VIVA DONATELLA!; Profiles

By Collins, Lauren | The New Yorker, September 24, 2007 | Go to article overview

VIVA DONATELLA!; Profiles


Collins, Lauren, The New Yorker


"Mai piu! Mai piu!" Donatella Versace, staccato and picking up speed, was yelling into a cell phone that an assistant had just planted in her right palm. Despite the buffed nails, her hands were meaty and brown--when she holds a goblet, they threaten to crush the bulb. She batted at the air like a lion, her index finger glinting with a gigantic canary diamond.

A few minutes earlier, the mood on the sixth floor of the Versace mansion, on Fifth Avenue, had been serene. Visitors, there to preview Versace's 2007 cruise collection, were offered sparkling water and caviar; vases of tulips and peonies graced low tables, and boxes of sugar cookies, iced to resemble the flowers, had been trussed with neat silk bows. There had been a minor panic over the whereabouts of Donatella's pocketbook, but the bag was found, and a 10 A.M. appointment with the editors of Women's Wear Daily and W proceeded without incident. "Oh, that's so cute!" an editor said, assessing a jumpsuit that melded hot pants with a bustier. "It's graphic and it's girly," another decreed, approvingly, of a silk shift printed with a huge calla lily.

The trouble began when, between appointments, Donatella repaired to an outdoor terrace to smoke. Seated at a wrought-iron table, she thumbed open a pack of "special DV Marlboro Reds" (so called because her staff in Milan is instructed to cover the customary "Smoking Kills" label on every pack with a sticker bearing a DV monogram in medieval script). She flipped the top of her lighter, which is paved with pink crystals, and started leafing through a copy of the July issue of Vogue.

Suddenly, she homed in on a page, letting her black sunglasses slip down the bridge of her nose and then teeter around her jawbone. Summoning a crew of retainers to the table, she jabbed a finger at page 111: a fashion spread of an austere Versace coat, shaped like a bell and trimmed at the hem with a band of gray fox fur. Facing it, on page 110, was a Versace advertisement showcasing a baby-pink ceramic watch, studded with pink diamonds. "I need my phone," she said.

Within seconds, she was on the line with a team of attorneys in Milan. Evidently, the ad was outdated and had been placed by a licensee, without Donatella's consent. The juxtaposition of the two photographs was accidental, but the effect was embarrassingly inconsistent. For years, Versace upheld a reputation as the loudest, louchest, most decadent name in fashion, but recently the company has aspired to a quieter image--less superlative than comparative, the sort that might improve its fortunes at department stores in the "better ladies' apparel" section. "She's saying, 'Send them a legal letter,' " an assistant explained, translating from Italian the escalating blasts of contempt. "She never approved that image. The new ad campaign is supposed to have a cleaner look."

"Non si deve permettere!" Donatella continued, flicking her cigarette in the direction of an ashtray etched with Versace's emblem, a Medusa head. "Mai piu!"

Donatella--everybody calls her that, or D.V.--is the creative director and vice-president of the board of Gianni Versace S.p.A, a fashion company founded, in 1978, by her older brother Gianni, who was murdered by a serial killer in Miami Beach in 1997. She owns twenty per cent of the company; her oldest brother, Santo, owns thirty. The remaining shares are controlled by her twenty-one-year-old daughter, Allegra, under the terms of Gianni's will. Gianni's death left Donatella, who was essentially an unprepared understudy, with awesome responsibility. She is charged with designing not only men's and women's clothing for four apparel brands (Versace, Versace Atelier, Versace Collection, and Versace Jeans Couture) but a host of lucrative "life-style products" (among them perfume, watches, belts, couches, dishes, eyeglasses, shoes, bags, and scarves). For the Versace line alone, Donatella produces twelve collections a year. The demands on her time, and lungs, are such that she dispatches Allegra to the cinema to scout movies in advance. …

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