Her brother famously created the supermodel phenomenon – and the label that bears his name remains a byword for sex, style and glamour. As Donatella Versace unveils her latest celebrity muse, Susannah Frankel hears how she finds the faces that fit

Sylvester Stallone, shot by Richard Avedon, his oiled, musclebound form naked save for an exuberantly baroque ashtray where a fig leaf might otherwise be. Lisa Marie Presley captured by Mario Testino, wearing nothing more obviously glamorous than a tartan blanket. Madonna, courtesy of Bruce Weber, dressed in a red-carpet-style chiffon gown and playing chess with a Great Dane – the dog, that is, not some handsome Scandinavian toy-boy.

Long before such extravagant gestures became familiar, Gianni Versace, in partnership with his sister Donatella, recognised the power of both celebrity and big-budget photography. "Oh, my God, we photographed so many!" says Donatella Versace, now creative director of the label. "We've always worked with celebrities – some you might expect to see modelling, some you might be surprised by."

Appearing this month exclusively in GQ, and then finding its way into other men's fashion glossies thereafter, is the most recent addition to the Versace celebrity stable: Patrick Dempsey. The American actor is in the spotlight for the label's spring/summer 2008 menswear campaign. Dempsey is notable in the campaign not only for his classically masculine good looks – men in Versace campaigns have tended to just be arm-candy – but also for the fact that he is clad in traditional tailoring (not even a naked bicep in sight). He is also a somewhat unusual choice as he is primarily known as a TV rather than a big-screen actor.

"There are many TV stars who are more famous than movie stars," Donatella says of her choice of model. "I don't make the distinction. They are all actors and they're all recognisable because they are in the public eye. Is George Clooney more famous as a TV star or a movie star? I'm not sure. And I'm not sure it matters."

Still, Dempsey is a far cry from the near-naked Adonis types that the late Gianni favoured. "It may be true that the house's approach to menswear has changed over the past few years," she agrees. "I am, after all, an Italian woman, so when I design for men, it is with an eye to how I like my men to dress. And I suppose the collections show that I like a sharp, modern, tailored sensuality."

While Donatella Versace has been at the helm of the brand that her brother founded for the past decade, she worked on the Versace advertising campaigns throughout his career, and was, in particular, responsible for liaising with any celebrity-turned-model for the season. This made perfect sense. She was, at the time, not only an indomitable party girl but also had a keen and apparently instinctive sense for the zeitgeist. It was Donatella, fashion folklore has it, who brought grunge to her elder brother's attention in the early 1990s, when models appeared on his formerly ultra-groomed catwalk with nude make-up (by Versace standards, at least) and studiously dishevelled hair.

"Gianni recognised my aptitude for styling, and getting a good performance out of people," she says. "I would often meet celebrities socially and then would discuss the possibility of working with them later, once a friendship had formed. I'm a very sociable person and like to meet new people, especially if they are talented and interesting."

If this all sounds rather modest – and indeed, for Donatella, it's just part of everyday life – it belies the fact that persuading a household name to model clothes is certainly a signifier of power and wealth. Any subject, however much a friend, is unlikely ever to give up their time and image for free. Neither will he or she perform in such a way for just anyone, wealthy or not. There is, after all, an almost constant sense of irony at play here, and the average A-lister is hardly famous for taking him- or herself lightly.

Again, any such flexing of designer muscle has long been a part of the Versace DNA. This, remember, is the name credited with creating the supermodel phenomenon way back when. While Versace's competitors were content with just one ultra-famous face – a strategically placed Linda Evangelista, say, or Naomi Campbell – Gianni Versace showed them how it was done by paying huge amounts of money to employ them all.

"It is true that my brother started the supermodel phenomenon when he put the world's most famous models on the runway together for his autumn/winter 1991 collection," Donatella confirms. "It wasn't common practice in those days to make models stars, as designers didn't want their work to be upstaged by the girls wearing them. But Gianni understood the nature of fame better than most – he realised that if he made these girls famous, they would help to make him famous, too. He also understood that if the famous wore his clothes, Versace would become known for being glamorous."

With just this in mind, Gianni, with Donatella at his side, built up relationships with musicians and actors, invited them to fashion shows and photographed them for advertising campaigns. "Of course, today it seems like every fashion brand has celebrity endorsement," Donatella says. "But 20-odd years ago, it wasn't the case at all. In particular, Versace acquired a reputation for dressing celebrities for red-carpet events because the clothes were so glamorous, sexy and dramatic."

Liz Hurley in "that dress", anyone? "So," the designer continues, "the notion of Versace as the glamorous brand for celebrities was established by my

brother, and it is something I have been keen to perpetuate."

In fact, the history of celebrity endorsement stretches all the way back to the Golden Age of Hollywood, especially the 1940s and 1950s, when Dior dressed Dietrich, Givenchy dressed Hepburn, and so on. Its true commercial power became rather more obvious, however, during the 1980s. "That was when designers first started to dress movie stars for Hollywood events," Donatella explains. "At Versace, we also had celebrity fans in other fields, especially music, but also in high society."

Diana, Princess of Wales, famously wore Versace and attended Gianni's funeral only days before her own untimely death. "Some of these people would be happy to model – like Prince, Jon Bon Jovi, Madonna and Tina Turner – while others just enjoyed wearing the clothes."

Versace was not the only brand at that time to raise its profile by creating a wardrobe for celebrities and Hollywood A-listers. It was, of course, Gianni Versace's arch rival, Giorgio Armani, who dressed Richard Gere for the title role in American Gigolo in 1980, and the two über-designers, who then held the fashion world in their thrall, competed ferociously over the years: in 1996, Armani, king of minimalism to Versace's king of glamour, went so far as to commission the photographer David LaChapelle to make a video entitled Salvation Armani, in which an army of Armani-clad ambulance men rescue a damsel – Jennifer Tilly – from the clutches of the more overtly glamorous label.

