Outside Versace’s headquarters on Via Gesu in Milan on a Thursday in June, two days before the label’s spring/summer 2018 men’s wear show, a beefy handler walks Donatella Versace’s Jack Russell Terrier, Audrey, out the door. Through the entrance, the other side of a plate-glass door, a sunny courtyard is littered with a clutch of green wrought-iron tables and chairs — a bit like Versace is throwing a summer barbecue in her backyard. It’s actually the set-up for that forthcoming runway show.
It’s so domestic, so normal, that you could forget that Casa Versace is actually Palazzo Versace, an 18th-century edifice whose impressive, Medusa-studded facade stretches from the five-star Four Seasons hotel to the end of the block. It’s also easy to forget that it’s home not to any singular person, but to a multimillion dollar fashion empire. (Donatella Versace, the doyenne of the label, doesn’t actually reside there, but she does have a fabulously appointed apartment a floor below the studios, for entertaining.)
Donatella Versace turned 62 a month ago. She looks 20 years younger, has the energy of a 16-year-old and is generally fabulous. She’s especially engaging and fabulous when she’s in a great mood, which she seems to be right now. “I am very relaxed,” she purrs. She’s in the inner sanctum of Versace — the aforementioned apartment, all molasses-coloured marble and polished wood — reclining on a velvet sofa in front of a pietra dura table, sipping from a crystal tumbler etched with Versaceish baroque motifs. “I started to put the collection together on Tuesday. You know I’m like a machine; They tell me to do this by this day, I do it!” she laughs.
It’s difficult to imagine Donatella Versace being at the beck and call of anyone. And yet, she claims, she is. “I think we hold none of the power, designers, anymore,” she says, smiling, courting controversy in a molto Versace kind of way. “Millennials. They have the power. And I think we have the power if we understand what the millennials want.” Fair enough — they are the consumers of the future, after all. Apparently, it was millennials like Kendall Jenner requesting vintage Versace that made Donatella re-examine her company archives for this spring/summer 2018 men’s wear collection. Today, Versace says, millennials want archival prints and denims and the sexy cuts that made the label’s name originally. “In a way, it was a shame to take the something from the archive and put it on the runway, because it’s my Versace,” she reasons. Given that she has designed the main line since 1997 — when her brother and the founder of the label, Gianni Versace, was shot outside his Miami Beach home — you can safely say Versace is Donatella’s now. Next year, she will have been the creative director for longer than he was, with her sexy, slinky but decidedly modern take on the codes her brother established. “But then I say…” What she says is something unprintable, at least for The New York Times. “Keep the cult alive!” she flashes a Cheshire cat-like grin.
The entire theme of the men’s show this time around is a homage to the label’s heritage — and, in a way, to Gianni Versace himself. “That’s why I thought. Come here, come back home,” Versace says. “For me it’s 20 years more since my brother passed away. And it’s sad. it’s very sad. That’s why I came back home. This is my place, this is where everything started. Everything started here. We had dinner parties, where we would have the biggest dramas and fights, and the biggest love. And we were like this working together, two different people. Gianni and I — we were totally different people. But everything started here.” She sighs, and smiles. “It’s a Versace celebration.”
Indeed, Casa Versace is the nerve centre of the show. Downstairs, in the the courtyard, under blooming oleander trees, is where the show will be staged: After a series of presentations in a monumental but somewhat impersonal concert venue on the outskirts of Milan, this season Versace brought it back to her roots. Around those wrought-iron tables a glass runway meanders at right angles, like the trademark Versace Greek key. Two days before the show, one is tempted to ask, “Where’s the set?” There is none. No lights, no big fuss. Again, there’s something almost humble and nearly low-key about this — a bit like Versace throwing a summer barbecue in her backyard.
Despite the pressures of the biannual men’s wear show and the marking of two momentous anniversaries — 20 years since Gianni Versace’s death, and 20 years of Donatella Versace continuing his legacy — her daily routine doesn’t vary in the 48 hours leading to the show. “No, of course not. I live! I wake up every day. I do my gym every day, because it gives me energy. I feel better if I do. I feel stronger, even if only for 40 minutes. I’m obsessed with abs!” Versace pats her nonexistent stomach under a spaghetti-strapped slipdress in a Versace floral print. Her build is tiny, jacked up on the trademark platform heels she’s learned to surrender on the runway, but will never give up herself.
She climb the stairs of Palazzo Versace in those six-inch heels, every day — including today, when she ascends to the studio on the third floor to oversee the final preparations for the men’s wear show. Casting is over, she tells me, and rails of clothes — poppy prints, washed denims, suits pinstriped with chains and, sometimes, the plain old woven variety — are hanging, fully finished and ready to be edited, styled and fitted on a bevy of models filing in and out at regular intervals. It’s a slick organisation, the machine she mentioned earlier. She does, however, have doubts. “The terrible moment in life,” she declares. “After dinner, I go back there: ‘La La La La — let’s rethink!’ Because you question yourself. Yesterday I was very calm, today we are finishing the last things. But after dinner tonight, before the rehearsal, I’m going to question everything.”
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