Your cookies here are dee-viiiihhhne,” pronounces Donatella Versace as a waiter places a huge dish of Arabic sweets in front of us in the designer’s Dubai hotel suite. “I can’t wait to leave because I am always looking... and I feel like... Ahhhhh,” she exhales dramatically. Despite assurances that she has been tucking into the local “cookies” during her whistle-stop trip to the UAE, there’s no evidence of any overindulgence on her teensy-tiny frame. Up close, and wearing a skin tight sleeveless dress in midnight blue, the 58-year-old designer is, in a word, buff.
“I build muscle very easily, so I have to be careful,” she says when I wonder out loud how she stays so trim, “I just walk fast on the treadmill.” Further enquiry reveals that for an hour and a half, Donatella pounds the running machine at eight kilometres per hour, followed by a series of abdominal exercises, four times a week. “But you have to be constant. That’s the most important thing. You can’t do it once in a while. For me, it’s a lot.” Despite having 12 stores in the region, Donatella is in Dubai for the first time; visiting the site of the long-anticipated Versace Palazzo hotel (scheduled to open next year), making a personal appearance at the three Versace stores in The Dubai Mall (one each for furniture, ready-to-wear and fine jewellery – the latter of which is produced under licence by Dubai-based company Samra International) and, later tonight, she’ll appear at a star studded gala dinner alongside a Versace-clad Naomi Campbell to kick start a charity auction to benefit Dubai Cares. Despite some initial confusion in the bidding process between dirhams and dollars, the Versace lot – a diamond medusa pendant and two tickets to the A/W14 show in Milan – raises Dhs367,250, setting the bar for future items donated by the likes of Chanel and Valentino, and contributing to the Dhs18 million total raised for Dubai Cares.
Her trip might be brief, but Donatella likes what she sees. “It’s the most modern city I saw until now,” she says of Dubai in her heavily accented English, which takes a few seconds to process, leaving hapless journalists such as myself to play catch-up. “I see passion and enthusiasm in people, which is going to make Dubai happen more and more and more and more. That is lost in Europe, it’s not there anymore. Even if we do things, it’s not with the same heart.” The positivity and passion she has discovered in the Middle East is something of a revelation. “I know people from Dubai when they come to Italy,” she says, “but seeing them in Dubai is a different thing. I think people [here] will be happier and generous and that’s very important.”
As a designer known for her rampant celebration of sex appeal, Donatella also harbours a surprising appreciation for the modesty of dress conferred on women from the region, and has even designed medusa-adorned abayas for – presumably rather fabulous – private clients.
I see these women coming to Italy, England, wherever, and they ’ave the most – not only expensive – the most exquisite taste. They are full of taste.” Even covered by an abaya? “I don’t want to go into religion things – you cannot wear so many things outside – but you can wear the purse, you can wear the jewellery and under her [traditional] dress are some fantastic clothes.”
Despite its apparent conflict with the Versace aesthetic, Donatella appreciates the abaya an wouldn’t be adverse to wearing one herself. “I feel that it’s such a classic outfit which has a gorgeous meaning. But I would style it with big jewellery, I’d put a big jewel here,” she says, indicating her left shoulder. “Can you do that?” When you’re Donatella Versace you can pretty much do what you want. Including visit a construction site wearing skyscraper heels, as she did the previous day when she went to check up on the progress of the Versace hotel (it’s unclear whether she wore a regulation hard hat, but I suspect it’s unlikely). “The place is so impressive,” she gushes, “there’s nothing like this in Dubai because everything is very modern. Our hotel is going to be modern but there is a history behind the house of Versace so all the history is going to be represented there. The house of Gianni, the house in Miami, the mosaic. I was so pleased.” That she can now speak about her late brother, and the mansion where he was fatally shot in 1997, with a smile on her face is testament to how far Donatella has come since the dark days of the late 1990s and early 2000s, culminating in her stint in rehab for drug addiction in 2005. Inheriting Gianni’s role at the creative helm of the Versace brand following his death (previously, her design duties were limited to Versus, the younger ready-to-wear line), Donatella floundered with forging an identity for the house that married her brother’s legacy with her own, instinctively softer, approach. It wasn’t until 2006 that a sober Donatella was widely acknowledged as having cracked the code. “For so many years I thought he wasn’t pleased,” she smiles sadly, displaying a vulnerability that makes me want to reach over and give her hug; of course it’s Donatella, so I don’t. “But for two or three years now I think he’s looking at me and he likes it,” she finishes sweetly, “I care so much about continuing Gianni’s dream.”
