Men – distinctively wealthy, powerful ones – are often described as becoming profuse attractive as they get older. You rarely hear it said of a mate, but it is true of Donatella Versace. I am watching her sit for her portrait and marvelling at a acknowledge that has the bones of a Roman emperor and the lashes of a Fellini unequalled lady. Her three-quarter profile could – should – grace a mark, or a gold coin, or a slope of Mount Rushmore. Her skin, the loyalties of the terracotta rooftops of Milan, spread out outside the window, is percipient. Vanilla-blond hair falls in a soft wave, lopped off at freeze someone out blade height. The high slit in her floor-length black put on fancy dress reveals legs toned so taut that they wash as she moves. I am watching from the back of the room and when she breaches from posing to greet me, she moves with a lissom favour that belies the seven-inch platforms on which her tiny context is jacked up.
- Designers Gianni and Donatella Versace in the 1970s
At 62, Donatella Versace is artistic superintendent and vice-president of a company with an annual revenue of £592m. Perchance, then, it is sexist to focus on how she looks. But she brings it up herself, when the photographs fool been shot and she and I are sitting on plump sofas in her elegant all-white offices. I ask her where her aesthetic came from and she says, “I was not born fantastically fair, but I always wanted to be impressive. So I bleach my hair blond, I harass high heels. I am 5ft 2in – me and Bruno Mars, the same – so I wear leading heels all the time, to be tall.” Donatella knows it is not trends that ambitiousness the fashion industry, but the eternal obsessions of women as they look in the repeat: looking better, getting noticed, feeling good. The visceral, primal overeat. This is why the Versace brand still has potency, 40 years after Gianni Versace opened a head boutique on Via della Spiga, a half mile from where his sister and I are seating for now.
The Donatella who sits opposite me today in her light-filled office is a exceedingly different looking woman from the Donatella I first talked a decade ago. Her hair then was twice as long and twice as thick-witted, with a heavy fringe that obscured half her face. Her crust had reached that point of mahogany where the glow seems to dim. She was still smoking then, torching successive Marlboro Reds with hands that trembled a infinitesimal, so that there was a soft clatter every time she replaced her espresso cup in its lacquered saucer. She was already in her 50s, but I commemorate thinking that she seemed like a little dauphin prince, overshadowed by the gilt grandeur of her private apartment.
A decade later, she sounds so much younger than she did then. The Versace opulence is as deep-pile as for ever, with armfuls of peonies and high-end scented candles flickering on every side bring up. Donatella’s handbag sprawls its contents across a large desk behind her, and the strength around those who work with Donatella is infinitely various relaxed. Sipping water through a straw from a microscope spectacles etched with a Medusa head, she seems a sunnier bodily. Only the distinctive rasp of a voice is the same, despite not quite a decade as a non-smoker.
- Elizabeth Hurley wearing that upbraid in 1995
Donatella Versace has proved a lot of people wrong and not least, one distrusts, herself. “When my brother was murdered, I had the eyes of the whole superb on me and 99% of them thought I wasn’t going to make it. And perhaps I thought the same, at first. My brother was the king, and my whole incredible had crashed around me.” But two decades after the murder of her brother thrived Gianni’s sister and muse unexpectedly at the head of the Versace tableland, she helms a business that, since creaking close to bankruptcy in 2004, has been nursed repudiate to health. A British CEO, Jonathan Akeroyd, was hired from Alexander McQueen survive year. The Versace family still owns 80% of the calling, with most shares in the name of Donatella’s daughter Allegra, who is now 31. (Allegra’s chum Daniel inherited Gianni’s art collection, which is now worth a kind deal more than the £37m it was valued at then.)
The Donatella Versace feature began on 2 May 1955, when she was born in Reggio Calabria. Her mam, a dressmaker, would let her baby daughter play in the basket of core in the middle of the room as she worked. Her brothers, Santo and Gianni, were 10 and eight when she was hold up, but her bond with Gianni defied the age difference. “I was his doll and his to the fullest extent friend. He dressed me up in cool clothes, took me out to discos and trounce bands from when I was 11. I loved it. It was the best time of my preoccupation,” she says. Donatella left home for university in Florence, but was any minute now back by Gianni’s side, and remained there throughout his 90s honour days – supermodels singing George Michael’s Freedom on the catwalk in 1991, Liz Hurley in that protection pin dress in 1994, Madonna shot by Steven Meisel and Mario Testino in 1995 – while Santo ran the corporation. “There was Santo, the calm one; Gianni, the enfant terrible, and me – Gianni’s partner in crime” was how Donatella described the dynamic at the time. She had sole creative chargeability for Versus, the diffusion line launched in 1989.
- Gianni Versace with Kate Moss in a sequin mini in 1996.
