The Divine Miss V


By Aaron Hicklin

One evening last May, Donatella Versace had cocktails with Christopher Hitchens ('one of the writers I most admire and finally had the chance to meet'), then more cocktails with the editors of Newsweek, before ending up at the White House Correspondents' Association dinner, where she sat with Jonathan Rhys-Meyers ('in Versace of course') and Graydon Carter ('He is so entertaining!'). There were other friends in attendance -- 'lots of cool Hollywood people that I know -- Ashton and Demi, Sting and Trudie.' And finally, there was the star attraction, the president and the first lady, the latter resplendent 'in a hot-pink dress, a jeweled necklace with a pink flower, and purple eye shadow. Great hair, great makeup -- this is what we want to see: confidence.'

The image of Donatella Versace knocking back cocktails with the gruff 'n' grouchy Hitchens, and issuing fashion appraisals of Rahm Emmanuel and Tim Geithner'they earned praise for 'walking round the room in a really cool and relaxed way' -- may sound like a Maya Rudolph skit straight out of Saturday Night Live, but it's actually lifted from the fashion designer's lively, if infrequent, blog for the Huffington Post. This Donatella is 100% authentic, even if her striking looks, heavily accented English, and rolling R's have made her famously easy to parody.

Now here she is, on a torrentially rainy summer's day in a photo studio in Chelsea in New York City, furiously smoking her Marlboros and dishing out some style advice. It goes like this:

What differences have you observed between Italian and American men when it comes to style?
Well, we're much more stylish, the Italian men. They really know tailoring, really know how to present themselves. American men are not like this -- too much sporty look in everything you do. We love sports, but when we wear sports clothes, we do sports, and that's it. You don't have to carry it through the week.

And how would you describe your style?
When I work, I wear the same kind of clothes every day. I like tight pants, a T-shirt or maybe a cashmere sweater, but always high heels. I try to be comfortable, which I am comfortable in heels. I always have to be sexy because I like to be sexy. Just for myself. If you like yourself a little bit in the morning, I think you can do better in the work day.

Is there such a thing as being too sexy or seductive?
Never, never! You can be too boring, but you can never be too seductive.

It's easy to see why Donatella lends herself so well to caricature. A New Yorker profile memorably described her as 'a little bit Pam Anderson'a little bit Barbarella'with a face imposing enough to belong on Mt. Rushmore,' and it's no surprise that some of her biggest fans are gay men, who view her as a kind of camp icon, in much the same way, perhaps, as they view Liza Minnelli or Cher or some of the excessively emotive female leads in Pedro Almod'var's earlier movies. The fact that her brother was gay, that her son, Daniel, is named for an Elton John song, and that she describes Rupert Everett as her best friend -- 'I love him,' she says -- only accentuates the impression.

That Donatella is in on the joke is part of her charm. She may even revel in it -- 'I talked to her on the phone, Maya [Rudolph],' she says, erupting into a rich and throaty laugh. 'I gave her suggestions on what to do about me.' But what's lost in translation is how generous and unaffected she is in person. She once said she was born to cheer up her parents, after an older daughter died at the age of 11, and that kind of modest statement is typical of her. Asked how it feels to be an icon, for example, she wrinkles her brow disapprovingly. 'It's the brand that's iconic, because of Gianni,' she says. 'I do not think it's me.'

That might once have been true, but in the last few years Donatella has been reinvigorating the brand with a spirit and sensibility that's distinctly her own. When her brother was shot and killed by Andrew Cunanan on July 15, 1997, few fashion world observers expected her to have the combination of talent and business acumen to keep the fashion house relevant. Although she had long worked at her brother's side, she was still the little sister whose role was often perceived as ceremonial (it wasn't, but that was beside the point). And the intensity of her relationship with Gianni -- 'I can be in Chicago or on the moon, and we'll talk a hundred times a day,' he once said -- was an augury of the agonies of loss and separation awaiting her. Indeed, for a long time it was widely held that she was merely keeping his flame alight, unable or unwilling to move the label forward. The doubts turn out to have been premature. Twelve years on, the little sister has become the woman who could.