Milan Fashion Week: Donatella Versace on sex and why she'd rather be a feminist than a muse

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Since her brother's murder, Donatella Versace has headed the label that he founded, building on its reputation for unabashed glamour and sexiness

Appearances can be deceiving. Despite a reputation for unbridled hedonism – bondage-crossed, bandage-tight frocks, exuberant prints, skirts roughly the size of a belt – Versace is all about control. There's the corsetry you need to make all of that sexpot va-va-voom stuff pinch and cinch exactly where it should. There's the engineering it takes to make those higher-than-high heels twist the body exactly right. And there's also the self-control to put in the necessary gym hours to hone said body to supermodel perfection.

Donatella Versace herself is supremely controlled. Sort of. Aged 58, she has the torso of a teenager. To help maintain it, she's just given up smoking after four decades, so puffs on an enormous electronic cigarette – more of a cigar – throughout our meeting. It's gold. Very gold. Something's glistening around the middle, which could be a Versace Medusa medallion. I can't be sure, but I certainly wouldn't put it past her. She's also something of a gym bunny, hence the fact she's quit. Although not before she fired one personal trainer because he wouldn't let her puff while she pumped.

The one chink in Donatella's armour, actually, is the smoking. Halfway through our interview, she buries her face in a Medusa needlepoint pillow and sighs, "Oh my God I want to smoke! I need a cigarette!" How long has it been? She sighs, "Three months and a half. The first month, it was fine! To go from two packets a day, to zero. At first I didn't mind, now I want to kill someone!" That isn't an exchange you'd get from many fashion designers, especially Italians, polished and honed to PR perfection. But Donatella – and Versace, in fact – has always been about breaking the mould.

We meet in the fabulous enclaves of Versace HQ, a few roads over from 12 Via Gesu where the Versace shows are staged. That address is also where Donatella's brother, the label's founder Gianni, lived and worked while in Milan. The aesthetic is pretty much the same across the board, though – florid, gilt-encrusted, rock-baroque, Louis Quatorze via Las Vegas. I couldn't help but think of Behind the Candelabra, the recent Liberace biopic: Donatella herself is getting the same big-screen treatment. She'll be played by the actress Gina Gershon, a flaxen-haired facsimile.

Saskia de Brauw models Versace for its Autumn/Winter 2013 campaign Saskia de Brauw models Versace for its Autumn/Winter 2013 campaign  

The Versace story is made for Hollywood, honestly. Born in Calabria in the south of Italy – poorer and flashier than the north – Gianni Versace founded a fashion dynasty based on flash, showmanship and sex, in equal measure. He once declared that he took inspiration from the dress of the local prostitutes he saw as a child. It's an allusion the house has never quite managed to shake – or maybe it doesn't want to. "Never fear being vulgar, only boring," said the legendary editor of American Vogue, Diana Vreeland. And while Versace has often been vulgar – riotously, joyously so – since its founding in 1978, it's never been boring.

Neither is Donatella Versace, who took over the reins of the house following her brother's murder in the summer of 1997. She was around before, of course – platinum-blonde and permatanned, Donatella headed up Versace's secondary line, Versus, and was for many people the embodiment of Gianni Versace's ideal woman. The fashion phrase that gets thrown around a lot is muse. Which is the first thing I ask.

"I 'ate the word," declares Donatella, in an accent as thick, rich and – truth be told, cheesy – as carbonara sauce. It's exactly the voice you want her to have, and she says exactly what you want her to say. Donatella always delivers. She's dressed in skin-tight printed jeans, skyscraper heels, a pair of jawbreaker-sized canary-yellow diamonds welded to her earlobes. She's blonde, tiny but perfectly proportioned, an almost life-size Barbie poised in a cat-like state of readiness on the very edge of a bold floral velvet chair. Donatella has a supreme awareness of her audience – she may "'ate" the idea of being a muse, but I'm aware that today I'm talking to not only the artistic director of Versace, but its female incarnation.

Just like Versace's clothes, their creator is bold, colourful, powerful, and politically incorrect. "I was a disturber, always argued," she says. She's discussing her relationship with Gianni – but it's true of her approach to fashion generally. "The word I heard most at the beginning was 'vulgar'. Which was better than shit!" The same is true today.

If not vulgar, Versace's last three womenswear collections have been even more provocative than usual. There was her winter 2013 'Vunk' show, a timely ode to punk but given a distinctly Italian polish. Versace's done that before – her brother Gianni's 1992 'bondage couture' collection featured fetishistic straps and cut-out dresses seemingly cobbled together with glitzy safety pins. Remember a young starlet named Elizabeth Hurley wearing one? So does the rest of the universe. "It was not a reference to that collection exactly. It was more… I was thinking, what would be fun today?" Donatella ponders. "It was a way to show that it's going to be a moment of strong revolution in fashion." She rolls that revolutionary 'r' like a hot piece of pasta in her mouth.

The revolution, for Donatella, is the internet. "A revolution happened. I don't know if fashion was ready. Other things were ready, but I don't know if fashion was ready because it moved so fast. We would move so fast with ideas." Donatella, in her own way, is trying to keep up: the latest Versus collection was unveiled and available for purchase within a week online.

In the bag: Kate Moss in the Autumn/Winter 2013 Versace campaign In the bag: Kate Moss in the Autumn/Winter 2013 Versace campaign  

For a new generation of Versace fans, the internet offers the chance to rediscover the house's most celebrated moments. "The moment of Cindy Crawford, and Linda Evangelista, and Christy Turlington singing 'Freedom' by George Michael on the runway. That was a moment in fashion! When fashion was art…" Donatella checks herself, and reconsiders. "When fashion was rock'n'roll. Rock'n'roll was – is – a big part of Versace inspiration."

