are planning to entirely revamp the Fifth Avenue flagship, as well as relocate their London emporium. They will soon open two new locations in Brazil, as well as stores in South Korea and Manila. (Versace does particularly well in places with casinos, of which there are more and more in Asia.) The brand, which is preparing for an IPO, saw a 27 percent rise in net profit in 2014, and a 17 percent rise projected for 2015. By 2017, C.E.O. Gian Giacomo Ferraris predicts revenue of $874 million. Such success would have been hard to foretell even just a decade ago. Since her 1997 takeover, Versace has hired entirely new management and seen the company through double-digit growth rates. Still, the friendly ghost of her late brother haunts the business and its leader. It’s unclear whether it was Gianni’s grisly death or the mere fact of growing up in midcentury Calabria that has endowed Versace with her striking diction, which is inflected with constant, kidding violence.
In the course of just half an hour she admitted to ‘‘wanting to kill’’ both Prince — for giving a free concert she could not attend — and Bruce Weber for riding an ATV during a photo shoot. She ‘‘hates’’ her e-cigarettes, which she has been smoking for three years now, and also Gigi Hadid for being so pretty. Versace, who spends the vast majority of her week in the office, leads an astonishingly private, even sedate life for someone with such a storied surname and recognizable appearance. She exercises, eats breakfast and has her hair and makeup done professionally before heading to work; she typically doesn’t leave until late in the evening, when she returns home for dinner and a bath. She counts Elton John and Rupert Everett among her closest confidantes, but her friendships, which are international, are mostly maintained over the phone. For decades, the Versace family vacationed at a villa in Lake Como that Gianni bought in the late 1970s, but it was reportedly sold to a Russian restaurateur. These days, Versace travels with her two children. Just a few days after we spoke, they would head to St. Moritz. ‘‘Oh, do you ski?’’ I asked. ‘‘No,’’ Versace laughed, ‘‘but I have gorgeous clothes.’’ As our conversation dissolved from being about work and fashion and into an excited summary of her current enthusiasms — Bernie Sanders (‘‘I love him. He’s so funny.’’), ‘‘Empire’’ (‘‘I adore Cookie. I want to be that girl. She’s a bitch; she’s strong.’’) — Versace’s own dog, a small Jack Russell terrier named Audrey, trotted into the office. I asked how old she was. ‘‘Audrey is 8,’’ Versace answered. ‘‘But can you write 6?’’
Later in the afternoon, following a tour of Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, a lavish double-arcade and one of the world’s oldest shopping malls whose recent renovation was paid for in large part by Versace, I returned to headquarters, where a 20-person team was just beginning a fitting for the forthcoming Atelier couture collection. The atmosphere, which is conjured solely by Versace, was collegiate and almost cozy. Her design process is collaborative, chatty, one in which everyone feels heard. A silent teenage model stood in the middle of an elongated room and patiently stared off into space, breathing shallowly. Designers swarmed around her, some crouching, others on tiptoes, muttering in Italian and tugging at a white filmy dress. Seldom does one see so many intently focused adults gathered so tightly outside of a crisis, and indeed the fitting proceeded with emergency-response-like speed.
The dress was made from a precarious combination of paper and muslin but soon it would be replicated in blue sequined silk, swaths of which glistened like fish skin on a table of Last Supper-like proportions. Versace circumnavigated the model and then told the seamstress she’d like the hem lowered one inch. Multiple people nodded in assent and the girl was then prodded into walking the length of the room, getting her photograph taken for the records and quickly changing into the next look. Versace took a seat and lifted a key-pattern glass of ice water from a small silver saucer. Her Rolex hung like a fishing weight from her tiny wrist, clinking against the crystal. She drew a pink plastic straw to her lips and proceeded to sip. Soon enough the model was back, again in a proto-dress, this one gaping with symmetrical holes. Versace indicated to the seamstress that she wanted what would soon be a beaded mesh panel to appear lower on the waist. The seamstress told her that structurally it wouldn’t work. Versace pleaded with her and they soon reached a compromise.
‘‘She say yes!’’ Versace yelled excitedly to no one in particular. The model repeated her walk-get-photographed-change-clothes routine. On one subsequent dress, Versace wanted a longer train; on another she wished for the exposed brassiere to be blue and not white. On a third dress — to be made in sparkling black and with a thigh-high slit — she demanded that torso cutouts be closed and beading removed (‘‘O.K.! Sexy! But a little less . . .’’) The seamstress acquiesced but explained that without the beading the dress would require heavier fabric to drape correctly. Versace agreed with the swiftness of someone who has cleverly preempted a problem of their own making. ‘‘It’s fine,’’ she said. ‘‘We’ll just add more jewelry!’’ Versace then vetoed crinoline sleeves on a dress, eagerly cutting them off the model herself (‘‘Out!’’ ‘‘Done!’’) and adjusted the slit, noting that ‘‘for a woman, it is bad to have half the knee covered.’’ Throughout all of this, she laughed — as did everyone else.
By Alice Gregory from Nytimes.com