“I never work with those who love Versace” – Donatella Versace
Mira Duma in conversation with the designer
D onatella Versace grew up in a traditional Southern Italian family, together with two older (and patronising) brothers — Gianni and Santo. Then, after finishing school, she entered the University of Florence following in the footsteps of her brother Gianni. This is where her fashion journey began. Skip forward a few years and Donatella took over the PR and advertising reigns in the blooming family business, where Gianni was in charge of the creative and Santo managed all of the finances.
However in 1997, when Gianni died, it was Donatella who took to the helm of the eponymous company. Her first collection for Versace was released just three months after the murder of her brother and ever since, she's been presenting show after show. After a twenty-year stint, Donatella is still unconditionally loyal to Versace, making her a pillar of contemporary European fashion.
Now, the Versace brand, recognisable, unaltered and with few variations, has been vividly transformed in recent seasons. The brand's iconic zippers, slit dresses, flounces as well as the pink and yellow combination made way for camouflage, uniforms and khaki last autumn. Then, Donatella brought to life the world of nymphs and dryads this spring.
Donatella is changing with time and so does Versace.
And then there's Versus. Versace's second line, which has been headed by some of the industries most talented designers of our time including Christopher Kane, Jonathan Anderson and Anthony Vaccarello (perhaps Thomas Tate is next inline?), is always nothing but acute.
Today Versace is still as autonomous a company as ever, and right before Versace's Couture Show in July, Miroslava Duma sat down with the Creative Director to discuss Prince's shyness, Riccardo Tisci's persistence and Donatella's own secrets on how to make an effective team...
During the men's show in June we heard several unreleased tracks from your friend Prince, which created a vivid image on the runway. Can you tell me more about your relationship with the prominent musician?
Versace has always had close relations with musicians. Lenny Kravitz, Elton John, Prince — that's not a complete list of our friends. I was eager to work with Prince but he was an extremely shy person and really difficult to catch. Then in 1998 he called and I invited him to our studio. Since then, we've always been in touch. Sometimes the phone rang and when I answered I heard nothing but silence. Then, ten minutes later the phone would ring again and this time I heard his voice: "It's me". But I always knew it was him because I had a very strong connection with this man.
The last thing he told me when he came to my Milano show was: "How are we going to teach the new generation what is true and what is not?". He was obsessed with this question. He wanted to reach young people and to protect them from mistakes, which are not easy to fix afterwards.
Speaking about musicians I can't help mentioning Lady Gaga and her song "Donatella", which was devoted to you...
I love Lady Gaga! She is so intelligent.
You've created many iconic looks for her and other celebrities. How do you work with famous people? Are you tough and intransigent or are you ready to meet their own ideas and expectations?
I always think about their personality. Lady Gaga, for instance, always follows the principle: "the more, the better". She prefers very sexy outfits and never compromises on that. Another example is Angelina Jolie, who wants to convey the message of 'care and giving' so her dresses are more simple and serious, in a way. They both look different but they both wear Versace.
There's a specific idea of the Versace woman: she is strong, independent, sexy and even dangerous. Have you ever thought of working with someone who is totally different from the stereotypic Versace image? Like Tilda Swinton for instance...
You read my mind! Tilda's androgynous beauty is something special. I've thought a lot about combining her short hair and flat shoes with a Versace dress — that would be something extraordinary! But I would say that it's not impossible because Tilda is quite the Versace girl.
We also keep on searching for new images. Have you seen our recent campaign with Karlie Kloss? She is a new type of a Versace girl.
You've been in charge of Versace for 20 years, through both calm and tough years, especially now that the whole system of fashion is transforming dramatically. How has the style of the brand changed with time?
My style has changed in recent years and now I create totally different things from those I made ten years ago. Today I concentrate on day wear, which I want to be sexy and smart at the same time. I try to make clothes to empower women because I know if they feel good in their outfits, they'll reach any goal. Evening wear represents our dreams but I try to bring the same magic to our day wear collections too. Then, I always pay attention to the cut because I know women need comfort. After all, our self-confidence depends greatly on how we look.
I think about woman's style as a weapon, which you need to know how to use properly.
Every day you work with incredible aesthetics coupled with the heritage of Versace but I was wondering... how do you move the company forward while keeping its DNA safe?
