Interview: Donatella Versace On Lessons She's Learnt From Arab Women

BY Emily Baxter-Priest / Sep 16 2018 / 15:17 PM

To celebrate her two-decade reign helming Versace, the maison’s matriarch Donatella Versace talks to Bazaar about her love of the Middle East, Queen Rania as a fashion icon and the lessons she’s learnt from Arab women

Interview: Donatella Versace On Lessons She's Learnt From Arab Women

Harper's Bazaar Arabia: How is your vision different to the va-va-voom approach to fashion your brother Gianni had?

Donatella Versace: Well, we are talking about two different moments in time. When Gianni was alive, fashion was exploding and there was a different kind of energy. His women had something to say as well, but being a man he put accent on their bodies and their attitude. That was his way to make them spread a message about self-confidence and strength. I am a woman and I live in a completely different world. Looks are important, but today the attention is also and especially on the brain, and what’s on the inside. Women still want to look amazing, but at the same time, they want to be taken seriously. Because they are smart, they can do the same things that men do and they want to be listened to.

Interview: Donatella Versace On Lessons She's Learnt From Arab WomenHeadscarves steal the show for Versace autumn/winter 2018

HB: How does fashion empower women?

DV: Fashion gives women an extra tool with which to boost their confidence and express themselves. Clothes are not just pieces of fabric that one puts on to cover one’s body. They are another way to show the world who we are, our personality and what we believe in. On top of that, fashion can help create awareness around issues that matter to women. Look at what the #MeToo movement has done. I think it was high time that something like that happened and I am very supportive of it. Only by supporting each other, by accepting the fact that we are different from one another, and being united, can we really see a change in society.

Interview: Donatella Versace On Lessons She's Learnt From Arab WomenGigi Hadid in a hat for the Versace autumn/winter 2018 show

HB: You’ve visited the Middle East several times now, what did you learn?

DV: I am a fan of the future, of the ‘what’s next’. I don’t live in the past and I strive for progression, for all that is new, from ideas and projects to technology and mindsets. I like everything that challenges the status quo. This doesn’t mean I forget our roots nor that I don’t cherish our origins, but I love to see the evolution of ideas. The Middle East is a source of inspiration in that sense. I like the way the region is stepping into the future without forgetting its culture, its heritage. The cities are modern hubs that keep their strong cultural references, like the way they are local but inclusive. There is also a certain elegance in the way time passes in the Middle East. The same elegance in the way women dress, walk and behave. A grace that is not loud yet is very powerful. What I love about the women of the Middle East is that unique way of behaving exudes a great self-confidence and at the same time a surprising humility. We have a lot to learn from them.

Interview: Donatella Versace On Lessons She's Learnt From Arab WomenDonatella puts the finishing touches to a look from A/W 18

HB: There are often misconceptions about extravagance and frivolity related to Middle Eastern spending, yet women here have a deep and inherent love and understanding of fashion, too. Is that something you notice or admire?

DV: I admire how unique the style aesthetic is and the great respect you have for your traditions. I love how women take care of their looks in such a precise, almost ritualistic way, and I was surprised by how much they love fashion, but it’s not something you notice immediately because it’s a very subtle way of loving fashion.You know, we are used to a more loud way of expressing ourselves, while with Middle Eastern women it’s like they whisper. It’s so fascinating. Also, I love that women use accessories and jewels to express themselves, but when you look closer and understand a bit more about the culture, you will know that under their abayas, there is a completely different world. It’s like you are able to put together minimalism and maximalism like no other culture has been able to do. It’s always been one or the other, but for you, they live in harmony.

Donatella Versace: From Italy to ArabiaMoroccan model Nora Attal walks in Versace's S/S18 catwalk show

HB: You’ve recently worked with models Imaan Hammam and Nora Attal. What drew you to them?

DV: Both Imaan and Nora are naturally beautiful but they also have a voice and a unique personality. But it really comes back to the subject of diversity. I am fascinated by all that is different from me, from my daily life. Most of the time I get inspired by looking at the life of these young girls on social media. The freedom of expression they have, thanks to today’s technology, is fascinating. With just a mobile phone and some images, they are able to inspire people and to have a voice.

HB: You’ve said that strong women are your muse. Who do you draw inspiration from in this region?

DV: I am fascinated to see what is currently in the Middle East, how women are gaining their voice. In this sense, I am inspired by not just one but the multiplicity of them. One person alone can do a lot, but together we are stronger.

Interview: Donatella Versace On Lessons She's Learnt From Arab WomenEgyptian model Imaan Hammam backstage

HB: Is there anyone you feel a true connection or kinship with from the Middle East?

DV: Queen Rania is one of the warmest, most real, generous and empathetic women I know. She’s worked tirelessly to help relieve the suffering of refugees, especially women and children, and others who are less fortunate. I admire her and her hard work so much. And also Amal Clooney, who is quite simply elegance personified. On top of that, she’s a genius. What makes her so special is that she’s a female barrister that uses her talents to fight for people’s human rights – not just in her career, but also in her free time.

Interview: Donatella Versace On Lessons She's Learnt From Arab WomenA look from Versace's A/W18 collection fuses fashion with culture

HB: How would you describe the Middle Eastern woman?

DV: These are always the most difficult questions, because women have so many hues in their personalities, but I would say resilient, elegant and proud, in the positive sense of the word.

HB: Which talents from this region most excite you?

DV: I do not want to sound cliché but certainly Azzedine Alaïa and Zaha Hadid have left a big mark, and I am still saddened to have lost them both. Azzedine was an incredible soul and his creations have inspired a great deal of women and fellow designers. As for Zaha, her creations have spoken more than words. I was happy to learn that she was in charge of developing the waterfront of my home town, Reggio Calabria. She is not a fashion designer but she has helped to fade the boundaries between fashion and architecture. She has shown that art and creation have various ways of expressing themselves and of talking to people. Architecture is another voice, another vehicle, just like clothes.

Interview: Donatella Versace On Lessons She's Learnt From Arab WomenModels on the catwalk at the autumn/winter18 show

HB: Finally, what will be your enduring memory of the Middle East so far?

DV: Last time I was in Dubai, it was a wonderful time. I was there to inaugurate the latest addition to our hotels, Palazzo Versace Dubai. We had a big event, and some of my girls were there to celebrate, Helena, Natasha, Alessandra… We had so much fun. There was a beautiful energy and it was quite emotional seeing my family’s name on the door of such a majestic building. I was really proud to think how far we have come. Who would have imagined 40 years ago that there would be a Versace hotel in Dubai?

Interview: Donatella Versace On Lessons She's Learnt From Arab WomenModel's posing in Versace's autumn/winter 2018 collection

From the September 2018 issue of Harper's Bazaar Arabia