As Versace's A/W17 collection prepares to show in Milan, Susannah Frankel reveals some of the key lessons we might learn from Italian house's awe-inspiring leading lady
No one could ever accuse Donatella Versace of lacking the courage of her convictions. Since she began working with her brother Gianni, more than 30 years ago, she has developed her hyper-glamorous aesthetic and yet retained her remarkably warm, open and generous character, making hers one of the most beloved names in fashion. There’s nothing half-hearted about Donatella. Instead, she has made a career out of exuberantly empowering other women (and men, too), supporting younger generations of designers and, of course, throwing the best parties in town. Here, we look at the lessons we can learn from her career, magnanimity and hair colour alike…
1. Blondes have more fun
Donatella has always been more than happy to acknowledge the tremendous legacy that her brother, Gianni, who died 20 years ago, left behind him: the metal mesh, the searing colour palette, the baroque prints, the structured gowns and power tailoring that is designed to show a woman at her high-octane best. Less well known, perhaps, is that Gianni was also responsible for Donatella’s platinum blonde hair. “I was 11,” she once told me. “Gianni brought a friend of his to the house who was a hairdresser. We had to hide him from my mother.” Far from the shrinking violet, even at such a tender age, said stylist’s handiwork was apparently a little too discreet for his young client. “He put a few highlights in but nobody noticed. I was furious. I thought: ‘What’s going on here?’ He said: ‘No, I don’t want to do too much. I want it to be subtle.’ But I wanted him to do it properly. So I kept adding to it, and adding to it…” She has continued in that vein ever since, her poker straight, immaculately coiffed hair being her most famous hallmark.
2. Being a muse is not amusing
Donatella worked alongside her brother in many capacities but was long described by the press as his muse. Her serpent-tongued retort: “This is not very amusing,” was as witty as it was, in fact, true. With her then-husband and the father of her two children, Paul Beck, Donatella was, even at that time, responsible for the image and advertising at Versace. Shot by the likes of Richard Avedon and Bruce Weber, the campaigns in question were – and still are – some of the most remarkable in fashion history. Her brother also listened to her, allowing her to bring a youthful, often music-inspired edge to a name that, with her help, constantly renewed itself and kept abreast of the times. If Gianni was the couturier then Donatella encouraged him to remain forever young, filling his front row with the right celebrities, introducing the brightest stars in styling and casting into the mix and throwing parties with everyone from Elton John to Madonna. It’s small wonder, then, that the muse moniker riled her.
3. Generosity is to be encouraged
From the moment she took over from Gianni, Donatella filled her studio with bright young things from Central Saint Martins and elsewhere. “I’m open to everything,” she told me at the time. “All the new people I have employed are young. They don’t have too much experience, and that’s the best thing, because of the amount of passion they put into their work. I brought them to the archives, you know, the Versace archives, to show them the sort of clothes Gianni has done, and they were in heaven, like children in a chocolate factory.” Donatella then famously went on to support Christopher Kane, going so far as to send him Versace metal mesh for his graduate collection and later employing him to consult on Versus, her baby, even during Gianni’s lifetime. She launched the Saint Martin’s 20:20 Fashion Fund with Professor Louise Wilson in 2010. Rising stars Jonathan Anderson and Anthony Vaccarello had their moments in the sun at Versus, too.
Her support for fashion doesn’t stop there. In an unprecedented move, Donatella appeared in the Autumn/Winter 2015 Givenchy advertising campaign for perhaps her most ardent admirer, Riccardo Tisci. It’s small wonder that the rumour mill is currently going into overdrive where they are concerned. For Tisci’s part, he grew up in Northern Italy where the wow factor that Versace instilled in him was at least partly the inspiration for his own career. Here is the younger designer talking in the Spring/Summer 2010 issue of AnOther Magazine: “It was the era of the supermodel and Gianni Versace was like a rock star. I remember seeing his private jet landing at the airport with Naomi and Kate and everyone on board. They showed it on the TV news…” Watch this space.
3. Diamonds are a girl’s best friend…
In June 1999 (in the presence of the Prince of Wales), Donatella Versace hosted a gala dinner and fashion show at Syon House, south west London, in aid of Gilda’s Club, the Ovarian Cancer Research Trust and the Prince of Wales Foundation. It was called Diamonds Are Forever. She told me, this time for the Independent newspaper, “Diamonds are something that go very well with women because we’re strong, we’re very strong. We’re indestructible. We get through many more things in our lives than men do. Also they’re clear, you see straight through them, and I think there’s a kind of integrity to women, they’re more sincere.” Donatella was given her first diamond by men, specifically her brothers Gianni and Santo. “I said I wanted a diamond. I was full of pregnancy and work and everything and I thought I deserved a diamond. I said: ‘I don’t want a small diamond. I want a big one.’ So I got an 11-carat, oval-shaped, beautiful diamond. Overall, I’m a very serious person. I have my feet firmly on the ground. I think it’s ignorant to call fashion frivolous. It’s Italy’s second largest economy. Diamonds are just my weak point.” If there was ever an argument for this particular stone being a feminist issue it seems it lies here.
5. …And so is Audrey
If Choupette is fashion’s most pampered puss then Audrey, Donatella’s feisty Jack Russell, is the world’s luckiest pooch. “She’s a total Versace woman,” is how Donatella summed Audrey up to me in 2012. “You have to understand that Audrey is not a dog. She’s totally demanding. More than I am. Absolutely. She’s very difficult. She wakes me up at 6.30 every morning. She starts to talk to me. Yes, strange noises come from Audrey.” Nothing is too good for Audrey. Baby oil is rubbed into her skin to keep her fur soft, she dines on only the finest home-made fare and she wears heavy metal collars from which dangle the iconic Versace Medusa head. Even her coats have golden buttons, all of which gives new meaning to the phrase: it’s a dog’s life. We could all be forgiven for wanting to be Audrey, who remains her owner’s best friend, although she now has a larger canine brother called Django. No prizes for guessing who’s boss.
6. Be the best possible advertisement for your brand
Whether she be in her work uniform of black skinny jeans, T-shirt and always the highest heels, or in the type of show-stopping gown that Versace is known and loved for, Donatella is the living, breathing poster girl for her brand. Her aesthetic is uncompromisingly glamorous, exuding Italianate vitality and verve at its seriously sexy best. This too runs deeper; if a female designer doesn’t have faith in her own work, then who else is ever likely to? To say that Donatella Versace wears Versace well would be something of an understatement. Not that the lady would ever want her designs to be pigeonholed or restricted to a certain type of female. “Women today are so different, interesting and intelligent, with a lot of attitude,” she told me when we first met. “I think individuality is what inspires me. I would like all women to be able to wear my clothes but women with attitude especially.”
Versace, written by Donatella Versace, Maria Luisa Frisa and Stefano Tonchi, with contributions by Tim Blanks and Ingrid Sischy, is out now, published by Rizzoli.