The China Club has played host to its fair share of high-profile names over the years – Mick Jagger, Bill Clinton, David Bowie and Britain’s Prince Andrew have all crossed its threshold. But nothing could have prepared its staff for the arrival of Donatella Versace. I arrive early for our interview to find the building surrounded by strategically placed bodyguards, who, if it wasn’t for their microscopic earpieces, could easily be mistaken for models in their dark, slim-fitting Versace suits. Swarms of media are camped outside, waiting impatiently to be ushered in to meet a woman whose story has all the trappings of a Jackie Collins novel: diamonds, cocaine, fame, celebrities and, of course, in true Versace style, plenty of glamour.
A nervous public-relations executive meets me, apologises for the “Italian timing” and pushes me through the doors of the club’s library. The scene that is unfolding is one of chaos: flashbulbs, a camera crew and an entourage of close to 10 people talking in rapid-fire Italian and English are amassed in the centre of the room. Versace’s handsome personal assistant, one of those Fabio types you see on the cover of trashy romance novels, approaches, shakes my hand briskly and goes back to watch his boss work her magic in front of the camera. Then, in a split second, the crowd parts and I am face to face with an Italian national treasure.
Even though Versace measures a generous 167cm tall, what is most surprising is that she is positively tiny. With the body of a lithe and toned 20-year-old, she is clad in form-fitting clothes that few 51-year-old women could wear with confidence: a slinky corset top, a pair of skin-tight black jeans with patent leather piping down the front and stacked black and gold platforms that look lethal (all carrying a Versace label, naturally).
Looks aside, she seems different to the impenetrable and feisty vixen described in glossy magazines; the woman who loves to party with the likes of Naomi Campbell and Elton John, holiday with her children in the Caribbean and be photographed dripping with golf-ball-sized diamonds (for the record, she is wearing her fair share of bling). Although her fleshy lips, caramel-coloured skin and brazen platinum locks remain intact, the Versace of today seems pared down and somehow softer. Her doe-like brown eyes are serious and her face reveals only a trace of make-up. She is eager to talk and polite to a fault. Long gone are the Marlboro Red cigarettes and the ice-queen persona, and in their place is a new Donatella, and a new Versace woman.
“The look for Versace now is much cleaner, with a much clearer direction,” she says in husky, accented English. “Also, times have changed, women are changing. She [the Versace woman] is more sure of herself, she has less of a need to show off and is more in touch with herself. She learns how to dress to please herself and not anyone else.”
These words could easily be describing the changes Versace has experienced personally since she was thrust to the helm of the Versace empire in 1997.
But while the years following her brother Gianni’s death have been dark and tumultuous, things are finally looking up for Donatella and her company after a disastrous 2004.
First, she kicked her drug habit. Second, the company made the crucial decision to cease being a family operation and appointed a new chief executive, Giancarlo Di Risio, a former Versace employee and chief of Fendi. All the label’s “non-luxury” product licences were cancelled and the boutiques underwent a sophisticated and elegant makeover, removing any flashy reminders of the brand’s 1980s heyday.
The hard work and focus have paid off, with the company expected to be back in the black by next year. First-half results show consolidated revenues of Euro148 million (HK$1.45 billion) and a return to profit before tax of about Euro2 million. The brand has also revealed aggressive plans to expand globally, especially in China, where it will inject Euro10 million to open nine boutiques next year alone, in cities such as Hong Kong, Shanghai, Beijing and Chengdu.
Donatella has been surveying the firm’s new battleground. “I am enjoying it very much. It’s my first trip, both to Hong Kong and China. I thought Beijing was a fantastic city. The culture really struck a chord with me, it’s just so beautiful. What I found interesting was the contrast between the great culture and the energy and creativity of the young people. Shanghai was like I expected, it was fun, but Beijing was a great surprise. Hong Kong is delightful: fun, fabulous and glamorous. Chinese women are so glamorous, Versace fashion is perfect for them,” she says, laughing.
With deals to design interiors for TAG Aeronautics private jets ( Donatella reveals the company sold its first one in China) and Lamborghini, the brand is fast on its way to becoming the successful lifestyle empire Gianni always dreamed it would be. No one could have predicted this would be the outcome of a young man’s dream and his sister’s vision.
Donatella was born in Reggio di Calabria, southern Italy, the youngest of four children. Her mother, Francesca, was a dressmaker and her father was a personal financier to Italian aristocracy. Even
though Santo was the eldest child, it was her younger brother, Giovanni, or Gianni, to whom Donatella
was closest and whose influence would prove to be formidable and enduring. She was the yin to his yang, his ally and confidante.
“He was one of my best friends, it was the perfect relationship,” she says. “We were different but
in some ways we were very similar. In terms of personality, I would take more risks, the crazy one.”
While Gianni was making a name for his fashion business in Milan in the mid-1970s, Donatella studied literature at university in Florence. Fashion, she says, wasn’t high on her list of priorities until her brother persuaded her to join him.
“My mother was very fashionable,” she says. “She had a boutique and Gianni was working with her, so for him it was natural. When I was at school in Florence, he would call me incessantly and ask me why I wasn’t working for him. All my life I was surrounded by clothes, fabric, beauty, so when I joined him, it just came naturally.”
