This article is published as part of a new series of Designer Interviews, where we’re speaking to some of the industry’s most crucial voices about this current – and highly unique – moment in fashion history.
Donatella Versace always looks forward, keying not only her clothes but her points of view to successive generations, and always evolving the identity of Versace – the fashion house, and Donatella herself. Her Autumn/Winter 2020 collection was shown in Milan in February, unbeknownst to all on the eve of the weekend when the global Covid-19 pandemic would hit that city, becoming one of the worst affected regions in Europe. In that show, Versace dressed women in modern takes on medieval armour: a shield against the slings and arrows of the world. Little did we all realise how much we’d need those in the coming months.
Drawn from an email interview completed in May, Donatella Versace’s comments on the moment we were living through are remarkably prescient. They touch on both LGBTQ+ rights – ahead of not only the 2020 pride month, but June’s landmark US Supreme Court ruling protecting the rights of LGBTQ+ workers against discrimination – and the systemic racism that has inspired ongoing global protests for change.
Alexander Fury: When it comes to difficulties, do you feel that you, as a designer, propose clothes to fight in, or clothes as a flight of fantasy, an antidote to reality? Which do you find more powerful?
Donatella Versace: I find it to be more powerful for this to be applied to whatever each one of us needs in that specific moment. We are not all the same and we are not going through the same moments in life. I think that I have always wanted to create clothes that makes you feel at ease in your own skin and confident. What could be more powerful than that?
AF: Many of the winter collections seem to have been, in retrospect, showing that “fight or flight” response to the state of the world – as the Covid-19 pandemic had only just begun to sweep through the world. Was that something you were aware of, when devising your Autumn/Winter 2020 collection? A feeling you could sense?
DV: We have been living in a society in which you were in a constant fight. Especially for certain groups of people: women, people of colour, the LGBTQ+ community. This feeling of fear, of living in a world in which you cannot express yourself because you had to adhere to an image that someone else decided for you so that you could belong, has been there for a while and that is why I have always lent my voice to raise awareness about issues like diversity, inclusivity, freedom of expression and the hate crimes against people whose only fault is that they were born the way they are. I think this is unacceptable.
AF: Looking back now – in very different circumstances to how the collection was created – do you view your clothes differently? Do you see the message differently?
DV: Yes and no. From a certain perspective, I have always had a strong point of view. People may like it and agree with it or not, but my vision of fashion has always been clear. From another, fashion mirrors the society that creates it, it does not live in a vacuum. The months of lockdown, the social distancing, the fact that we were deprived of our basic freedoms for such a long time – and it is not over yet – made me look at things from a different perspective obviously. I do not know if I would have designed something else. I think you do what you do when you do it as there is no way of knowing what’s going to happen tomorrow. At the same time, today there’s no point discussing what you did three months ago before having gone through what we did. What I can tell you is that the clothes I am designing today are different. This is not a matter of me saying that what we did six months ago was wrong or right, we were simply living a different society.
AF: Craft and community are essential to fashion – I always feel that your work is so much about a community, a group, an ideology. What does that represent now, at a time when people cannot be together in ways we are used to?
DV: To be honest with you, I have never felt a stronger sense of community than in these months of social isolation and lockdown. If there is a silver lining in what we have experienced is that it brought out such a strong sense of community. An understanding that united and together we are stronger and that by helping others you create a better world for yourself, too. I have not felt that in many years. Versace has always been about being united, being a “clan”, that’s true, but now this feeling has cascaded down to everyone. I witnessed gestures of generosity and selflessness like I have rarely seen before. The fact that we all recognised and applauded the incredible work of the doctors, nurses and everyone else who is fighting on the front lines to save thousands of lives is touching. New heroes were born, and I hope that their sacrifice and hard work will not be forgotten when this is over.
AF: And how important is craft in times like this? I wonder if this is a moment when a sense of the human hand in clothes is more powerful than ever before?
DV: It’s always been important, but I think for the future it is going to be even more important. The task of us designers is to understand people’s desires and even if right now I am still analysing all that has happened and the effects that it is going to have on everyone’s lives. I believe that values like higher craftsmanship, superior quality, sustainability and authenticity will play a big role. People will look for something special and therefore it will be important to have a strong message and a clear point of view. To create something that makes you stop in your tracks and say, “Wow! I want that!”
AF: How important is the idea of dreaming, to fashion?
DV: Fashion has always been about dreaming. Even if, as a designer, you want to create clothes that can be worn in your everyday life, there’s always been a component to it that makes you dream, and I’m not just talking about the fabulous set-up of a fashion show or picture. Quite simply, what you decide to wear every day is never a casual choice. It always sends a message whether you are aware of it or not. Whether you want it to or not. People love to play with clothes and their image. A certain piece of clothing could make someone feel different, stronger or more sensual, and I find this so fascinating. Each of us can come across so uniquely even if wearing the same dress every day. Only fashion can do that.
AF: If your Autumn/Winter 2020 collection could convey one message, now, to the world, what would you like that message to be?
DV: Stand united. Only together we can win.