My meeting with Donatella Versace begins with a misunderstanding worthy of a sitcom. I’ve been told by Anthony Vaccarello, creative director of Versus, Versace’s diffusion label, that the new collection launching in Shoreditch tonight is inspired by Brett Anderson and 1990s Britpop. So, seated next to her on a sofa in a Claridge’s suite, I ask if she is a fan of Suede. She drags on her e-cigarette and widens her dark-lidded eyes. “Oh, I love it,” she says, sounding as if she is eating something really delicious. “Right,” I say, surprised, but going with it. “What’s your favourite Suede song?” She stops, stares and then laughs – properly laughs – and slaps the sofa. “Oh, the band! I was like, ‘What is she talking about?’” she says, miming an is-she-mad face.
Donatella Versace in New York last year.
Donatella Versace in New York last year. Photograph: Larry Busacca/Getty Images for Moet & Chandon
Some uptight designers might be embarrassed or annoyed about the mix-up, but not Donatella Versace. For a start, she is used to it. Her staff have told me that she sometimes talks to them in her heavy Milanese accent, knowing full well that they haven’t understood her but are too scared to let on, and this tickles her. Second, for all her dramatic monochrome look, massive jewels and impossibly tiny frame – which has something of the terrier about it – Donatella is real. Funny, honest, a little lawless (in her conversation, at least – she’s been sober for years), with an inability to stop teasing people and making joking asides under her breath. But she doesn’t like Suede. She’s more into commercial pop: Rihanna’s Bitch Better Have My Money is a current favourite, as is, predictably, Lady Gaga’s Donatella; or else she listens to what she calls her “roots” – a mix of Foo Fighters, Led Zeppelin and Depeche Mode.
It doesn’t matter that Versace herself isn’t much into the Versus campaign’s inspiration because, although she remains head honcho in the capacity of artistic director for the label, she no longer designs for the line. After a few capsule collections designed by acclaimed British designers Christopher Kane and JW Anderson, the task now falls to Vaccarello, a 32-year-old Belgian-Italian designer who has worked with Versus before, but was only installed as permanent creative director earlier in the year. Vaccarello came to fashion’s attention by designing model Anja Rubik’s infamous hipbone dress for the Met Ball in 2012, and his love of the almost-too-sexy makes him an excellent fit for the brand.
Was it hard for Versace to let go of the label that is often considered her baby? “Yes. But I understand it is the right moment to give it up. I’m not 25, and going out every night. You need to be able to see what is going on, to listen to their language and to go where they are. I cannot do that, even though I would love to. If I do, it’s not going to be radical. Anthony can do that. His sensibility is similar to the DNA of Versace, but he has a fresh eye.”
Donatella’s fashion empire is unquestionably on the rise. In March, the company announced that profits had leapt by 27% in the past 12 months to €26.3 m. A public floatation is regularly said to be imminent. Crucially, the billion-euro brand is seen as outward-looking and engaged in a way that some of its Milanese competitors are not.
In recent years, Donatella seems to have been actively seeking a role as a weathy patron within the fashion world. Evidence of her modern-day de Medici vibes aren’t hard to find. She famously loaned Christopher Kane shoes for his graduate show and later had him on the payroll at Versus (“It was love at first sight with Christopher. He is a special talent with an explosion of ideas”). The “super-talented” JW Anderson has also benefited from some Versus patronage. But, most recently, it was announced that Donatella herself is to star in the upcoming Givenchy campaign. The announcement was made via Instagram with a picture of Donatella’s platinum profile in front of the face of Givenchy designer Riccardo Tisci. To lend her image and approval to what could be seen as a rival label was an unusual move, suggesting that Donatella is beyond any tawdry fashion cattiness. Tisci, she tells me, sent her an email that began: “I know you will never agree, but …” Donatella couldn’t resist the chance to surprise, and three days later the campaign was shot.
Versus has put social media at the heart of its new collection’s launch. Unlike most other autumn/winter lines – which were shown back in February and land in the shops months later – these clothes will go on sale immediately. There won’t be a catwalk, merely this launch event. The collection, featuring saucy asymmetrical kilts, heaps of black, and giant silver Versace lion-head buttons, is built to appeal to a younger crowd.
A model on the Versus Versace Spring 2015 catwalk Facebook Twitter Pinterest
A model on the Versus Versace Spring 2015 catwalk Photograph: JP Yim/Getty Images
This instantaneous approach is crucial, according to Donatella. Despite not being on Instagram herself (“I need someone next to me, who understands me immediately, who I can prod to post for me”), the designer understands well that social media has changed fashion. “Before that, we were in a little enclosed circle – fashion designers and fashion journalists. But fashion is not an elite any more: it is a democracy. The real new things are things you see on the street.” In a week where commercial giant Net-a-Porter is launching the Net Set – a shopable social-media platform aimed directly at the consumer-cum-designer – this attitude seems bang on the money.
Versace’s love affair with London is set to last. The brand will be back to show the next Versus collection on the catwalk at London fashion week in September. So, what is it about the capital that appeals right now? “I find London very exciting: it’s full of subcultures talking together and I love that. It wasn’t like that for a while, but now I feel a lot of energy.” When I ask her why she thinks that might be, her answer is surprising. “I don’t know whether it’s because of the royal family reinterpreting themselves with Prince William. I think that has an influence, I don’t know. When you see Prince Harry, he is one of us.” She motions to a preview video of the Versus collection and laughs, “He could be in that.”