Donatella maintains the internet is affecting every facet of fashion, not just the mass market. Versace's sell-out H&M collaboration may have been a blockbuster indication of the brand's appeal to young consumers ("I have to thank H&M… but they should thank me too! It sold!" Donatella laughs), but it's affecting the house at the highest levels. Witness the winter atelier show, unveiled in Paris in July, which opened and closed with Naomi Campbell, bookending a selection of I'm-too-sexy second-skin frocks spliced open down the seams and precariously pieced back together with metallic hook-and-eye fastenings.

It was a bit of Hurley redux. But for all the sequins and crocodile, it didn't look like couture. Which was precisely the point. "We have much younger, much more international access to couture through the internet. A young couture. A younger couture for them," is how Donatella describes it. "The clothes I did in Paris are not for a grande dame de Paris. She can't wear it. I don't want her to wear it, basically!"

Most provocative of all, between ready-to-wear and couture, Donatella invited London's JW Anderson to create a range under the Versus label (former creative director Christopher Kane left the house in September last year), presented in New York. "It was my baby, Versus, but I can't do Versus how I did it 20 years ago," she says today. "I want a fresh eye to come from outside to challenge me. And me to challenge him, also!" As with much of Anderson's fashion, challenging was the word: ostensibly unisex, there were bare legs under ponyskin coats, lace-backed tank-tops, Versus labels pasted over nipples, for men as well as for women. But they felt filtered through the Versace sensibility. Namely, that unisex wasn't shorn of the sex.

Sex is something you have to talk about with Versace. Donatella sums up her brother Gianni's work simply. "Sexy clothes. About showing the sensuality of women." At one point, according to Donatella, the team behind Gianni in the studio tried to tone down said sexiness. "They tried to make him the middle way, to be a little bit safe," she declares, spitting the words. "Just a few sexy things. I was going crazy! I said, 'Gianni if you lose this, you are going to be nothing!' I was a bitch! This is your power, this is a raw sexuality you can give to a woman. Not many people can do it."

Linda Evangelista, Cindy Crawford, Naomi Campbell and Christy Turlington in Versace in 1991 (Rex Features) Linda Evangelista, Cindy Crawford, Naomi Campbell and Christy Turlington in Versace in 1991 (Rex Features)  

Indeed, it's difficult to imagine many other people doing it as well as Gianni, but over her 16 years at the helm of Versace, Donatella has proved she is more than a match for her brother. Although, to begin, many couldn't reconcile the idea of a woman designing clothes that seemed, to all intents and purposes, about a man's view of women.

I pose the question; Donatella shakes her head. Sex, she says, isn't just for him. "Every woman likes sex. If they don't like it, they should go to a shrink!" She grins, then qualifies that loaded statement. "Sorry. I'm not talking about sex-shop dresses, but dresses that can help you look better than you are and more confident. It's about confidence. To be confident in yourself. When you are confident wearing certain kinds of clothes, you are more confident about your ideas and have more courage to say your ideas and your opinions. Which are not necessarily fashion opinions, they can be opinions in many different ways."

That, for Donatella, is what makes a strong woman. "A strong opinion, and the courage to say it." We've gone down a feminist route somehow, which seems odd given how diametrically opposed those clingfilm-tight Versace frocks seem to our notions of feminist fashion. The blonde bob quivers in a shake. Donatella disagrees. "Sexy clothes don't only express 'I want sex', but courage. 'This is me, this is my courage. You need to confront me'."

Donatella has two children, Allegra and Daniel, with her former husband Paul Beck. I can't help but wonder how difficult it was to juggle the demands of her own family with the demands of her other family, the Versace business. The two are inextricably intertwined. When I ask her what Versace represents, the snap reaction is, "As a fashion house or as my family?" It's one and the same. But Donatella allows that juggling the two was difficult. "I'm sure I made a lot of mistakes with my children… but if you stay home, I think you make more mistakes! Of course, mother is the first thing. I was travelling a lot when the children were little, but I made sure that the time I was spending with them was quality time."

There's nothing mumsy about Versace clothes, though. They're uncompromising, sometimes they're difficult. To borrow one of Donatella's favourite phrases, they confront you. It was the same with Gianni, but I wonder if Donatella approaches design any differently, given that she's a woman, designing for other women? "I don't think gender makes a difference… but as a woman what I can tell you is that I'll never do pants that are pleated here," her chain bracelets clank as Donatella flicks her hands disparagingly, miming pleated hips above her reed-slim thighs.

"Because I know anyone will look fat and round!" She grins again. "I like different shapes. Obviously close shape like Versace, but also loose shapes, like this," as she tugs at the rolled sleeve of the top she's wearing, a crinkled, sleeveless silk shell from the spring/summer 2013 Versace collection. "But you have to wear something very tight under it or else you look like a square. It's proportion, women's proportions. Even if you have the most perfect body – which I don't have – there is a way women can dress and all look beautiful. Not important the size, how much you weigh, how long your legs are. That's what I'm trying to do." That sounds quite feminist to me.

Still, I feel the need to raise the question with her. Donatella may wear the label 'Versace', but would she wear the label 'feminist'? And vice versa, come to think of it. "For a woman to have credibility, they have to work three times more than a man," Donatella begins. Then smiles, again. "I sit on the board of directors, I'm the only woman! And I dress some of the most powerful women in the world. So I think I'm a feminist. I show to women, you can do it."

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