Donatella started helping her brother in Milan, designing accessories for the label as well as acting as his critic and muse. “I enjoyed designing, that was the real work. And I loved watching Gianni,” she says. “Now that he’s gone I realise what that experience was, how he had so much energy. He was really a great designer. He would work every day, sitting and cutting. He appreciated the art. You see what’s going around in fashion today and it’s not the same. After Gianni left, fashion changed completely.”
In 1979, she met American model Paul Beck; the pair married (they are now separated) and had two children, Allegra and Daniel. It was during this time the brand rose to prominence in the fashion world, with its flashy, tight dresses, bold colours and over-the-top black and gold Medusa logo. Its heady spirit was summed up best during its 1991 autumn/winter Milan show, when the supermodels of the era, including Christy Turlington, Linda Evangelista, Cindy Crawford and Naomi Campbell, charged down the catwalk lip-synching to George Michael’s anthem Freedom. Celebrities, too, from Elizabeth Hurley to Madonna, wanted a piece of Versace. “It was the boom of fashion, everything was allowed. It was about a love for fashion,” recalls Donatella.
And no one indulged in the hedonistic, carefree ways of the 80s quite like Donatella. She lived an extravagant lifestyle, travelling frequently between Italy and New York, where she would work on the firm’s advertising campaigns. Here, she plunged into a world of excessive partying, where drugs were commonplace. She tried cocaine for the first time at the age of 32, the beginning of an on-and-off addiction that would last almost 18 years.
What appeared to be a picture-perfect existence came crumbling down on a hot summer day in July 1997, when Gianni, 50, was shot and killed at the gates to his beachfront mansion in Miami, Florida. The fashion world came to a standstill while Donatella was thrust into the spotlight to become the head of the company, inheriting 20 per cent of the shares. Helping her was her brother Santo, who inherited 30 per cent, while her daughter, Allegra – Gianni’s favourite, was given the remaining 50 per cent.
As creative director, Donatella was responsible for designing the main-line and haute couture collections, a task that, despite her experience crafting the younger Versus label, was overwhelming. “It was very difficult for me when I took over,” she says. “It was easy to go and do what Gianni had done until then and risk nothing because it was the Versace style. But I couldn’t do it forever, not as far as my own creativity was concerned.”
While the press lauded her first collection, the ones that followed garnered mixed reviews. The house was struggling to survive and by 2004 it had debts of US$82 million and Donatella was struggling with a much-publicised cocaine addiction. An intervention by her family followed and she packed her bags and headed to Arizona to piece her life back together.
“It came to a point when I realised what I was doing was wrong and I had to change it. And I had the courage to say it,” she says.
“I wouldn’t say I am proud of what has happened, but yes, I wish I could change my life before. You know, I partied but it was a very lonely life. I was very lonely most of the time. I would surround myself
with more people so I felt less lonely, but it had the opposite effect. I changed because I came to a realisation: I was allowing myself to get out of control and it was affecting my work. Now my life isn’t quieter, but it’s different.”
Donatella took the important step of closing the brand’s costly haute couture business while Di Risio was tasked with bringing the company back from the brink.
“I became too distracted. We needed some structure and, as a big company, we had too many different aspects to worry about,” she says. “It’s not that I don’t believe in family, it’s just having a manager was much better – and it shows. We get along very well because I knew him many years ago.
I knew he was honest, passionate and capable. Now I am very, very happy.”
This does not mean the family won’t take precedence in the future. While Santo still takes an active role in the business, there is also the burning question of whether Gianni’s heir, Allegra, will join the business. Now 20, she inherited her shares two years ago.
“Right now she is very much a shareholder and she knows how to do her job. She has people advising her in the business, but she is independent at the same time,” says Donatella. “Both my children are very creative. With Ali, I don’t think she’s gonna be far away from the company, it’s part of her legacy, she is part of Versace.
“I have a great relationship with her, better now than before because she is over that teenage age.
You know how mother-daughter relationships [are]
– they always think the mother is wrong. I respect her opinion now and she respects me. When you are older, you learn to respect a younger opinion more. This is a world where they are better than us.”
Aside from jets and fast cars, Donatella also wants to spend time developing her atelier line, a custom service that is available only at the Palazzo flagship store in Milan. “The atelier line serves our clients better than haute couture. It’s what’s needed in the luxury market. When people see something photographed on the runway, they don’t want it any more; they want something they haven’t seen before. That’s the key and why the business is growing so well. It’s more challenging for me as a designer, because there’s no limit to what I do.”
She has also injected fresh young blood into the brand; she is, for example, mentoring up-and-coming British designer Christopher Kane, whose work she “admires very much”. While accessories account for 50 per cent of sales in Asia, Donatella asserts that ready-to-wear will remain the brand’s core. Her focus seems to be paying off. Each collection gets stronger, thanks to a “less is more” approach, as opposed to the other way round.
“Our clothes are still glamorous but evolving into a look for a more sophisticated and modern woman. It’s not too much but still enough to make a statement. It is still Versace and always will be Versace.”
As published in SCMP, October 29, 2006