Versace on A Budget

Article excerpt

Byline: Jacob Bernstein

The queen of Italy's blingiest fashion house takes her creations to H&M. times have changed.

It's 3:30 on a recent Friday afternoon at an atelier in Milan, and Donatella Versace is fashionably late for her own photo shoot. Ninety minutes late. In the background, a slew of lab-coat-wearing seamstresses work on couture gowns. Red-carpet shots of stars such as Charlize Theron and Jessica Biel are taped on the walls. Nearby, a very well-groomed young man in a tuxedo jacket is futzing with a dangling drape on one of the windows, clearly nervous about the lack of glamour such an image conveys. Another assistant reports that Donatella is due to arrive any minute, which in Versace time means simply "not yet."

Finally, at 4:05, she rolls in, wearing a slinky black dress and sky-high stilettos, trailed by a phalanx of subordinates. ("It's in her DNA to be late," says Franca Sozzani, the editor in chief of Italian Vogue and a close friend of Donatella's for many years.) She clutches a pack of Marlboro Reds and a lighter bedazzled with rhinestones. There's water on a tray behind her, in a large glass emblazoned with the Versace Medusa-head logo. These things--the cigarette lighter, her Reds, and that glass of water--accompany Donatella everywhere. "We don't know how that glass gets there every time, but it always does," a member of her staff says.

The photographer begins shooting, only to be interrupted within seconds so that someone can restraighten Donatella's hair, which, of course, is straight as a pin to begin with. In short, Donatella appears to be every bit the Saturday Night Live parody of herself, her very own Maya Rudolph impersonation come to life. That is, until she opens her mouth and an entirely different person emerges.

First comes the apology for being late. Then, Donatella starts peppering the photographer with questions about where she comes from and compliments her on using film in a digital age: "I can't believe it," the fashion maven says in her thick Italian accent. "No one uses it anymore, and I so prefer it. You know, the photo--it just look different. It has soul."

The photographer pops what seems like hundreds of nearly identical shots, then announces she's going to change the film and do two more rolls. "One more," Donatella says, with a little smile.

It's not because she's a beetch, as she later pronounces the word, that she's cutting the shoot short. It's just that she's busy. Incredibly busy. Donatella is flying to the United States for meetings in New York and Los Angeles. There's an advertising campaign that has to be shot for Versace's ready-to-wear line. Most significant, there's the Nov. 19 launch of Donatella's new H&M-designed Versace collection, the first time the brand has ventured into low-cost fashion.

Unlike Versace's couture and ready-to-wear lines, which are typically produced in a matter of weeks, the collaboration with H&M was the result of more than a year's worth of planning and work. Other high-end designers--Alber Elbaz, Stella McCartney, and Karl Lagerfeld--have done collections with the Swedish discount retailer; Jil Sander had a successful line at Uniqlo, the Japanese casual-wear retailer, that's now wrapping up. The difference is that these designers are minimalists compared with Versace, which is known for its elaborate prints and complicated diaphanous gowns.

To make matters more difficult, Donatella decided from the get-go that the only way she would partner with H&M was to do a collection that hewed closely to Versace's louche sense of glamour from the 1980s and '90s, designs pioneered by her brother Gianni before he was murdered by a spree killer in Miami in 1997.

"I said I wanted to do the iconic pieces of Versace, Versace through history until now," Donatella says, sitting on a couch in her corner office at the company's headquarters, with a cigarette dangling from her mouth. …