Naturally there are differences between the siblings’ approach to Versace. “As a woman designer you know a woman’s body and you know what to emphasise,” Donatella says. Where Gianni famously used giant safety pins to hold together the spring/summer 1994 dress worn to such effect by Elizabeth Hurley, in her most recent haute couture collection for Atelier Versace Donatella reprised the trick with delicate crystal hook and eye fastenings. “I’m a woman, Gianni was a man; so my approach is less, let’s say aggressive,” she explains, adding that her creations are, “less based on the sketch and more based on the body of a woman. Men designers do sketches. To sketch a woman and to give that outfit to a woman means you don’t put to a body, it means you put on something that doesn’t exist. I think the sketch is the last thing for an outfit.” She dismisses the notion that Versace is designed for women with perfect bodies as clichéd. “Any woman can wear Versace,” she asserts. “Every woman should be proud of her body. If you’re skinny, if you’re not skinny, if you’re different shape. You should be proud being a woman.” What makes a woman look jaw-dropping is, according to Donatella, “The confidence. The confidence and also the help of hair and make-up and a dress to emphasise the good part of a body, because not every woman are perfect. Not even models are perfect.”
Confidence, hair, make-up and a flattering dress, et voilà? “Most of all, a pair of high heels. Because it gives you the attitude to walk that is just so sexy,” Donatella concludes. “Actresses who goes on the red carpet [wearing Versace] tell me, ‘I felt so powerful’. With clothes you can reach a goal. It’s not necessarily to find a man, but maybe to do a new movie or to get a role in your career.”
Versace as a tool for the advancement of women is a moot point, but Donatella insists that she is a member of the women’s movement – in spirit if not in style. “I am a feminist. Absolutely, yes,” she asserts.
It’s a tempting proposition for the Middle East, where, Donatella admits, “Sometimes you hear women don’t have the freedom to do certain things. But now I think we stand up for ourselves. This is amazing.”
Much of Donatella’s insight into Middle Eastern women stems from her couture clients, for whom she happily tweaks her Atelier designs from their provocative catwalk incarnations, adding a lining or lowering hemlines. “I understand what they are looking for and I adjust clothes for them. It’s a pleasure because they are very appreciative of what you do for them,” she smiles, adding, “What I like about these woman is they really believe in families. They come with their sister, their mother. That’s amazing: the strength of the family.” The woman who has had the likes of Madonna, Chelsea Clinton and Gwyneth Paltrow on her front row would swap them all for the chance to have her late parents at her fashion shows. “I have had a lot of dream front rows,” she says, “except for my mother, which I would love to have, and my pop.”
Donatella has two children of her own, Allegra and Daniel, with her former husband Paul Beck. “I feel sorry for my children. They have to deal with a mother like this,” she smiles, waving her hand across the flaxen hair, the sequinned dress, the acres of tanned skin on display. “Being a mother is the most important job I have. I adore my children, they’re so much fun, they’re so down to earth.” Today, Allegra, having overcome her battles with anorexia, works in the Versus design team. The 27-year-old might own 50 per cent of the company, but, according to her mother, she is “very humble”. Daniel, 23, studies music in London, far away from the megawatt spotlight cast by his mother. “He changed his last name. Instead of Versace he writes Versaggia so nobody knows who he is,” Donatella reveals. “I cannot even go to his house because people could recognise me. I admire that. He’s a musician. He wants to arrive by himself and not because he’s the son of...”
Not that Donatella requires her children to stay plugged into the mainframe; she can handle that by herself. Having learned from her brother in the last two decades of the 20th century, she is acutely attuned to the challenges of the millennium into which she is steering the Versace brand. “It’s the 21st century and we live on the internet; technology needs to be regarded in every aspect of our lives,” she says, “I have had to adjust myself.” Donatella is gearing up for a seismic shift in the way that fashion is delivered to consumers. Last May, Versus unveiled a collection which was immediately available to buy online.
"So I was thinking for the next fashion show maybe I’ll show four or five looks that I’ll produce before, saying, ‘this is available’. This is what’s going to happen. People want the image they see all over the world at the same time when you do the show.” In 10 years’ time, Donatella is convinced that this will be the norm. “At the moment it is very difficult but it is possible,” she says of the challenge for designers to produce their collections before they show them. “We need to change the conviction and the belief in a certain outfit.”
Donatella has a knack for divining the future. Her track record for picking tomorrow’s talent speaks for itself. The last two guest designers she has worked with on Versus – Christopher Kane and JW Anderson – have gone on to attract investment from Kering (the new incarnation of Gucci owner PPR) and LVMH respectively, ensuring their place in the fashion fi rmament. “The most important thing today is being aware of what’s going on in the world,” she says of her zeitgeisty sixth sense. “Politics, religion, anything; you take all this information and filter it into every decision you make.”
From harnessing the pop culture appeal of Lady Gaga at the height of her fame, to teaming up with H&M in 2011, Donatella has taken great strides to secure Versace’s place in the global consciousness. “The company’s still here and my brother is dead,” is how she surmises her biggest achievement, saying that her goal is to, “consolidate what I have now, as a company, what Versace represents in the world. It needs good roots to stay even if I go away.” Good thing, then, that Donatella is well on her way to fashion immortality.
This article originally appeared in the November 2013 issue of Harper's Bazaar Arabia.