Donatella Versace: Regally blonde

Two years ago, she was in rehab, and her empire was on the rocks. Now Donatella Versace is clean, in control, and making cool clothes again. The Queen of Italian Style tells Susie Rushton how she regained her crown - and shows off her new couture dresses
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The Independent Online

Oh, it's beautiful! But I was so tense, last time," breathes Donatella Versace, her tiny frame perched on a giant leopard-printed sofa in her late brother Gianni's former apartment, a spacious, parquet-floored set of rooms on the second floor of the company's headquarters in Milan. With framed family photographs arranged on antique tables, bookshelves crammed with art monographs and dance music throbbing at a low volume in the background (this is Donatella, after all), the apartment serves both as a private inner sanctum and office.

We're talking about the Oscars. She'll be watching the ceremony on a screen at Elton John's charity party in LA, she says - although she's been to the live event several times, naturally - before heading over to the famously glitzy Vanity Fair party. The platinum-maned designer has more reason than most to keep a close watch on the night: she'll be assessing the impact of the eye-popping dresses she has designed for a handful of actresses. Although, two weeks ahead of the event, she won't reveal who she's dressing - the red-carpet brigade are notorious for changing their minds at the last minute - she says defiantly, "I try to do a dress that fits so well that they won't change their mind!"

Versace can confirm, however, that several of the frocks that will fall under Joan Rivers's eagle eye will be haute couture, the somewhat recherché craft of creating dresses that are hand-embroidered and hand-stitched to ensure they fit to a client's every curve. Couture, with its price tags that can exceed £100,000, remains the ultimate indulgence for an estimated clientele of just 300 of the world's wealthiest women. Rarely profitable, a couture collection is also an indulgence for a fashion house. Only the richest labels - among others Chanel, Dior and, since 2005, Armani - can afford to participate in the biannual couture shows in Paris.

Until January 2004 Versace, too, had its own Paris couture show. But that was the year that the crisis brewing inside the house of Versace reached boiling point. With debts of £82m, and Donatella struggling with a serious cocaine addiction, Versace's spring/summer 2004 couture catwalk show was its last to date. At the insistence of friends including Elton John, Donatella, who had taken over the reins at Versace after her brother Gianni was murdered outside his Miami mansion in 1997, finally entered rehab in Arizona.

This was also the year that Versace ceased to be a family-managed business. Although it was in 2004 that Allegra Beck-Versace, Donatella's daughter by former model Paul Beck, turned 18 and inherited the 50 per cent share that Gianni bequeathed to her (Donatella and her elder brother and company president Santo hold the remaining shares), in September an outsider, the former CEO of Fendi, Giancarlo Di Risio, was appointed as chief executive. Looking back, Di Risio describes the situation he found on arriving at Versace as "less than healthy - indicative of a company that was in some ways still in shock and coming to terms with the death of its founder and point of reference".

Not only was the company mired in debt, but its flashy, rock-chick collections were increasingly out of step with the prevailing mood of fashion.

Today, Donatella openly admits that, at the height of her addiction, she was incapable of making the necessary changes. "I was detached," she says, in husky, heavily-accented English. "I wasn't in touch with the design any more. I was speaking things, but I wasn't realising them. And that was... dangerous. And I thought it was everybody's else's problem, but not my problem."

But two years on, the house of Versace has been brought back from the brink, not least thanks to the efforts of Di Risio. A new, more streamlined look for the ready-to-wear line has been introduced; the accessories division has been beefed up, and the catwalk shows for its Versus diffusion line have been cancelled, as has, inevitably, the costly haute couture show in Paris.

