Donatella Versace: "My brother was the king, and my whole world had crashed around me”
Men – particularly wealthy, powerful ones – are often described as becoming more attractive as they get older. You rarely hear it said of a woman, but it is true of Donatella Versace. I am watching her sit for her portrait and marvelling at a face that has the bones of a Roman emperor and the lashes of a Fellini leading lady. Her three-quarter profile could – should – grace a stamp, or a gold coin, or a slope of Mount Rushmore. Her skin, the colour of the terracotta rooftops of Milan, spread out outside the window, is luminous. Vanilla-blond hair falls in a soft wave, lopped off at shoulder blade height. The high slit in her floor-length black dress reveals legs toned so taut that they ripple as she moves. I am watching from the back of the room and when she breaks from posing to greet me, she moves with a lissom grace that belies the seven-inch platforms on which her tiny frame is jacked up.
At 62, Donatella Versace is artistic director and vice-president of a company with an annual revenue of £592m. Perhaps, then, it is sexist to focus on how she looks. But she brings it up herself, when the photographs have been shot and she and I are sitting on plump sofas in her elegant all-white office. I ask her where her aesthetic came from and she says, “I was not born fantastically beautiful, but I always wanted to be impressive. So I bleach my hair blond, I wear high heels. I am 5ft 2in – me and Bruno Mars, the same – so I wear high heels all the time, to be tall.” Donatella knows it is not trends that drive the fashion industry, but the eternal obsessions of women as they look in the mirror: looking better, getting noticed, feeling good. The visceral, primal stuff. This is why the Versace brand still has potency, 40 years after Gianni Versace opened a first boutique on Via della Spiga, a half mile from where his sister and I are sitting now.
The Donatella who sits opposite me today in her light-filled office is a very different looking woman from the Donatella I first interviewed a decade ago. Her hair then was twice as long and twice as thick, with a heavy fringe that obscured half her face. Her skin had reached that point of mahogany where the glow seems to dim. She was still smoking then, lighting successive Marlboro Reds with hands that trembled a little, so that there was a soft clatter every time she replaced her espresso cup in its lacquered saucer. She was already in her 50s, but I remember thinking that she seemed like a little dauphin prince, dwarfed by the gilt grandeur of her private apartment.A decade later, she seems so much younger than she did then. The Versaceopulence is as deep-pile as ever, with armfuls of peonies and high-end scented candles flickering on every side table. Donatella’s handbag sprawls its contents across a large desk behind her, and the energy around those who work with Donatella is infinitely more relaxed. Sipping water through a straw from a glass etched with a Medusa head, she seems a sunnier person. Only the distinctive rasp of a voice is the same, despite almost a decade as a non-smoker.
Donatella Versace has proved a lot of people wrong and not least, one suspects, herself. “When my brother was murdered, I had the eyes of the whole world on me and 99% of them thought I wasn’t going to make it. And maybe I thought the same, at first. My brother was the king, and my whole world had crashed around me.” But two decades after the murder of her brother placed Gianni’s sister and muse unexpectedly at the head of the Versace table, she helms a business that, since creaking close to bankruptcy in 2004, has been nursed back to health. A British CEO, Jonathan Akeroyd, was hired from Alexander McQueen last year. The Versace family still owns 80% of the business, with most shares in the name of Donatella’s daughter Allegra, who is now 31. (Allegra’s brother Daniel inherited Gianni’s art collection, which is now worth a good deal more than the £37m it was valued at then.)
The Donatella Versace story began on 2 May 1955, when she was born in Reggio Calabria. Her mother, a dressmaker, would let her baby daughter play in the basket of fabric in the middle of the room as she worked. Her brothers, Santo and Gianni, were 10 and eight when she was born, but her bond with Gianni defied the age difference. “I was his doll and his best friend. He dressed me up in cool clothes, took me out to discos and clubs from when I was 11. I loved it. It was the best time of my life,” she says. Donatella left home for university in Florence, but was soon back by Gianni’s side, and remained there throughout his 90s glory days – supermodels singing George Michael’s Freedom on the catwalk in 1991, Liz Hurley in that safety pin dress in 1994, Madonna shot by Steven Meisel and Mario Testino in 1995 – while Santo ran the business. “There was Santo, the calm one; Gianni, the enfant terrible, and me – Gianni’s accomplice” was how Donatella described the dynamic at the time. She had sole creative responsibility for Versus, the diffusion line launched in 1989.
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