Donatella Versace wears every day the yellow diamond ring that her late brother Gianni gave to her. It’s a daily reminder of her lost loved one, but it also represents a look–a glitzy, over-the-top look–that had been synonymous with the Versace name.
"Had" is the operative word.
While Donatella Versace heaps praise on Gianni as being a fashion genius, she also says she calls the shots now, guiding the house to a new signature style, more suited for a busy woman who likes a little sex appeal mixed with luxury and a flattering silhouette.
And it is Donatella alone who just received the Superstar Award from the Fashion Group International, honoring her for her lifetime achievement in fashion and cementing her reputation as an industry leader alongside past winners Jean Paul Gaultier, Valentino, Tom Ford and Donna Karan. Celebrity friends Jennifer Lopez and Prince were her guests to the event, speaking to Donatella’s significant power in the world of entertainment.
She arrives at an interview in a sleek black dress with a small sweet bow at the bustline and her signature super-high heels. The little black dress is a Versace, of course, but she makes the case to a reporter that a not-too-tight jersey dress in a rich golden color is actually the smartest buy around because you’ll wear it during the day, at night, to work and to dinner.
Either way, these looks are a far cry from the Gianni-designed, safety-pin gown with a plunge down to there and slit up to there that Elizabeth Hurley wore in 1994 and helped to make Versace a household name.
Gianni is also largely credited with fueling the supermodel phenomenon when he sent out all the top models down the catwalk to show off his 1991 fall collection.
Fashion as an industry can’t afford to be as bold and narcissistic now as it was then. A more businesslike approach is needed nowadays and that just doesn’t jibe with the more artful, independent spirit that drove Gianni, Donatella says.
Four years ago, Italian-based Versace hired outsider Giancarlo di Risio (the company is still wholly owned by family members) to oversee a restructuring of the business to make it more profitable and to expand it to become a truly global brand.
The house still offers couture, which is the nod to elaborate, fanciful design, but Donatella chooses to closer link the Versace name with the art that was so near and dear to her brother through museums. During her recent whirlwind New York week, Donatella hosted the Whitney Museum’s annual gala which included the sale of custom-made jewelry that were collaborations between Donatella and artists Julian Schnabel, Marc Quinn and Wangechi Mutu.
When it comes to the ready-to-wear collection, Donatella says she is mindful of fashion’s place in the world economy. It is both a driver and a byproduct, with designers aiming to offer tempting pieces that customers, who now have a more sophisticated eye and a more active life, both want and need. "Women want a different kind of fashion–less loud, more sophisticated, still sensual, still glamorous."
Donatella describes the Versace shopper: "She’s confident, for sure. Determined. … Women use fashion to achieve goals. A great dress is a great weapon–for their career, for their private life, for so many things."
"It’s become clear that Donatella has grown into her own voice while carrying on the Versace legacy which is known for it’s celebration of the power and allure of women," said Bergdorf Goodman CEO Jim Gold in an e-mail. "She’s evolved her collections beyond the provocative, entrance making statements, and has balanced it with designs with a broader lifestyle appeal."
The spring ’09 ready-to-wear line largely focuses on a simple above-the-knee sheath, as well as cropped trousers worn with small jackets, and long, luxurious evening gowns.
(Versace does indeed offer a full men’s collection as well as jewelry, leather goods, sunglasses, fragrance and is even a partner in luxury hotels, but women’s fashion still drives the house.)
Even in the tough economic climate, however, craftsmanship and quality cannot be compromised, she says. That would be a bad business decision given the many choices the high-end consumer has in the luxury market.
Donatella, 53, learned the industry ropes working alongside her brother as a deputy, launching accessory and youth-themed collections. But from 1978 until Gianni was gunned down in Miami in 1997, it was he who took the bows on the runway.
When she stepped into his shoes, she at first had trouble finding her footing. "Gianni had a strong look and for me to find my own was difficult," she says. "If I did something very similar to Gianni, I was compared and they’d say `She’s not Gianni,’ and if I did something very different they’d say, `She’s not at the level of Gianni.’"
Over time, though, the reviews have been more favorable.
Robin Givhan of the Washington Post wrote of the most recent collection, "It is a collection that speaks to the Versace style, not as it was but as it has evolved in the hands of Donatella Versace. It is proof that just because a house has moved on from its past, it doesn’t have to lose its panache."
Donatella is "totally in step" with what people want now, agrees Avril Graham, executive fashion editor at Harper’s Bazaar, describing the spring looks as "fashion forward and wearable."
"She proved that she absolutely has her finger on the pulse of fashion," Graham adds.
Donatella now will go back to the company’s early archives–it’s practically a ritual she shares with any new, young designer who joins the team–to mine for inspiration but she doesn’t resurrect specific looks.
The turning point was Lopez’s green jungle-print gown that she wore to the Grammy Awards in 2000 _ it was an instant watercooler sensation. "It was an unexpected success," Donatella says. "The next day she was all over the place with people talking about her in that dress. It was one of those moments like Gianni had with Elizabeth Hurley and the safety-pin dress."
But that wasn’t her proudest moment. That time, she says, is now.
Images courtesy of the Fashion Spot forums.