The first sighting of the newly streamlined Versace image appeared in October 2004, with a spring collection that cut out the trash-glam posturings and instead concentrated on draped silk jersey dresses and clean white trouser suits. "There were a lot of unnecessary things," concedes Versace. "In terms of decoration and in terms of colours, which are not necessary today, to be so loud - you can be loud in a different way." This, from the designer who, as Gianni Versace's longtime muse, famously counselled "more is more". Last autumn, fashion began to swing back in her favour, too, when a handful of influential designers - Alexander McQueen among them - showed body-conscious, tightly bandaged mini dresses that evoked Versace's early-1990s heyday. Of those various homages, Donatella says she's flattered, although, "I couldn't do it, because if I do it, people would say 'they already did that' - but other people can do it."

More prosaically, the company's efforts to increase its offering of handbags is paying off, as accessories now account for 18 per cent of sales; and the flagship stores, including London's Sloane Street boutique, have been refurbished in fresher shades of white, black and gold.

Donatella herself has also cleaned up. Today, wearing a tight, dark purple, polo-neck sweater, matching satin trousers and spike-heel boots, a diamond-studded Cartier watch dangling loosely from her wrist - "it belonged to Gianni" - she looks sleek and healthy. She's tanned, of course, but not the deep mahogany of days gone by, and her only vice is a penchant for Marlboro reds. She's abandoned weight training and now does five 45-minute sessions of aerobics, along with Power Plate, a vibrating platform that's the latest thing among New York gym bunnies. Her friend Madonna recommended it to her. "They sell it at Harrods," she advises, helpfully. Three days ago she got back from New York, where she had held a star-studded party to celebrate the makeover of the Fifth Avenue shop, and, on arriving in Milan, she immediately set to work on the final fittings for her autumn/winter 2006 womenswear show. Oh, and in any spare time she has, she's reading "political biographies".

But these days, work comes first. An unlikely cheerleader for feminism - nothing stands for sexpot chic quite like Versace - Donatella believes her designs empower women. "Women should be sure of themselves because women have a lot of capacities. We can achieve so many different things that men cannot. I think women are stronger. Our strength is not really well seen by everybody." But she does not, she says, (omega) create clothes first and foremost for herself: "No. I don't like myself so much. I design what women want to wear. Women are all the same, we want to be smaller in the waist, longer legs, slimmer. I design for women and their defects, to make them better."

Versace was born in 1955 in Reggio di Calabria, southern Italy; her mother, Franca, was a dressmaker with her own atelier of 45 seamstresses. But it was her brother, 10 years her senior, who drew her into fashion. She studied literature at university, "but Gianni wouldn't leave me alone for one second" and as soon as she turned 18 she began to work with him. "I never thought about doing something else. He was working for other companies when I was at university, so I was going there, working with him, Friday to Monday morning." As Gianni's career took off - he founded his own label in 1978 - his younger sister became his trusted muse. "If my sister wants to do something, OK," he once told Vanity Fair. "If she doesn't like a sketch, I will cancel it."

"We had a strong relationship, me and Gianni," she says quietly.

Surrounded as she is by the trappings of wealth - the ring with a diamond the size of a gobstopper that she's wearing says it all, as does the art collection at the Milan HQ that includes Matisse, Hockney and Braque - the past nine years have been a trial. It must be a monumental responsibility to inherit a million-dollar fashion company. "Oh!" she exclaims, "You can tell me!" Did she ever want to refuse to take on that burden? "I didn't think about not accepting it. The more scary part was the beginning. The few years after Gianni died. No, I did accept responsibility, but it was very hard - and it is."

The company won't talk about what role majority shareholder Allegra might have in the future - for now, she is said to be pursuing an acting career in New York. Her mother seems determined to preserve the company's family-owned status, although she's cautious about peering too far ahead. "I'm more scared now. Because after this turnaround and things went very well," she pauses, before letting out a big laugh, "I feel like I'm starting all over again. It's the pressure to keep the momentum going. I have to keep it going, I have no choice, so I'm attentive about everything."

