Donatella Versace: 'I'm not a believer in the natural look'

She likes her egos big – and hair even bigger. She thinks it's time models were super again. Donatella Versace presents her fashion manifesto to Jo-Ann Furniss for Love magazine

Monday 08 February 2010 01:00

There is not enough ego!" announces Donatella Versace emphatically, and then laughs. We are sitting in her apartment in Milan and she is bemoaning the present state of the fashion industry, particularly the facelessness of many of the current wave of models.

"Now is a bad moment. Now we need something. We need a special personality. We need to feed the egos of these girls. Somebody like Kristen who had a huge ego. Beautiful..." And that is genuine wistfulness in her tone as well as laughter.

It is not surprising as, among many other credits in her career, Donatella Versace was instrumental in the rise of the supermodel and the second wave of those girls to gain notoriety and fame, Kristen McMenamy being one of them.

In his autumn/winter 1991 show, Gianni Versace produced what is now recognised as one of those era-defining occasions in fashion, an event that says something not only about the fashion industry, but also – and usually with hindsight – the preoccupations of the rest of the world.

"That moment when my brother put on the runway Christy, Linda, Cindy and Naomi together – they sang Freedom, and George Michael was in the audience – that was an iconic moment of fashion. That moment was when super- models really became supermodels. It was the print girls' move to the runway, and that was something that felt new too – the print girls were not usually catwalk girls."

In fact it was Donatella Versace who had encouraged her brother to use this breed of model, as she clarifies: "It was a time when designers were afraid of models with fame. They were afraid that the clothes would be overtaken by the fame of the models. I said to Gianni, 'Do not be afraid like everybody else, because it is just stupid. Fame on fame means more fame! It does not take away anything; it adds.' It gave personality to the clothes, it gave things an edge that a runway show needs, otherwise it can be so borrring."

And for Donatella Versace, as she says in her husky voice with that very Italian emphasis, woe betide anything that is "borrring". She has little truck with "pretentious" either. "There is an idea of neutrality in models now. Little make-up, no expression, like a robot... That is very stupid. It is almost as if the models have to have the appearance of something serious, to give an intellectual base, but they themselves are rarely like that. And the roots of fashion are essentially fun. It is something that women wear to make themselves feel better, that shouldn't be forgotten. When you take the joy out of fashion, it is not fashion any more." She then adds wryly, "If you are going to be very clever, too clever, be a scientist. I am not a scientist."

And indeed she isn't. When you are in the company of Donatella Versace you quickly realise there is no pretence and no sign of one of her much-loved out-of-control egos. She is a tremendously warm, witty and open person. Things are just that little bit larger than life: the hair is blonder, the heels are higher. But there is also a slightness and softness. You get the feeling that the Medusa logo finds its counterpart in the don't-mess-with-me image she has forged for herself for protection. The moment she begins to talk, all of that goes out of the window with a hahaha: she's quick to laugh and make fun of herself. For example, she once said of her peroxide blonde hair: "I don't even know what my natural colour is. Natural? What is natural? What is that? I do not believe in totally natural for women. For me, natural has something to do with vegetables."

She is undoubtedly a fashion icon – although she becomes noticeably uneasy when you discuss this with her. "Other people apply that 'iconic' status; I have never felt it. In my brother's fashion, in his career, there were many iconic moments, all well-documented. For myself, well, I don't like to judge myself..." But perhaps what is not so readily realised is that apart from being the designer she is today, Donatella Versace was always instrumental in establishing the icono- graphy that went with the name.

The house of Versace is one of the all-time greats in fashion's business of seduction. It quickly understood that the power of the fashion photograph, the show and celebrity were as important as the design of the actual garment. This is not only to be found in the magazine campaigns and shows that it has produced, it is also evident in its books: Men Without Ties, Do Not Disturb, South Beach Stories, Rock and Royalty and many others. Open any of these volumes and you will see how Versace shaped an idea of who our modern gods and goddesses were to be and it achieved this working alongside some of the greatest photo- graphers who ever lived, among them Richard Avedon, Irving Penn, Bruce Weber and Helmut Newton.

It was not just Gianni but also Donatella Versace who pushed the power of the Versace image-making process, where fashion became entertainment to be watched and admired. With her former husband Paul Beck, she is credited as the stylist on many of the campaigns and as one of the art directors on the books. As she has deadpanned in the past: "To be called the muse is not amusing."

"I was generally very disturbed by the label of 'the muse'," she told me in a conversation some years previously. "With Gianni I was always about conflict. I would directly contradict Gianni most of the time. I'd go: 'I don't like that at all, it's not good.' And he would scream, 'Whaaat?!' But it was always a very constructive conflict, a very creative force."

Perhaps this is where much of the energy comes from in the Versace images from that time. And it was Donatella Versace who advised who would be in them, who would make them and who, after that, was afforded the role of 'wrangling' with all of the huge egos on and off catwalk and set.

Following the aforementioned Naomi Campbell, Cindy Crawford, Christy Turlington and Linda Evangelista moment, the next wave was initially positioned as the supermodel antidote but, in large part because of Versace, its main protagonists were soon elevated to that same pantheon. And one of them, in the shape of Kate Moss, became perhaps the most super- super of them all.

"Kate, Kristen and Amber [Valletta]. It was a fantastic moment," says the designer. "Kristen was a big problem with my brother at first – she was crazy; Gianni just did not understand right away. The stories! Ha! Between her and Linda, it was like watching a movie that never ends...

"One day they had a fight about roots. Kristen had arrived with black roots in blonde hair, and Linda arrived with black roots in blonde hair; and both of them went mad, both saying they were first. Really, that is a big thing for models – roots! They were calling the hairdresser in New York, the colourist in New York, and I was called on as a witness to say who was the first to do black roots in blonde hair. At the time Steven Miesel was really inventing the look of the girls in this way, so I knew who was first: Kristen."

"When a new girl came along, oh my God, it was like a war," she continues.

"The first time they got together, it was the big girls versus the new girl. I remember one time backstage: Linda needed to go on the runway. She was about to put in her fake boobs and found one of them had been taken. 'Where is my boob? Where's my boob?' she was screaming over and over. I think it was Kristen – it was always Kristen. Gianni's reaction? [She mimics his angry stage-whisper.] 'You want this, you like this, so you take care of this!' I would be stuck in the middle. And all those girls turned out to be icons: Kate, Amber, Kristen, all icons."

As Donatella Versace clarifies, to achieve that iconic status, for her "it was never about changing the girls, it was about defining who they were. I always respected the personality.

"Like Kate, she was 16 the first time I booked her for Avedon, and she was put among all of these monsters, these big girls like Linda and Kristen. And she was just 16. She was like this [making herself tiny and mimicking Moss's teenage voice], 'Can I go out and buy cigarettes?' 'No, sit there – I will get you cigarettes!'"

"I have come back to shoot a campaign I am really proud of for spring/summer," Donatella Versace announces. "It is with Georgia Jagger and was shot by Mario Testino, it is something special."

The spring/summer 2010 collection is a vintage one for Versace, moving the history of the house along without discarding the past; for one thing, reinvigorating their print and again making women enviably glamorous.

"You should never be afraid in fashion," the designer explains. "In this economic situation the worst thing you can be is afraid. You need to do something special, not safe. This collection has a certain energy. I was very positive and very free when I was working on it, and I think that is in the clothes.

"Alice in Wonderland was an inspiration, particularly in the print. I thought of certain key things from that story, like the rabbit and the clock, and they were combined with the baroque. And that is also the Versace world – it is mad, after all!"

LOVE The Fashion Icons issue is out tomorrow

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