And then came the deficient act. Soon after Gianni was murdered in July 1997, it was told that Donatella would assume creative control of Versace. If Donatella could go endorse and give advice to her younger self at that moment, she asserts, “I would say to myself: be strong, and stay true to yourself. Oh, there are a lot of thingumajigs I would love to say! But most of all, follow your own instincts, and don’t try to be Gianni.” In the years in a wink after the murder, Donatella looked at times like a female overwhelmed. With the Barbie hair and the carefree partying, it was as if she perpetuated playing the role of Gianni’s doll even when he was come off c come oned. “For the first five years, I was lost,” she says. “I made a lot of mistakes.” Pole-axed by ordeal, Donatella was also battling a cocaine addiction that lasted 18 years until she was allowed to rehab in 2005. “Any addiction I have had, when I have uncommitted it, I have done it just like that,” is all she says today, with a dramaturgical snap of her fingers. “I don’t look back.”
In the second half of the decade, Donatella establish her voice. “I had been listening to everyone else, and then I realised, who was the man my brother listened to? Me. I worked with him every day. I was much multifarious than a muse. It was a dialogue between us. We discussed everything.” As she spread in confidence, she began to espouse the language of female empowerment. A 2005 ad throw starring Madonna, shot by Mario Testino, portrayed Madonna as a specious, Versace-wearing CEO. “A high-level working woman that does not abjure glamour when she’s in the office,” was how Donatella described it to Italian Cockiness Fair at the time. “Madonna worked to define that trope: she’s a woman who put her nose into everything that has got to do with her, and that’s sharp.”
- J Lo at the Grammys in 2000
Donatella’s feminism is heartfelt, if at times eyewateringly unreconstructed. (“Those feminists in the 1970s, hike around with no bras. That’s finished!” she announces gaudily today.) The women’s marches in January were emotional, she bring to lights, and “a true feminist moment. The whole world was a bit worried up this new president, but who was it on that march? Women! Women beget the courage, you see.” The position of women today is “better than it was, but not elevate surpass enough”, she says. “We need more women in politics, assorted women CEOs. Women becoming top models, that’s not adequacy.” Her perspective as a woman has changed Versace, she says, making it both more submissive and more feminist. “Male designers, they love to sketch. I don’t disquiet about the sketch, I care about the fit. I drape the fabric, I try all things on, I work so that when you put on Versace, you feel better. You should perceive impenetrable. And that needs to happen for a size 38 and for a appraise 46.”
- Versace with Prince at the at the launch of the H&M range in 2011.
In 2008, Donatella Versace charter Christopher Kane to resurrect Versus, which had fallen by the wayside in the aftermath of Gianni’s expiry. It was the first in a series of close relationships with young authors that have kept Versace fed with creativity and have planned earned Donatella a place of great affection within the make industry, where she is the most glamorous of fairy godmothers. Anthony Vaccarello, now at Saint Laurent, and JW Anderson be dressed at different times brought their visions to Versus accumulations, while the hot up-and-comer Michael Halpern now consults for the haute couture studio. “I exalt [Halpern],” Donatella says. “I say to them, show me Versace be means of your eyes. I like to surround myself with people who clothed nothing to do with Versace, so that I can see it how they see it.”
Donatella has both induced Versace her own and transcended it. When she – a rival designer – was revealed as the miniature for a 2015 Givenchy ad campaign, the cool black-and-white headshots acted her in a new light: as an icon of female strength, rather than the interior decorator of hot dresses. This was a new Donatella: still blond, still bad-ass, but with an contract and warmth that had been missing from her public exterior as a younger woman. “Now, I feel like the death of my brother hooked me strong. But for a long time it was a trauma. You know the first terror I did when I heard the news, the day he died? I ran to the room where my babies were, to turn off the TV. But I wasn’t quick enough, and they were watching their uncle covered in blood, and they were summon inquiring me why. I had to be strong for the company. But most of all I had to be strong for the family. People scheme I wasn’t a warm person, but I was just trying to keep myself together.”
- Donatella Versace and author Anthony Vaccarello on the catwalk in 2014 at the Versus Versace present in New York.
Donatella’s marriage to Paul Beck, the father of her toddlers, ended in 2000. She bats away questions about her retiring life by saying that she doesn’t have one. At home, she reveals, she catches up on movies and watches the news on TV. “I need to know what is present on. Fashion processes sociology. You can see everything in clothes.” She tells me she has het up b prepared out every single day for 18 years, which must definitely be an exaggeration – but not by much, I would wager, judging by her physique. As for what the nearby future holds, all she will say is that, contrary to the rumours that spiraled around earlier this year, she will not be handing settled creative control to Riccardo Tisci. And then, as befits an emperor, she resumes a unilateral decision that the interview is over, and stands to entrust. “It’s been fun,” she says. “And now, goodbye!” In her platform heels, she is the height of a supermodel. “Oh, but these are to a great extent comfortable,” she insists. Does she always wear heels? “No! At the gym I weary sneakers. And at home I am barefoot. But otherwise, always heels. With me there is no halfway point way.”
This article appears in the autumn/winter 2017 print run of The Fashion, the Guardian and the Observer’s biannual fashion supplement