“When I do something, I do it big,” says
the Italian fashion designer and chief creative officer of the luxury brand that her late brother, Gianni, started in 1978 and that bears their last name. “I don’t do simple.”
Versace, 67, is lounging in her makeshift atelier at Smashbox Studios in Culver City, California, which has been converted into a temporary replica of Versace’s Milan studio.
Around 110 Versace employees traveled to West Hollywood for a fashion show held last night at the Pacific Design Center, timed to kick off the festivities of the 95th annual Academy Awards on Sunday. It took 10 days and more than 400 crew members to construct an open-air arena on the roof—“I like things to be grand, believe it or not,” she says with a shrug—that housed about 520 VIP guests. (Attendees included Dua Lipa, Naomi Campbell, Elton John, Miley Cyrus, Pamela Anderson, and Jeff Bezos and Lauren Sánchez).
The fall-winter 2023 women’s and men’s collection, which was developed in Milan, was meticulously packed into 50 trunks and worn by 80-plus models on the runway. The show, which streamed live on Versace.com, ended with five dresses by Atelier Versace, the brand’s couture collection. It was originally scheduled for Friday night but, due to inclement-weather forecasts, the festivities were shifted up a day, an unusual act that added a sense of high-fashion drama on the eve of Hollywood’s biggest weekend of the year. “It’s supposed to rain on Friday, so we moved the show up by a day,” Versace says. “Versace clothes aren’t at their best when wet.”
Donatella and Gianni came to Los Angeles in the 1990s to encourage celebrities to wear their gowns on the red carpet and also to shoot ad campaigns. The first time a Versace gown appeared on the Oscars red carpet was at the 63rd Academy Awards in 1991, when Cindy Crawford wore a red evening gown with a deep V-neck. The dress was sold in 1999 during a benefit auction for the Foundation for AIDS Research at Christie’s for $12,650.
When Gianni was gunned down outside his house in Miami Beach in 1997, Donatella Versace became the company’s creative director, showing her first haute couture collection for the house a year later. Under her stewardship, the brand continued to build its status as a red-carpet staple, combining precise tailoring with Italian va-va-voom. Over the past three decades, she has become part of pop culture, memorably being impersonated by Maya Rudolph on Saturday Night Live in the 2000s, inspiring Lady Gaga’s 2013 song “Donatella” and regularly appearing at award shows (including last year’s Grammys alongside Megan Thee Stallion and Dua Lipa). In 2018, Capri Holdings Limited, a fashion conglomerate that owns brands like Michael Kors and Jimmy Choo, acquired Versace for approximately $2.12 billion.
Why skip Milan fashion week and show in L.A. this season? “Versace has been recognized for dressing stars for a long time, back when nobody dressed them. We were the only ones!” she says, wearing a long-sleeved black cashmere sweater, black Versace cargo pants, sky-high black patent platforms and layers of gold Chrome Hearts jewelry. “I love L.A. because it’s full of freedom, full of interesting people.”
It’s been a busy week: In addition to working on fittings for the show and approving sketches for dresses for Oscar-nominated actors to wear on Sunday, she hosted a tour of the Los Angeles LGBT Center and a chat with Phillip Picardi, the center’s chief marketing and communications offer, for 250 members of the LGBTQ community, including students from the Council of Fashion Designers of America. Versace and the CFDA announced a new scholarship that will be awarded to a LGBTQ+ student in September.
““Gianni [Versace] thought that if you dress a star, some of the stardust will stay with you.” ”
In her downtime in L.A., she and her daughter,
Allegra Versace Beck,
have been checking out local supermarkets for vitamins and green juices. (Once famous for putting a DV monogram sticker on the surgeon general’s warning of her packs of Marlboro Reds, Versace quit smoking in 2014.) On Sunday, she will be Elton John’s date to and a co-chair of his Oscar-viewing fundraising event and then plans to pop into at least three of the Oscar after-parties hosted by Vanity Fair, Madonna’s manager Guy Oseary and Jay-Z and Beyoncé. And yes, she’ll change in between.
