Donatella Versace On The Secret To Her Success

05/28/2015 04:02 pm ET | Updated May 28, 2015

Becoming Versace
By Serena Tibaldi Photos by Rahi Rezvani

“I made a lot of mistakes to begin with. Then I learnt to trust myself. The secret of my success? Work.” -- Donatella Versace

Versace knows her own mind. On fashion, Italy, politics. And a celebrity endorsement, Lady Gaga.

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"My life is boring. I know, nobody believes me, but I get up early, work all day and spend my evenings at home either on my own or with my kids, Allegra and Daniel (Allegra, 27, works with mom, while Daniel, 24, is studying in London), even if their chief occupation is to call into question everything I do. Classic.”

Donatella Versace smiles, knowing that this “normality” is the part few would imagine about her. It only takes a couple of comments to understand that beyond the platinum hair, the stiletto heels, the electronic cigarettes (which replaced real ones a year ago –- “and to think I used to smoke while running on the treadmill.”) and the distinctive make up, there is an open, friendly woman.

“Don’t say anything it’s my maternal side, I want to be sure that everyone feels at ease,” she explains while she moves the astrakhan cushions on the armchairs, as, she says, they’re not comfortable. Donatella in the flesh is exactly how she is popularly painted -- “larger than life,” one of those personalities that goes above and beyond who they are and what they do. She is a symbol, a way to be, unique.

“Honestly, I’m still surprised when I’m recognized in the street; I’m not Lady Gaga after all. I always stop when young people approach me wanting to speak about Versace, they make me happy.”

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In fact, before she was thrust into it, life in the limelight had never crossed her mind. “I was and am insecure. Since when I took Gianni’s place, after his death, I’ve learnt to dominate fear: it’s always there, but I hide it. Also because it was my choice so now I have to face up to it!”

To say that, her initial period as Creative Director was difficult would be a euphemism, but she speaks about it openly, with moving simplicity. “I made lots of mistakes, at the beginning: the eyes of the world were on me, it was taken for granted that the brand was finished, but I held on. Hoping to do the right thing I listened to everyone, but in doing so got lost. When I understood that I could and should trust myself everything changed.”

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Patient and relaxed as she is, just one thing annoys her: When she is asked where she gets her inspiration from. “It’s always the first question. But what do they think? I look around myself, my creative process is down to earth! Art? Well, I think it is anachronistic to use it as reference, also because the most beautiful pieces today are installations: how could you transform them into clothes? I’m interested in reality; I’d rather have Picassos at home.”

Speaking about “her” ladies, with endorsements from Queen Elizabeth II and Madeleine Albright and friends like Lady Gaga, face of this year’s spring-summer collection, she ends up on the topic of beauty and its significance. “My clothes have to make women beautiful. Not strange or 'modern,' beautiful. I always ask the models how they feel in that dress, those clothes, because on the catwalk it’s important to feel the confidence that comes from liking oneself.”

Besides, it was Donatella who first put super-top models on the catwalk, transforming them into creatures of Versace. “Gianni wouldn’t entertain it initially, but I, as usual, wore him down. It ended up with his mistaking Linda Evangelista for a dresser, getting it into his head that Kristen McMenamy was crazy, and, when I introduced him to Kate Moss, asking me if I’d chosen her because she was as short as me. But he had understood what I’d meant: on the catwalk you need charisma. Otherwise, can you imagine the boredom?”

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If her life hadn’t turned out this way maybe she would have worked in the music industry, but there was never a real alternative. “My mom was a seamstress, my brother wanted to be a fashion designer, I was in the middle. Gianni dressed me, sending me out and about in Reggio Calabria in a yellow mini skirt, over-the-knee boots and with highlights in my hair: I was 12 years old! But I grew up like this, this is me.”

It would be wrong to think that her work starts and ends with clothes: the decision to sell 20 percent to the Blackstone private equity fund was hers, following an agreement with her daughter Allegra to join together the value of the Versace shares they hold, making an overall total of 70 percent, and thus guaranteeing themselves the position of major shareholders. And Donatella showed recognition of the importance of management when she credited Gian Giacomo Ferraris, CEO since 2009, with having allowed her creative freedom.

“My responsibility is to make people buy Versace because they fall in love with an item, irrespective of its cost. He understands this and trusts me.”

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She has plenty to say about the new generation of designers, a subject dear to her heart: she designs for Versus, collaborating with a different one each time.

“I helped Gianni to go beyond his limits, and this is the role they have with me: they help me to compare myself with the present. I appreciate that many pay homage to Versace, but it is important to me that they do it in their own way, carbon copies are of no interest to me.” And Fausto Puglisi, identified as the heir –- for some a little too faithful to the original -– to Gianni? Donatella stops, sighs, carries on talking.

“He’s good and I wish him all the best, but he should create himself a look which is less connected to ours. I like Anthony Vaccarello, he has a 'Versacian' sensuality of his own: I’m going to do the next Versus collection with him."

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Going back to her “normal” life: when abroad she always tries to see and do as much as possible. “Nothing illegal, I’ve already done my bit that way,” she says bursting out laughing, but then she becomes animated. “Italy has little to offer at the moment and it’s a shame, as many young people would move mountains to stay.” If Renzi is given a free hand to do what he wants, Donatella hopes, maybe things will change, but it’s hard to get over the indifference that the political class has towards fashion.

“And we are the only ones exporting and investing, while others are snatching what they can. I know it’s an Italian habit to always blame everyone else, but if we are at this point it’s all down to Berlusconi: he destroyed culture, convincing young people that appearing on Big Brother is the best aspiration to have. When I visit Daniel in London and I see how young people are there I become furious. We’ve lost 20 years following the wrong example, looking for success without hard work. What a waste!”

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