Magazine article Newsweek International

The Donatella Style

Magazine article Newsweek International

The Donatella Style

Article excerpt

Eighteen months after the murder of Gianni Versace, the fashion empire he built is still thriving. But would he recognize the clothes that bear his label?

Donatella Versace is sitting on the overstuffed sofa in her late brother's living room in Milan, talking about how much she loves doing his job. In a rapid staccato, she insists that she's in control and running the billion-dollar business "as Gianni would have wanted it."

That is far from clear. In the year and a half since her brother was murdered on the steps of his Miami Beach mansion, Donatella has virtually erased the look that he spent a lifetime creating. Gone are the sexy-hooker dresses, the fun and flashy designs that made Gianni so famous. In their place: softer, sleeker corporate suits and gauzy gowns. Where Gianni favored bold primary colors topped off with gaudy beads or rhinestones, Donatella prefers floral prints and feminine hues. She has replaced dozens of her brother's longtime employees-- including his boyfriend of more than a decade--with fresh-scrubbed assistants just out of school or swiped from the couture houses of Paris. She sacked legendary fashion photographer Richard Avedon, who had shot the Versace campaigns since the first in 1978, and hired Steven Meisel, darling of the younger fashion set. And she killed the lower-priced Instante line. "I know who the Versace woman is," she declares, "because I wear the clothes myself."

This week, Donatella, 43, unveils Versace's new women's ready-to- wear collection in Milan. Though it is her fourth ready-to-wear collection since her brother's murder, most retailers believe it is only the second she developed entirely on her own. The first was shown at the Versace palazzo in Milan last October. In that collection--which featured canary yellow flowered Capri pants and crocus-colored cocktail dresses--it was obvious that she was no longer paying homage to Gianni or working off his leads. The look was rocker chick goes American Cover Girl, as epitomized by her friend Courtney Love, who sat in the front row wearing a crown of thorns.

The response was mixed. Women's Wear Daily declared that Donatella "infused the signature steam with a certain sweetness," but other critics were not so generous. "None of this was inventive," wrote the International Herald Tribune's influential fashion critic, Suzy Menkes. "Gianni Versace would study cut and drape and push them to their tricksy outer limits." Retailers were cautious about how the line would actually sell. Said Suzanne Patneaude, vice president for women's designer apparel at Nordstrom, "We love what Donatella does on the runway--it's so young and vibrant and fresh--but the customer who can afford Versace isn't 25."

Sales seem to bear that out. Though net profits of Gianni Versace SpA rose 35 percent in 1997--thanks in large part to the proceeds from Gianni's $19.9 million life insurance policy--the company's operating profit fell 5.6 percent. And Versace expects a drop in sales and profits for 1998, citing the Asian economic crisis.

To be sure, Donatella works very differently from her brother. While Gianni was a hands-on designer with a very small team, Donatella oversees scads of assistants and edits their work. She doesn't sketch herself. When she took over the company, she says, "I had two choices. One was to take the work of Gianni and update it. The second was to take the collections further."

There was no question that she would opt for the latter. Even when she was working as an assistant to her brother, she fought with him over his baroque creations, convinced that minimalism was the way to go. "Donatella was a very powerful critic," says Gianni's longtime friend, Guisi Ferre. "And Gianni would yell, 'Donatella, you want to kill my spirit? My success?' " During the last year of Gianni's life, tensions between the two ran so high that when she's asked about it during an exclusive interview with NEWSWEEK, she shuts up and looks away. …

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