“It’s the most fun place to be for the Oscars,” she says of John’s party. What will the two of them talk about on commercial breaks during the telecast? “You don’t want to know!” she laughs. “Not literature, not art, not music. So what’s left? Think about it.”
Here, Versace discusses memorable runway and red-carpet moments and her first show in L.A. in 25 years.
Derek Blasberg: Ciao, Donatella! Why are you doing your latest show in Hollywood?
Donatella Versace: For me, L.A. means a lot of things. It means freedom, it means natural, it means celebrities, movies, art, fashion. Here you can have everything together.
DB: Do you remember the first time you came to Los Angeles?
DV: I don’t remember the very first time, but I always loved to come here. I have fantastic memories. I did a lot of advertising campaigns over the years, always with my gang of models: Naomi [Campbell], Christy [Turlington]. We had all these fabulous moments in L.A.
““Versace has been recognized for dressing stars for a long time, back when nobody dressed them. We were the only ones!” ”
DB: Where do you like to go when you’re here?
DV: For me—it’s so L.A.—the first thing I do is go shopping. I always love Chrome Hearts especially.
DB: Everyone likes to go hiking in L.A. Is Donatella Versace a hiker?
DV: No, no, no. I’m not a hiking person!
DB: Growing up, what was your idea of Hollywood?
DV: Hollywood was a dream! Like fashion was a dream too. Actually, everything was a dream at that time. The world I’m living in now was a dream. I remember the images of those fabulous actresses: the strength that they project, how beautiful they look, how fierce they were. For me, the ideal woman was a woman on a red carpet in L.A.
DB: Glamour was such a big part of the foundation of Versace. What did your brother Gianni think of L.A., red carpets, actresses?
DV: We came together [to L.A.] only once or twice. But he was very shy, Gianni. In all of our relationships with actresses, it was me who had to do the talking. Gianni would say to me, “I’d like to see her in that dress.” And then I would go to tell her to try it on. Gianni thought that if you dress a star, some of the stardust will stay with you. He understood the power of celebrity and power of stars on the red carpet.
DB: For Versace’s fall 1991 collection, Cindy Crawford, Linda Evangelista, Christy Turlington and Naomi Campbell walked out together, arm in arm, at the end of a show lip-synching the song “Freedom! ’90,” by George Michael. He had recently released the music video starring those models and he was sitting there in the audience. Do you remember that moment?
DV: I remember it like it was yesterday! Everything happened at the last moment to make the girls walk together. Gianni was mesmerized with those girls, the supermodels. He felt like, wow, they made the clothes look fantastic. For him, it was not just about the clothes; it was also about the girls and how they wore them. We were all backstage in another position, and Gianni said, “Let’s send them together.”’ And I said, “Wait a moment, we have to fix the dresses,” so we changed the dresses. Naomi was in a long dress, so we had to quickly put her in a short one. All of these things happened in one minute backstage and then—bang!—they were hugging each other and lip-synching on the runway.
DB: Did you know that was going to be such an iconic moment?
DV: Actually, yes, I did! I could feel the enthusiasm from the audience. I was looking at the monitor with my mouth wide open.
DB: Will the latest collection be reflective of L.A. or Hollywood? What can we expect to see in the show?
DV: This collection was inspired by a campaign in 1995 with Steven Meisel. At times, I go through old campaigns and photography, and I was looking at this one and I thought it was particularly fabulous. The clothes were simple, but the strength! I said, Why do the clothes project such strength? It’s because the clothes are pure. It was the cut of the dress and the quality of fabric. It was almost couture. I started from that. [The concept is to] take away all the extra things on the dress and just go to the pureness of the cut and shape and quality of fabric. A little bit couture but not that expensive.
DB: Who were the models in that campaign?
DV: Kristen McMenamy, Linda Evangelista and Madonna.
DB: Those models are still working today, and so is Madonna.
