Donatella Versace was born with a natural Italian flair for personal style. Her emerging creative talents were nurtured by her mother and by the majestic, wild, and sun-drenched atmosphere of the Calabrian southwest coast of Italy where she grew up. Versace’s mother, Francesca, the inspired and doted-upon couturier to the Italian aristocracy of postwar Europe, had a strength of character and boldness as a designer that shaped both her son Gianni Versace’s extraordinary career and the personality of her daughter.
As a teenager, Donatella was as untamed as the countryside she grew up in. She was the darling of her older brother, Gianni, who took her everywhere and whose admiration sharpened her already vivid sense of the dramatic opportunities that life might hold for her. Versace introduces herself with a vignette about her adolescent style: “When I was a teenager, I wore black fitted shirts with tight black pants and a leather jacket. This, over the years, became my signature look. This style became the basis of many of my designs.” She was and remains supremely self-confident and self-assured. Her brother was both appalled by these tight clothes and high heels and fascinated by her apparent satisfaction with her body.
Donatella’s clothing design today with its sexy, feminine, powerful look is as much a reflection of her early personal style as of the fashion world in which she is a major presence. Because of the enormous success of her brother and his couture line and Donatella’s role as his assistant and muse, she was well known and respected in the Italian fashion world. Gianni’s early years of apprenticeship in Milan were punctuated by visits from Donatella, whose opinion he sought and valued because of her strong unconventional fashion sense and her intimate connections to the very celebrities he hoped to dress.
When Gianni established his own atelier on the Via della Spiga in Milan, he invited Donatella to join the business. Although the newspapers at the time denominated her role as muse to her brother, Versace was quite insistent that hers was an active role. Indeed, it seems that her appearance, blond and lithe and very stylish, in her brother’s designs was instrumental in encouraging those celebrities and the nouveau riche set to demand Versace fashion for themselves.
Her natural gift for the dramatic was also instrumental in drawing vast public attention to her brother’s annual shows. Harper’s Bazaar (1995) recognized that Donatella’s demand for the most famous models as a part of the publicity surrounding each season’s latest designs launched “the supermodel” cult, though it must be said that she was herself the most recognizable supermodel that Gianni engaged.
Her notoriously high standards attracted precisely the attention to Versace products that guaranteed their marketability. She was dissatisfied with the fragrance Blonde, and, determined to ensure the Versace signature perfume’s ultimate success, had the fragrance reformulated despite time constraints and an enormously expensive ad campaign completed by famed photographer Richard Avedon.
Her personal life was not entirely ignored during this period of Versace’s parallel ascent with her brother’s design empire. She married an American, Paul Beck, formerly a model for Versace men’s clothing and together they produced two children, upon whom both she and her brother lavished their attention, love, and financial resources. As her fame and the demands on her time have escalated, Versace insists that the important relationship with her children, “our reality, our family,” provides an appropriate anchor in her personal life as well as in her marriage to Beck.
Versace’s leap to national prominence came in late 1997 when she delivered and showed the Versace collections on time, just three months after her brother was murdered. The New York Times wrote, “in a state of mourning, with so much pressure and so much pain, [that] Ms. Versace could produce anything at all” was remarkable. Donatella reinvented herself as the strong designing presence of Versace Couture when her role as muse and collaborator with her brother, Gianni, was instantly destroyed by the same bullet that killed him. A passionate feminist in her life as well as in the designs she produces, Donatella was determined not to give up the central position Versace Couture held under her brother’s reign. She continues to cultivate the celebrity crowd; designing, for example, the extraordinary palm-leaf printed gown that Jennifer Lopez wore at a Grammy Awards ceremony where a huge sensation greeted the appearance of so much of Ms. Lopez, and entertaining, either at her palazzo at Como or in the Versace family apartments in Milan, everyone who is anyone—or who wants to be seen.
Donatella’s collections in recent years have concentrated on the sexy natural shape of a woman’s body, which may be an ideal but is certainly exemplified by Versace herself. Her use of clinging chiffons that hug every curve, subtle designs that follow those curves like a whisper, and sparkles of sequins highlighting those curves have perfected her look as “maybe risqué, but not reckless.” Her most recent ventures into giftware—Jungle from Versace (a Rosenthal fine porcelain for the table) and lifestyle hotels (a six-star establishment on the Australian gold coast is set to open in 2001)—will certainly be successful.
Versace never appears to suffer from the decline of the economy, having overcome “crippling Italian inheritance taxes” and a vast restructuring at the time of Gianni’s death. She is poised, full of the energy and naughty confidence that distinguished her youth, to mature into a major fashion leader independent of her brother but upholding the high standards of elegance, sensuality, and opulence that were and remain the Versace trademark.