Donatella Versace is in her studio in Milan, talking about her final holiday with her brother Gianni in 1997. “We went to Ravenna,” she says, “and visited all the Byzantine churches. Many people don’t know this about Gianni, but he was in love with art.” The trip inspired a show in Paris that year in which Gianni explored his central theme – the tension between the sensual and the sacrosanct. Greek crosses were stamped upon immodestly liquid chain-mail dresses. One look featured a stylised wimple. Like all his best work, it shocked and delighted.
A week later, Gianni, then 50, was murdered on the steps of his home in Miami. The world was shocked by the death of the designer, known for his boldly baroque and sexy, feminocentric womenswear, his enthusiastic endorsement of the then-ascendant “supermodels” – among them Cindy Crawford, Naomi Campbell, Carla Bruni and Helena Christensen – and a glamorous lifestyle in which his portfolio of friends included Princess Diana and Elton John. And it changed everything for his sister, until then a combination of muse, assistant and sounding board, who worked for her brother behind the scenes. “My journey in the company was this,” she says. “One day happy, with nobody to answer to, except for Gianni on the creative part. From that, suddenly to be responsible for everything. And maybe I was not prepared. Maybe I was mourning. Maybe I was also looking for a reason why I shouldn’t go on.”
Sitting on a squishy sofa, dressed from top to toe in black knitwear and shod in black high heels, Donatella, now creative director of Versace, leans intently forwards. Her hair, her skin and her jewellery glow gold. She talks fast in heavily accented English, staring piercingly from under hooded eyes. Her countenance can appear alarmingly icy – she once joked in an interview that she slept in the deep freeze – but her presence is warm. She makes jokes, which sometimes don’t quite work in English, and her staff are relaxed. They do not have the twitchy air, as fashion underlings sometimes do, of people subjected to regular verbal thrashings.
As she talks about the brother with whom she had a close and sometimes tumultuous relationship, religion is on her mind. “The first time he did something religious was in 1991. He had been thinking about it a lot, and when he included crosses and the image of Maria in that collection there was criticism. It was risky. The more conformist people said ‘he touched the image of Maria! How daring! How could he!’ He was breaking the rules. Of course he knew how important Catholicism was to people – we grew up religious too.”
The Versace clan – Gianni, Donatella and brother Santo, who founded the label – was raised in Reggio Calabria, just across the water from Sicily. “We didn’t go to church every week, but our mother believed. Catholicism in life is very intense. You do not want to sin. The idea of guilt is very powerful. Even me, I consider myself an open-minded person, but this stays inside you as an Italian – you do not want to offend God.”
Twenty-one years after her brother’s death, Donatella is closer to the church than he could ever have imagined she would be. She is preparing to travel to Rome to appear alongside Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, president of the Pontifical Council for Culture, Andrew Bolton, curator of the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and Anna Wintour, the editor of American Vogue. They will announce the details of “Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination”, an exhibition opening on May 10th at the Met that will show around 150 Catholic-inspired garments from designers including Versace, Cristobal Balenciaga, Valentino, Christian Lacroix, Dolce & Gabbana and Chanel. They will be displayed alongside around 50 precious ecclesiastical garments – some of them still in use, some which have never left Rome before – that have been lent by the Vatican.
What does she think about the Holy See not just tolerating, but participating in, a blockbuster exhibition dedicated to Catholicism’s influence on fashion? “I think for the Vatican to accept and be part of this is a really big deal, a great thing,” says Donatella. “I don’t think there is a precedent for this exhibition. It suggests that Catholicism is more in tune with the times. I adore this pope – he is the best we have ever had. He is a real person, who is truly humble, and that is why he has such a powerful charisma.” The exhibition will include pieces from Gianni’s last collection and designs by the much-doubted sister who succeeded him. It is a powerful signal that the house that once floundered on her watch has found its vocation and its voice again.
That once seemed unlikely. Immediately after Gianni’s death, the fashion world – and the wider world too – rallied around the house, but a long series of collections overseen by Donatella, in which her brother’s flamboyant aesthetic was replaced with unconvincing alternatives, dulled the house’s sheen. “I think the world was looking at me thinking ‘she’s not going to make it’, and I understand that. Because Gianni was a genius in fashion. And I struggled, I struggled to find my own voice, and I struggled with other things too.”
Until 2004, Donatella was dogged by cocaine addiction. Even after her recovery, sales steadily fell and the company seemed to be heading towards collapse. Between 1997 and 2007, Versace’s revenue declined from over $1bn to $400m. Debts mounted; prized assets, including Gianni’s Miami mansion, had to be sold.