Versace has never been just a company — Versace is a lifestyle. We make chinaware, interior decor and even real estate under this brand. I try to keep all of the ideas Gianni put into Versace: our famous logo with Medusa's head, baroque luxury as well as that bold and provocative style of the fashion house. But when I look back I realise how many mistakes I could have avoided if I'd listened to myself instead of listening to the advice of others. I respect Gianni's legacy with all of my heart but times change and we need to meet modern realities. When he died there wasn't even Internet and now technologies change everything, including the fashion industry.
Versace is one of those rare brands which has remained independent. Yet, I know that 20 percent of the company's shares have been sold, so people really do want to invest in Versace...
That's true. But we don't put money in our pockets. We invest, invest and invest in our development.
Can one call Versace a family company?
Not anymore. We have an independent board of directors and all of the decisions are taken by vote.
Is that a more comfortable way to do business?
Yes. Independent people can tell you what's wrong and what's right. You can discuss any issue with them and know that they're being honest. Plus everyone brings new ideas and challenges to the company. What I like most about this form of management is that people on the board are not from fashion, they are real experts in other fields.
We live in the world of fast fashion. According to a sociological estimate people consume around 8 billion of clothing units annually. However Versace presents up to 10 collections per year...
I agree, it's too much. Everyday more and more clothes arrive into shops and compete with each other. That's because nowadays everybody can do fashion and there are so many new designers and brands. We have to go back to that real fashion culture and those brands whose philosophy is based on this culture. You don't need to fill your shop with hundreds of outfits and then add collection after collection to dilute them. It's enough to have ten good items in your showroom and then add ten more to refresh the assortment.
And modern technologies, which are supposed to make things easier, sometimes make them impossible because of the pace...
That's true! Technology sets an extreme pace and not everybody can adjust to it. Clients want more and more and they want it all right now. They see, they like, they buy — that's how the system works in clients' minds. And we can satisfy that pace with our second line, which is Versus, but things are not that easy with our couture collections. We are no longer able to keep with the pace of luxury. We used to have six months after any show to prepare the clothes, now we have no more than two. I think the fashion calendar is no longer sustainable. Maybe we (by we I mean all of those people who are in the industry) need to sit together and discuss a new fashion order.
Now is really the time to start constructive dialogue between people in the industry. I'm also glad to see that the majority are ready to find solutions for common problems, even though they are competitors to each other.
You became the face of the Givenchy advertising campaign, which is something unprecedented. How did Riccardo Tisci manage to persuade you?
He phoned me and said: "I am afraid to ask because you're going to say 'no', but will you be a part of my new campaign?". I said "yes" and he couldn't believe it! Working with Riccardo was incredibly pleasant and we had lots of fun! I am sure that designers should talk to each other and work together if they want to change the industry. When it comes to common problems there should be no envy and competition.
While looking through your Instagram and other social media accounts it's easy to see how much respect you show towards people in your team. Can you share some of your secrets to effective teambuilding?
No one can achieve success without support and I am proud of the people who I work with. I think the secret is that I surround myself with personalities whose tastes differ from my own. For instance, there is a girl in one of my studios who is a minimalist in everything: she always wears black clothes and flat shoes and never uses make-up. She challenges me and I like it.
I never work with those who love Versace unconditionally. I prefer those who question everything I do and that really helps me to move forward.
You definitely have a gift in discovering talent. You turned the world's attention to Christopher Kane, Jonathan Anderson and Anthony Vaccarello when you invited them to work for Versace. After just a few collections for Versus Christopher Kane received an offer from Kering to buy his brand's shares, Jonathan Anderson became Creative Director of Loewe and Anthony Vaccarello replaced Hedi Slimane at Saint Laurent. What helps you discover real talent? Is it intuition?
I think yes, it's my intuition. I don't allow myself to be repetitive, which is why I'm always looking for inspiration. I love to deal with young talented people and I always try to embrace their creativity. I am not jealous if someone is more gifted than me or is able to generate ideas faster. We just develop a positive and constructive dialogue with each other and try to find interesting solutions. The guys you mentioned mean a lot to me. They represent the new generation and they speak a different fashion language, which thanks to them, I've been able to discover a whole new world. You always need to move forward and challenge yourself.
Is that the secret to your success?
My secret is that I never stop working. Thinking over ideas is kind of a habit for me. If you stop for just five minutes or you've lost your Internet connection, you would be at risk of missing great opportunities. Information is the key concept nowadays in all aspects of life, including fashion, so you have to work with ideas every minute. We need to understand what women want, even though it's always the same: they want to feel safe, to have power and independence. If you are a man, things are easier for you because no one takes your rights away. When we talk about a woman's power the situation is different...