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 Geithnerthey 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 its actually lifted from the fashion designers lively, if infrequent, blog for the Huffington Post. This Donatella is 100% authentic, even if her striking looks, heavily accented English, and rolling Rs have made her famously easy to parody.
Now here she is, on a torrentially rainy summers 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, were 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 thats it. You dont 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. Its easy to see why Donatella lends herself so well to caricature. A New Yorker profile memorably described her as a little bit Pam Andersona little bit Barbarellawith a face imposing enough to belong on Mt. Rushmore, and its 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 Almodvars 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 whats 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. Its the brand thats iconic, because of Gianni, she says. I do not think its me. That might once have been true, but in the last few years Donatella has been reinvigorating the brand with a spirit and sensibility thats 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 brothers side, she was still the little sister whose role was often perceived as ceremonial (it wasnt, but that was beside the point). And the intensity of her relationship with Gianni -- I can be in Chicago or on the moon, and well 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. In Milan this summer to introduce her French Foreign Legioninspired menswear collection for spring 2010 -- tailored safari suits, trousers unfastened at the ankles to reveal canvas desert boots -- Donatella looked serene at a celebratory dinner at the Versace mansion. Menswear has often been considered her blind spot, but the reviews the following morning were warm and supportive. Writing in the International Herald Tribune, Suzy Menkes declared the collection stirring and modern, a view echoed by the Los Angeles Times, whose fashion critic, Adam Tschorn, described it as the most restrained and refreshing mens collection from the house of Versace in many a season. It was a critical moment for Donatella, who earlier that month had parted ways with her CEO and poached a new one, Gian Giacomo Ferraris, from the German fashion house Jil Sander. She knows that it pays to be nimble in a recession as brutal as this one. Expansion in China and a new 6,480-square-foot store in Dubai -- complete with black granite floors, white leatherpaneled walls, and a crystal curtain drop chandelier -- reflect an inevitable shift away from America. Aesthetically, too, the label has been working hard to relinquish the baroque and Grecian theatricality with which Versace was once synonymous, while being careful to respect the groundbreaking legacy it represents. I think its very important for our brand to keep the same DNA, but to update, says Donatella. To do the same things from the 80s today would be ridiculous, even though so many brands are doing the 80s right now. You cant look back. So Im very careful of whats going on in the world -- I want as much information as I can get, and that includes music, movies, everything. Its always about updating and evolving the style, but not to change. You have to be loyal to your brand. For a long time that seemed like a difficult balancing act, complicated for Donatella by the exhausting emotional demands imposed by her public profile. In his memoir, Life With My Sister Madonna, Christopher Ciccone recalls doing cocaine with Donatella 24/7 for three days, and though the subject is off limits, she has spoken in the past about her on-off-on again cocaine use as a way of cauterizing her unresolved grief. An intervention staged by Elton John and her children in 2004 may have saved her life; it certainly appears to have saved the company. After emerging from rehab, she set about restructuring Versace. Its been on an upward trajectory ever since, influenced and inspired by Giannis legacy, but not trapped by it. He was a very controversial designer because he put sexy in the face of people, she says. The woman used to be considered chic if she wore safe clothes, and Gianni put the sex in your face. Sexy woman. That was ingenious when he did that. After him, she no longer had to be afraid of her sexuality, to look sexy and confident. Briefly in New York City for a charity event at the Whitney Museum of American Art (Versace provides art supplies to disadvantaged children in the United States and China; the drawings are then turned into canvas totes to be sold at its boutiques), Donatella received a call from Janet Jackson, who wanted her to dress the family for Michaels funeral. It was a poignant reminder of Giannis groundbreaking synthesis of fashion, sex, and rock in the 80s. Madonna, Bruce Springsteen, Cher, David Bowie, Elton John, and Michael Jackson were all styled by Versace long before other labels learned to appreciate the power of celebrity. Celebrities -- the cult -- they dont exist before Versace, says Donatella. This kind of thing, to go and dress a rock band -- nobody did that before Gianni did. More often, in fact, talent scouting was Donatellas contribution, a role she now delegates to her children. Being with children is not really about relaxing, its about learning, she says. They give you so much information: Did you see that? Did you hear this? Who does she admire today? She thinks for a moment. Kate Bosworth is very interesting, she says. If its hard to get a sense of Donatellas personal life, if her interior world remains so elusive, thats because so much of it is invested in the company and what it represents. She is so much more focused than when I met her 15 years ago, says documentary filmmaker David Furnish, who is married to Elton John. She takes her position at Versace very seriously. Does she define the label, or does the label define her? Both, perhaps, since one without the other is impossible to imagine. The lives of the famous, as Maya Rudolph so amply demonstrates, are easily distorted, flattened, or ludicrously embellished, but they are not often understood. Happiness is a word I do not believe exists, Donatella said in her interview with The New Yorker two years ago. Im not sure she would say that today, but she knows that, ultimately, she must rely on her own resources, tenacity, and instincts to survive. Whats the best advice anyone has ever given her? The best advice is the advice you ask for, she says, taking a long, final puff on her cigarette and fixing me with a smile. I didnt ask for any -- yet. Send a letter to the editor about this article