DV: [Madonna] is so relevant today! For me, she was one of the first feminists. And she still is now.
DB: What was the creative process like for this new collection? The same as others?
DV: No, usually for prêt-à-porter, you do the first samples in factories, and then you do the fitting and you adjust. This time, I cut every sample, from the first sample, in the atelier in Milan. So we follow every little step in making the outfit. We are very careful about the little things that maybe you don’t see, but it gives a fabulous shape to a dress.
DB: What do you think the secret to a strong L.A. look is?
DV: It’s very important to think about tailoring. When you factor in tailoring, cutting it in a good way, you’re going to look fabulous. It doesn’t matter your body, it’s going to look better.
DB: Which actress’s style do you admire right now?
DV: Lady Gaga. I adore her. I love how she interprets her clothes, the way she wears it. It’s not the clothes that wear her. I like Angela Bassett. I love her strength.
DB: Google Images was created after Jennifer Lopez wore the famous Versace jungle-print dress to the Grammys in 2000. There were so many searches for the dress, Google’s engineers realized they needed an image search.
DV: In fact, when Jennifer Lopez came to Milano to do my fashion show [and to wear a new version of the jungle-print dress in 2019], I worked with Google to do my whole set and do the screens.
DB: At the time, did you think that dress was such a big deal?
DV: Absolutely not. I had no idea.
DB: Do you think in our lifetime, there is a chance for another moment like that when a single dress changes the course of technology?
DV: You know what, these things happen if you don’t think about it. If you think about: How can I do a dress like the J.Lo dress? it’s never gonna happen, you know? That moment was a combination of how J.Lo wore the dress. She was very young and she was very naive, in a way, because the dress was very revealing. But she didn’t realize how revealing it was, she told me, until she was half way through the red carpet. There was an innocence, too, of Jennifer when she wore that dress, which was mixed with being sexy.
DB: Many big names have walked the Oscars red carpet in your designs. What are some moments that stand out over the years?
DV: For sure, Gaga, when she arrived on the red carpet [of the American Music Awards] on a white [human] horse. That was an entrance! Another one is Angelina [Jolie] with a black ball gown when she pulled her leg out [on the Oscars red carpet]. The leg went viral, the image went everywhere. Sometimes you don’t know which dress is the best, but when you see someone wearing the dress it can become fantastic.
DB: There’s such an emphasis on social media now. Do red-carpet dresses still matter? What moves the needle nowadays?
DV: Versace started on the red carpet. Now every fashion house understands the importance of the red carpet. What I care about more is seeing young generations wear Versace. Kids—they look at the Versace archive and they write to me: Can I buy this? How much does it cost? Gen Z ask me this, and I’m very proud.
DB: It’s incredible to see Y2K and ’90s style coming back. Did you think it would return so soon?
DV: No. Ha! But it did. Gen Z has such an interest in the archive, and I didn’t realize why. We make great evening clothes. I don’t want to be full of myself, but we really do make evening clothes because we think a lot about a woman’s body, how to make it look its best. The work we used to do in the beginning, we still do now. A lot of attention is on the cut of clothes, the embroidery, the fitting—that’s the most important thing to make a girl feel sure about herself. The goal is to make a woman feel better. Empowerment.
DB: Is it true that your son, Daniel [Beck], is named after an Elton John song?
DV: Yes, absolutely. Elton gave my son his first piano, a fantastic piano brought to him, because Daniel is a musician. And he said, “I can’t touch this! It’s Elton John’s piano!”
DB: What will you wear to be his date on Sunday?
DV: I have to really think about my looks. It’s not like I wear the first thing I find, eh? I’m a very complicated woman!
DB: You want options?
DV: Maybe I’m going to change twice, at least. I don’t like to wear the same thing for too long.
DB: When a young person asks you for advice, what do you tell them?
DV: I tell them to go to someone else. I don’t give advice. I never follow a script. We’re in Hollywood, but I’m not an actress.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. Derek Blasberg is a senior staffer at Gagosian gallery.
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