Donatella Versace darts into the living room, quick as a hummingbird. Her twig-like limbs are sheathed in a form-fitting black suit whose lapels frame her burnt-umber face with a slash of chartreuse.
We’re meeting in Milan at the 18th-century palazzo of her brother Gianni, which has been largely preserved as he left it in 1997. But neither the golden candelabra nor the iridescent lapels are any match for Donatella’s incandescent platinum hair, which has glowed in the dark ever since she was 11 and Gianni convinced her to bleach it, much to the horror of her parents.
Although he went on to create the luxury fashion house of Versace, Gianni never relinquished his hold on the little sister he treated like a living doll. Donatella spent the next three decades as his muse and sounding board, but everything changed when Gianni was assassinated by a spree killer in Miami, forcing her to assume creative control of his company.
Emotionally devastated and overwhelmed by her professional and familial responsibilities, Donatella was a troubled steward dogged by constant rumors about everything from her cocaine addiction to Versace’s financial woes. As recently as last year the fashion industry predicted her imminent replacement as artistic director by Givenchy’s Riccardo Tisci.
But the critics counted her out too soon. Despite the delicacy of its filament legs, the tiny hummingbird—which can fly backward and impale unwary rivals with its stiletto beak— was the Aztec symbol for the god of war. Equally fierce, the diminutive Donatella has proved as indomitable as she is wily.
After vanquishing her own demons and a host of other challenges, Donatella emerged this year as a victorious power-house, even as Tisci moved to Burberry instead of Versace. Through sheer force of will, she has progressed from an inauspicious starting point—the unlikely childhood persona created by the adolescent imaginings of her fashion-obsessed brother—to triumph over every obstacle and make herself into an enduring fashion icon of the 21st century.
Donatella has officially headed Versace for one more year than her brother did. The anniversary heralded a banner season for both the company and Donatella, whose vision has evolved from the shock value of Gianni’s sex-doll designs to a more sophisticated understanding of women’s lives today.
While Versace is best known for fashion and home furnishings, the brand has long since expanded to include everything from Lamborghinis and helicopters to luxury hotels and residences, with the latest being a 271-room hotel and casino to open in Macau next year. Versace now has annual sales of more than $800 million, with a 4 percent growth rate in the last year, and a global network of more than 200 stores.
Presiding over it all, Donatella is an eye-popping empress. This past May she co-chaired the Met Gala with Anna Wintour, Rihanna, and Amal Clooney in a high-profile role that confirmed her “living legend status,” as Time magazine put it.
In June the Council of Fashion Designers of America, whose annual honors are considered the Oscars of fashion, chose Donatella as the recipient of its International Award. When I ask how all this makes her feel, she gives me a sly grin. “I made it,” she says. “I’m here.”
Ever the pragmatist, she refuses to dwell on the hardships of the past. “I don’t think about it,” she says with an airy wave. “That was then. I suffered. I took the necessary action. Never look back. Always look in front. What’s next?”
Whatever it is, she’s all-in. At 63, Donatella feels well equipped to deal with demands that are vastly different from any her brother ever faced. “When he was alive, the world didn’t change,” she says. “The Internet was a revolution—which I knew nothing about. But I was aware you need to keep up—with the velocity, the speed of change.”
She seems to thrive on constant acceleration. “Fashion is sociology, and I’m very fast,” she says. “I was always into culture—what’s going on? People cannot keep up with me.”
And yet the house of Versace is visibly haunted by the past. At the entrance to Gianni’s palazzo on Via Gesù, visitors are
greeted by the Medusa heads mounted on the front doors. The interiors reflect the pervasive Greek influence on Reggio Calabria, the region where the Versaces grew up.
From the Grecian urns and Ionic columns to the marble floors and tables in gleaming shades of onyx and wheat and chestnut, Hellenic symbology recalls Calabria’s history as Magna Graecia, the Roman name for the Greek settlements in coastal areas of southern Italy and Sicily.
Their culture was a lifelong preoccupation for the Versaces’ father. “The only thing he talked about was history and mythology,” Donatella says.