With the main ready-to-wear collection now garnering positive reviews and the company's balance sheet finally inching into the black - Di Risio estimates that Versace will break even in 2007 - Donatella is retrieving some of the pizzazz of old. For her spring/ summer 2005 advertising campaign, she enlisted Madonna, followed by Demi Moore last autumn and Halle Berry in the current season. "Halle has achieved so much in life. She's a little bit older. She represents something. I love younger actresses, but I chose Halle because she achieved something in life which is more interesting and more inspirational to women." (Versace is particularly pleased Berry has started dating one of the male models who appeared in the campaign alongside her: "I created that couple," she beams.)

It was Gianni Versace who fuelled the supermodel phenomenon in the 1990s - once booking Linda Evangelista, Cindy Crawford, Naomi Campbell and Christy Turlington to walk his runway while lip-synching to George Michael's "Freedom". But he also pioneered the marketing ruse of dressing celebrities, putting Liz Hurley on the front pages in 1994 thanks to some cleverly cantilevering safety-pins, and was the first to recognise the publicity value of a star-studded front row at his shows. Prince, Elton John and Jon Bon Jovi were among those who posed for his campaigns.

Does Versace ever have any doubts about the dominance of celebrities in fashion? "No. Celebrities took the place of the supermodels," she says simply. "That's what happened. At that time of the supermodels, celebrities didn't want to be in fashion, they thought they were more intellectual and interesting than anyone in fashion. It was this attitude. And now they have to have a strong image, to be a celebrity." Will she continue to use them? "For next season I think I will, but then I don't know. You cannot repeat yourself so many times."

High-profile ad campaigns are the front line of the Versace effort to regain its status as one of Italy's top fashion houses. What's less expected, perhaps, is the (omega) revival of Versace Atelier, the haute couture line that was first launched in 1989. Can Versace really afford the expense of a couture collection? "Afford?" she says, with a wry smile. "Right now we cannot afford it... probably we will be able to very soon." Nevertheless, without any fanfare, this January during couture week, Versace travelled to Paris with a collection of a dozen dresses - some of which are seen on these pages - to show to select magazine editors. Her favourites, she says, are two long gowns embroidered with matte metal sequins in Art Deco-style scallop patterns. Another, in primrose silk charmeuse, with a crystal-encrusted bodice plunging to reveal a generous amount of cleavage, is a knockout party dress. This is Versace at its paparazzi-friendly best. Yet any talk of a full-scale couture "re-launch" is played down. In fact, she says, the couture line was never abandoned in the first place. Although there has been no catwalk presentation, over the past two years Versace has been travelling the world to meet its wealthiest clients, also inviting them to private fittings in a mirrored salon at the Milan headquarters.

"The couture has always been there, even if we didn't show on the runway," she insists. "We stopped showing couture, not because we don't believe in it but because we wanted to make a point with the prêt-a-porter." Besides, she argues, couture clients now demand absolute exclusivity - and that means dresses that have not been photographed by hundreds of telephoto lenses. And, she says, sales figures for the couture collection have increased since the house halted its Paris show. "I think what happened is people really want something special. And that's why I think the figure went up. The clients who wear couture, they don't want publicity. It's not special enough if it's been seen already. We can use these dresses to surprise people. There is no surprise any more, you know?"

Will Versace ever stage a couture show again? "I don't know. For the next two seasons, I don't think so. But fashion changes so fast, and what happens today, in two seasons you think the opposite. It's not exciting for me, right now, Paris," she says quietly. "I think younger designers should go there to do haute couture," she adds, aiming a delicate elbow into the ribs of the septuagenarian couturiers who dominate the event. And with that, she's up, on her needle-sharp heels, and marching across the palatial drawing room to show me two Julian Schnabel portraits that are hung in an adjacent bedroom. When she's working late in the studio, she says, she sometimes stays here. Hung on either side of the wood-panelled room, one canvas bears the image of Gianni Versace, the other Donatella's children Allegra and Daniel. Their faces are daubed in thick paint over a jagged canvas of broken crockery. Although Versace - one of the most prominent of the family-owned businesses in Italy - came close to implosion, for the moment Donatella has managed to keep the house, and her daughter's inheritance, intact.

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