“I made mistakes,” she says. “Maybe I listened to the wrong people, yes, but maybe I made the wrong collections too. I am a human. Also maybe this was a time when the image Versace presents was not so relevant. Fashion was about minimalism...But you know, I’ve never given up. And I’ve done everything I could to make it better.”
If Versace’s first flourishing under Gianni was the company’s spectacular first act, then this period of withering was its unhappy second. “And I wish I’d gone straight from that first act to the third,” says Donatella. “But it is impossible.”
The third act began when Donatella started to hit on the right formula for expressing the rococo sexiness of Gianni’s aesthetic in a fresh way. Changing taste helped. Minimalism was marginalised, as street fashion, with all its exuberance, came to the fore. Versace’s motifs are part of the childhood, and thus the visual language, of many young designers and consumers. The brand is sampling the best of its fantastic archive for a remix that looks right today. It is, as Jonathan Akeroyd, chief executive of the business since June 2016, puts it, “using the brand codes instead of abusing the brand codes”.
A successful collaboration with fast-fashion retailer H&M in 2011 leaned heavily on the Gianni-era tropes of the house – the Medusa motif, Greek detailing and evening dresses held up by safety pins – and provided an early sign of revival. In 2014 Blackstone, the private-equity group, acquired 20% of Versace. A series of well-received collections coincided with a retail expansion. Versace now has 200 stores, and eight more will open in 2018. “With the resurgence of logo mania in the last couple of seasons, it seems right now is Donatella’s time to shine,” says Sebastian Manes, buying and merchandising director at Selfridges, a British department store.
Last year, the 20th anniversary of Gianni’s death, saw a series of archive-trawling “tribute” shows that culminated in a grand coup de théâtre: a curtain rose to reveal Cindy Crawford, Naomi Campbell, Carla Bruni and Helena Christensen in gold chainmail dresses. As the reunited supermodels power-walked down the runway with Donatella, the audience rose to its feet and cheered them to the rafters.
According to Akeroyd, a study commissioned from Bain & Co showed that Versace is the world’s eighth-most-recognised fashion brand – which suggests that there is scope to build on its recent successes. So does the revenue breakdown: the first line – catwalk collections – accounts for around 70% of the company’s total revenue, and the other 30% consists of the second line, called Versus, as well as homeware products and the licensing, for instance, of sunglasses and fragrances. In most companies, the second line, which rides on the popularity of the first but is more accessibly priced, produces a larger proportion of revenue.
“What we need to do more”, says Akeroyd, “is tell the story of the brand,” which makes Versace’s tragedy into a kind of advantage. While other brands these days struggle to create a “narrative”, Versace has a real, powerful story. Fascination with the murder can be a mixed blessing – earlier this year the company condemned as inaccurate “The Assassination of Gianni Versace”, a mini-series starring Penelope Cruz as Donatella – but it ensures the brand’s cultural potency, which inspires not just drama but also music, including recent songs, such as Bruno Mars’s “Versace on the Floor” and Migos’s “Versace”.
The story has now moved beyond tragedy and recovery to a narrative that’s less laden. Lady Gaga’s 2013 song “Donatella” was a homage – of sorts – to Versace’s great survivor: “I’m blonde, I’m skinny, I’m rich, and I’m a little bit of a bitch.” More recently, Donatella’s often humorous and self-deprecating social media use has been effective. “My own image used to be like a shield to me when things were wrong in my life... So I was perceived as a cold person. But I think Instagram has helped me show a different side to the people: I say a lot of stupid things sometimes!” And she has shown herself to be pragmatic as well as engaging. She says that fur – long a staple of Versace’s products and a source of criticism – will no longer be used. “Fur? I am out of that. I don’t want to kill animals to make fashion. It doesn’t feel right.” This volte-face is so new that, at the time of writing, Versace’s own website was urging customers to consider “fur-embellished coats that turn heads”. Change at Versace is happening fast.
There have been rumours of greater changes still – that Versace is looking to recruit a new creative director to take the burden off Donatella’s shoulders. “Somebody came up to me recently and said, ‘there will be a huge crisis if you leave – it will be a fashion disaster!’ Can you believe that?...Yes I am Versace. But also Versace needs to mean change. And it needs to be an opportunity for others to express themselves.” If she does leave, she can do so with the confidence that she has given her brother’s legacy new life. When the third act concludes, it will most likely be to applause.