That passion shaped the tastes of his children. Long before Gianni chose Medusa as the Versace logo, he was captivated by her fearsome image. When excavations on the street near the family’s house revealed ancient ruins, he found a fragment of the capital of a column featuring Medusa’s head. “He was mesmerized,” Donatella reports.
That first glance might have been the end of him; Greek mythology depicted Medusa as a snake-headed monster whose gaze turned men to stone, even after she was beheaded by Perseus, who used her severed head as a weapon. But Medusa was originally a victim—a ravishing maiden who was raped by the god Poseidon in the temple of Athena; the goddess was so enraged that she transformed Medusa’s hair into venomous serpents and her beautiful face into a lethal symbol of inextinguishable rage.
Medusa’s fate carries an eerie resonance in the #MeToo era. “She got raped, but she’s powerful,” says Donatella. “She mesmerized people—you can’t look away. She was a victim, but she was so strong she got over that. She becomes dangerous for other people. Nobody could rape her again, ever.”
For Donatella, such strength evokes the fearless female who was her original role model. “My family story is the story of a powerful woman,” she says. “I had a mother who was ahead of her time. She was such a strong woman. My father was from a rich family, but he wouldn’t give anything to my mother. She made herself from nothing, from zero money. She was a seamstress, and she opened her own atelier.”
Her children followed in her footsteps. Gianni worked as an apprentice in his mother’s dressmaking business, and his older brother Santo served as the longtime president of Versace. As for Donatella, she was not the original daughter in the family; an older sister named Tina died suddenly at 12 from a tetanus infection, which led her grief-stricken parents to create Donatella as a replacement. “I was born because my mother lost a daughter,” she says. “I always felt like I was born to make my parents happy, to fill this space.”
When I ask if it worked, Donatella shrugs. “For them, yes,” she says dismissively. “For me—why? Just for that?”
But she relished the freedom afforded by her position as baby sister. “I loved to have two brothers much older than me, because they would include me, and I experienced a lot of things in life before girls my age,” says Donatella, whose brothers were taking her to discos and clubs before she hit puberty.
The Versaces’ libertine ways were a vivid contrast with the repressive social mores of Reggio Calabria. “In the south of Italy, families are very conservative, but my family was the opposite,” Donatella says. “It was impossible for women to succeed. They were not taken into consideration at all.”
Gianni was working in Bologna when Donatella went to the University of Florence, but he still expected her life to revolve around his needs—especially his demand for feedback about his fashion ideas. “I had friends at university, but every weekend I was going to see him,” she says.“ What you think? What you think? What you think?’” She mimics her brother’s relentlessness with an eloquent eye roll.
“I was his sounding board for everything. It was his business decisions, it was his creative decisions, it was his life decisions. I was always with him.”
Although Gianni cast her as his muse, Donatella bristles when I mention the word objectification. “I never was an object,” she says sharply.
Always a tough customer, Donatella demanded influence in exchange for her input. “He gave me opportunity, but he was holding on to me, so—okay, if you want me, you listen to me!” she says. “We had unbelievable fights. If you listened to us fight, for sure you would think we would never talk to each other again.”
Despite her youth, she refused to tailor her words to please him. “I wanted to make him stronger,” she says. “I wasn’t afraid to say the truth. It’s just my personality. Gianni was such a strong person as well.”
Her long apprenticeship proved invaluable when Gianni got sick in the mid-1990s. The family said he had a rare cancer of the inner ear, and they were outraged by later reports that he was HIV positive—a claim made by Maureen Orth in a Vanity Fair story she turned into a book called Vulgar Favors. The Assassination of Gianni Versace, the television series based on the book (in which Donatella was played by Penélope Cruz), was condemned by the family as “a work of fiction.”
During his illness, Gianni delegated much of his work to Donatella, but she was shocked by how hard it was to take over when he died. “The pain was incredible, and to live the pain in public was even worse,” she says. “And to have children who adored Gianni—” She shakes her head. “It was very difficult.”
The job duties were more difficult than she expected. “I thought I had the same responsibility as Gianni did, but I had no idea what the real responsibility is of the person who is in front,” she admits. “I made a lot of mistakes, but my mother told me always, ‘Never give up.’ I do believe that. There’s always a way to repair.”