Fast forward to the present day and, in fact, in the hands of Donatella, the brand is less obviously super-charged than it used to be, although nobody would ever describe it as dowdy. "At Versace, I believe we have always emphasised the sensual aspect of both men and women, in that we believe that people should be dressed to look attractive and glamorous," she says. "If our women seem unnaturally strong then that is perhaps more a comment on society's expectations of what is and what is not appropriate behaviour for a woman. Gianni certainly loved his women to be strong, and encouraged me to be so. I have continued this tradition, though I think my Versace women are less overtly sexually dominant. Times change and I think that the 21st century requires a more elegant and restrained approach."

What the typical subject of a Versace campaign does, perhaps, represent, where females are concerned in particular, is experience over and above youth. Madonna, Halle Berry, Demi Moore... even Kate Moss. Although none of them is ever likely to frighten the horses, they are a far cry from the prepubescent characters that dominate the imagery produced by many of the brand's competitors. "Models can have an otherworldly look," Donatella says, by way of explanation, "which is part of their appeal. Celebrities, paradoxically, may seem more real, especially if they are actors, as we will have seen them playing roles. It wasn't really a conscious decision, but, in retrospect, I can see that perhaps I wanted my ambassadors to bring more to my campaigns than extraordinary attractiveness.

"Generally, the celebrities I've chosen have all got something special. These are people who have lived their lives, and I suppose I wanted to make the point that being attractive, glamorous and sensual is not just about youthful beauty but also about the confidence that comes with age and experience."

Of course, celebrity endorsement is not without its pitfalls. Witness Kate Moss's sudden release from her lucrative contract with everyone from Burberry to H&M following revelations of drug abuse. "I do see the people I use in my campaigns as role models," Donatella says. "Inevitably, if you work with a well-known person, they bring with them certain associations from their lives, and of course you must acknowledge that when choosing with whom to collaborate.

"In the case of Kate, it only served to show her as a human being and not a fashion robot. We all make mistakes, and speaking as someone who has lived through a fair amount of trouble myself, I didn't feel I was in a position to judge this woman. I have always used strong women who have lived a bit in my campaigns. They bear witness to the fact that, as we get older and wiser, we become real, more rounded women. We learn from our mistakes. That is how we grow up.

"So, the choice of celebrity for Versace campaigns is not just about surface. How could it be when we know so much about the lives of the famous?"

All well and good, but it is also true that the "surface" in question is far from warts and all. For one thing, Mario Testino is now responsible for all of the images, while Yves Saint Laurent and Marc Jacobs, for example, employ the rather more gritty Juergen Teller to shoot their celebrity stars. Testino today fits the Versace bill like few of his contemporaries. If Avedon and Weber, to name just two, captured the muscular energy and dynamism of their generation, then Testino, arch-flatterer that he is, amply reflects the relentless search for perfection that has, for the most part, dominated the Noughties.

Donatella Versace insists that all the celebrities she has worked with "have been fantastically professional and amenable. I've worked on shoots with celebrities for years, and have learnt that they are just like everybody else. They are happy if you make them look great. That is the secret: make them look fantastic and attractive, and you will have no problems."

Patrick Dempsey, spring/summer 2008

"Patrick has a real masculinity about him, which is something I want to introduce into how I promote my menswear. Versace menswear is all about beautifully cut tailoring, which really flatters a modern man. Patrick's charisma, which defines him both on- and off-screen, was what led me to choose him to represent Versace menswear. That, and his classic good looks, of course." Donatella Versace

Madonna, spring/summer 2005

"The word 'icon' is overused, but in the case of Madonna, I believe it has some meaning. She has become a symbol of modern womanhood – confident, ambitious, dynamic, constantly reinventing herself. As Versace was involved in a process of reinvention, with a blond woman at its helm, I thought it would be appropriate to have Madonna as the representative of the brand! She is also a friend and worked with my late brother Gianni, so there was a sense in which she symbolised the way in which Versace was staying true to its DNA, while evolving for the 21st century." DV

Demi Moore, autumn/winter 2005

"As with Halle, the choice of Demi Moore, a personal friend, as the face of Versace was tied up with the idea of her as a wonderful example of a woman who continues to flourish and blossom with experience. Experience is a fantastically attractive quality in a woman, and I suppose that as I was coming to terms with my role as creative director at Versace, a role which required me to grow up, I wanted a grown-up woman to represent my work." DV

Jonathan Rhys Meyers, autumn/winter 2006

"When it comes to Versace men, I tend to think of creative, interesting types who have not only good looks, but also real character. Jonathan Rhys Meyers has that slightly androgynous elegant appeal that I associate with the rock stars of the Seventies – it is not an Italian look at all, but much more British (though, of course, Jonathan is Irish!). He is also extremely charming, like many Irishmen, and a real joy to work with." DV

Halle Berry, spring/summer 2006

"Halle Berry is not only a fantastically talented actress and a great beauty, she is also a woman who has lived a remarkable life. I felt that the modern Versace woman would be well represented by someone who has really experienced life, so Halle seemed the perfect choice. In addition to that, she looked incredible in the clothes." DV

Kate Moss, spring/summer 2007

"If Madonna is the Queen of Pop, then Kate Moss is the undisputed Queen of the Catwalk. Kate has such a distinctive look, and such a cool, rock'*'roll, devil-may-care attitude, and she perfectly symbolises Versace's blurring of the boundaries between celebrity, fashion and music. My brother Gianni pioneered this breaking down of barriers in culture in the Eighties, by working with art, ballet, rock music and the famous. Kate started her career so young that she was a part of that era, but like Madonna, she has reinvented herself to keep pace with the times." DV