As little as five years ago you would have hardly thought of Donatella Versace, the doyenne of Milanese fashion and artistic director of the house her late brother Gianni founded in 1978, as a social-media sensation beloved by fashion-obsessed 20-year-olds, idolised by up-and-coming designers in London and New York, and befriended, not just online, by hot young pop stars. But the super-glamorous blonde queen of Italian fashion is now an Instagram star, giving a run for their money to the so-called Instagirls – Kendall Jenner, Gigi Hadid, Karlie Kloss, Taylor Swift et al – who have all, by the way, walked in her shows, starred in Versace campaigns or worn her look-at-me gowns on the red carpet.
Donatella’s Instagram account is every fashion fan’s guilty pleasure. She only joined the platform a little over a year ago but her infectious enthusiasm, lust for life and good vibes are palpable through each post. That Donatella was bound for digital domination became clear even before she became active on social media, when in 2014 her contribution to the ice-bucket challenge went viral.
She’s hands-down the coolest sexagenarian in the fashion industry, attuned to everything from pop culture to politics and from music to art. It wasn’t always this way for Donatella: from right-hand woman to the king of Italian glamour in the ’80s and early ’90s to style icon, fashion caricature and train wreck, she’s seen it all, before finding her groove in the last few years, a time of personal and professional growth.
When we meet in her Milan office a stone’s throw away from Via Montenapoleone a few days after the label’s spring/summer 2017 show, Donatella, clad in a wildly patterned jumpsuit of her own design and the sky-scraping platforms that she always wears, is as bubbly and fun as you’d expect her to be. It’s hard to keep up with her wit and mile-a-minute speech. Even when she talks about the tough times, now finally a thing of the past, she can’t help but throw in one or two jokes that reveal her sharp sense of humour and, most importantly, her ability not to take herself too seriously after so many years in the spotlight.
We start by talking about the collection that just debuted in Milan: a sports-inspired mishmash of practicality and luxe featuring nylon windbreakers, printed hoodies, leather parkas and Teva-like platform sandals. Judging from her recent shows – and Instagram #fitspo posts – fitness has been on Donatella’s mind. “I’ve always been very athletic,” she says. “I work out with my trainer every day. It’s my way of being. I don’t know why I always have all this energy.”
Much like Donatella herself, the show feels energetic: top models spanning the generations from Naomi Campbell and Carmen Kass to Bella Hadid and Karlie Kloss stomp down the runway as if walking down a busy city street.
Donatella has always been particular about her casting, a vestige of her brother’s heyday, when they pioneered the concept of the supermodel, anointing the trinity of Christy Turlington, Linda Evangelista and Campbell back when models were seen merely as pretty clothes hangers. “I want my models to be strong,” says Donatella. “To give you an example, Mariacarla Boscono was supposed to wear a dress at the show but she liked another one so much she just grabbed it and put it on. I wasn’t there but she did it anyway. I love that she did that. She felt that the original dress made her look fat and old [laughs]. She’s a woman with balls. Another model wouldn’t have done that. I always respect a model’s personality.”
But it’s not just models that populate the Versace universe. The Versace siblings were the first to embrace Hollywood: their red-carpet gowns are the talk of the town and their close relationships with stars such as Madonna and the late Prince are the stuff of legend.
“I’ve always believed that music and fashion go hand in hand,” Donatella explains. “I worked with Prince at the very beginning because the artists who became big did so also thanks to their looks. Today everything is image, visual, and I had the luck of working with someone who knew the power of the image. Before Gianni, no one worked with photographers like Richard Avedon or Helmut Newton.”
That va-va-voom image, epitomised by countless photos of glamazons such as the aforementioned trinity, is what people still refer to as “very Versace”, but in recent years Donatella’s aesthetic has evolved. While the glamour factor is still there – albeit confined mainly to the red carpet – her vision is now focused on empowering women, making them look feminine and strong, and on ballsy alpha females who aren’t afraid to stride out and flaunt their femininity.
“You wear a dress and you feel that you can take on the world and can find a great job, because an outfit gives you a sense of security,” says Donatella. “You feel like you can reach those goals. But if you wear something that you’re not comfortable in, people can tell.”
At the same time, there’s more than meets the eye to her fabulous image. “I’m very easy going. I always used to have all these fun after-parties and people only saw photos of models and glamorous people, but it was actually more of a family party, with my team, my assistants, my friends,” she explains. “It was very spontaneous and it reflects fashion today. Fashion now is a real democracy, very approachable and easy. After I did my collaboration with H&M, so many young people started following me and became fans.”
Her embrace of high and low and of all things new keeps Donatella in tune with what’s happening around her. From her collaboration with stars such as Zayn Malik (the former One Direction member designed a collection for Versus, the brand’s younger line) to her support of young designers such as Jonathan Anderson and Christopher Kane, she’s constantly on the lookout for young blood and for what’s cool. Her design team is made up of people from all over the world, she reveals, adding that being up to date with what happens in the outside world is vital to her job.
“How can you make fashion that’s current if you’re out of touch and don’t know what’s going on? From pop culture to news, I want to know everything and then I rework it,” she says. “Maybe I appreciate more the low than the high. It’s so boring if you’re too sophisticated. I always read the Bible but you know what I mean by Bible, right? It’s the weekly gossip magazines like People. That’s my Bible! I get them every week. ‘Has the Bible arrived?’ I ask my team. I watch Netflix and Apple TV. I always binge-watch TV series.”
Donatella’s newfound happiness and creativity have definitely helped the bottom line, after a few years in the last decade when she – and the brand she unwillingly took the reins of – seemed a bit lost. “I’m happy now but I can’t deny that I had many highs and lows, and there were moments when I was really suffering,” she says.
“When you have such a big loss – it’s like the king is dead – and you inherit all that without asking for it. It wasn’t easy to do what Gianni did, I felt I wasn’t supposed to do it. I just did it because he wasn’t around any more. From time to time I still think, ‘What would Gianni have done?’ Gianni hated anything old. He was obsessed with the word ‘modern’. We had so many discussions and he kept asking, ‘Please help me make this modern’. But now it’s just me. Next year it’s going to be 20 years … ”
Donatella’s pragmatism is also evident in the way she views today’s Versace. While most Italian brands love nothing more than touting their heritage as family companies, Donatella is aware that this is not the case any longer for her brand, and she sees nothing wrong with it.
“It’s not a family company any more,” she says, reinforcing rumours at press time that a certain Italian designer could be joining the ranks. “My company now is very much like a public company. I don’t like the words ‘family company’. We’re going public and I like the structure. It’s also a sense of pride for me, like a legacy that will live on.”
“When Gianni was still around, fashion was different – none of the big groups were around. You only had designers and their brands. After he died, the big groups started. You can’t even compare these groups to other labels. Fashion is not their focus; it’s champagne, accessories, other products.
“But for me it’s really about fashion and making clothes. For us, everything else comes after. Bags are important and you need accessories to complement a look, but you need to start from the clothes, not just make bags to sell more. You need to have some personality; you can’t compete with a brand like Louis Vuitton when it comes to bags; they’ve been making them forever so you have to have a strong idea and make beautiful clothes. I do believe in accessories too, but the clothes, the clothes …”