Some observers thought it strange that Gianni left 50 percent of Versace to Donatella’s 11-year-old daughter, Allegra, whom he adored. Donatella believes that was his way of ensuring that she herself would run the business. “I felt there was no other way,” she says. “I knew how much Gianni cared about the company, how much sweat it took to create it. I believed I had to do it. I’m not going to let it go.”
But the pressure was excruciating. “Everyone was looking at me to fail,” says Donatella, whose coping mechanisms included a heavy smoking habit and a cocaine addiction that lasted 18 years. “I was taking care of my pain with different things instead of facing it.”
After Elton John staged an intervention at Allegra’s 18th-birthday party, Donatella finally entered rehab. “I decided I cannot make mistakes anymore, it’s just too painful. I went to fix myself,” she explains. “I think it was the most painful five
weeks in my life, but it was amazing for me. People want to run away, but I want to stay. I learned so much about myself. I never went to a psychologist, so for the first time, it was all about myself. I found out so many things. I found so much strength in me, so much determination!”
In retrospect, Donatella is candid about her missteps. “I know when I didn’t succeed. I know why I didn’t succeed,” she says. “I’m able to stand up again and work on my mistakes and make something better. You fall, and you get up again.”
Work has been her priority since then; with her children grown and husbands divorced, there are fewer distractions than there used to be. Donatella’s 17-year marriage to Paul Beck, a former male model and the father of her children, ended in 2000; a brief second marriage ended in 2005. Donatella’s son Daniel is a punk-rock musician, and Allegra, who has waged a long battle with severe anorexia, is a creative consultant for Versus, a Versace line for younger consumers.
As for Donatella, she is forthright about what Versace means to her. “It’s my life,” she says. “It’s not just a brand. It’s a lifestyle.”
Many luxury brands advertise themselves as such, but Versace has long encompassed an entire worldview—a fantasy of wealth whose over-the-top excessiveness represents an unapologetic blend of vulgarity and opulence. Donatella— who loves to talk about inclusivity—claims this is a club that anyone can join.
The brand under Gianni was always characterized by aggressive sexuality, from the fetish wear of its 1992 bondage collection and the iconic black dress held together with gold safety pins to Jennifer Lopez’s plunging green chiffon dress. But times change, and these days famous females all over the world are joining the women’s empowerment movement and wearing all black to awards ceremonies in solidarity with survivors of sexual abuse. Ever a keen observer of the scene, Donatella has recalibrated to accommodate the shift in the prevailing winds.
As of late, Donatella’s runway has suggested an evolution, from dresses best described as modestly voluptuous to witty riffs on her brother’s designs. (Or even riffs on her own scandals, with T-shirts in her recent men’s collection blaring the tabloid cliché “Versace Finally Speaks Out.”)
“Sexy was the ’90s,” she says. “There’s nothing wrong with sexy. But today it’s more about the brain than the body. It’s about the woman in power, about using clothes as a weapon to succeed. If you seduce with your brain, you have a long relationship. If you seduce with your body, the seduction doesn’t last long. Now it’s not ‘Look at me because I’m gorgeous!’ It’s ‘Listen to me—I have something to tell you.’ That’s fashion today. You dress to achieve something—you don’t dress to find a lover.”
Donatella is clear about her new goals. “I want my voice to be heard,” she says. “A lot of intelligent people are working for the rights of women, but we’re still in a society where women are less than men. This is not right. If you’re in a powerful position, you can make a difference. That’s what I want to do—use my position, my popularity, to help women be recognized for what they’re worth.”
Feminism hasn’t been this hot in 40 years, with everyone from actresses and singers to senators and CEOs jumping on the bandwagon. Donatella knows that’s where the action is now (and what’s selling), but she’s also earned her understanding of patriarchy the hard way. Cynics who doubt her commitment to the cause of women’s equality might do well to remember how many detractors (and potential replacements) she’s already left behind.
Donatella always said her black-rimmed raccoon eyes were part of a protective mask to hide her emotions, but she can’t conceal the crinkle of amusement as she delivers her final message to any remaining naysayers: “Wait and see, I say.”