My dear husband is a keen member of the V&A and bought tickets to hear Donatella Versace “in conversation”.  I was really excited, as last time Nick organised one of these with Christopher Raeburn it was fantastic. Again we cycled across the park, and ate duck on rice afterwards. This was a different matter, but I couldn’t help but enjoy the evening.

Donatella 2015 show
Donatella 2015 show

The Museum described the event thus:

 Donatella Versace, Creative Director of the renowned Italian fashion house, celebrates the launch of her new book, Versace, and discusses her life and career.

The talk was illustrated by sumptuous photographs from her new book (signed copies of which were available…).

Donatella arrived only a few minutes late, in a showy but relaxed navy blue skirt and sleeveless top, entered the auditorium and spent a good five minutes kissing people that she knew in the front row, including photographer Bruce Weber. She looked tiny in the lecture theatre, and eventually sat down opposite the interviewer. She stared at him throughout, not turning to look at the audience once, wrapping one leg over and under the other, holding her knees, and writhing a little in her seat. She struck me as an introvert, not comfortable with herself. Rather shy and slightly vulnerable. Unfortunately her English is heavily accented, and she has something of a lisp. Add to that a face-mic that was too close to her swollen lips and for the first few minutes it was impossible to understand a word she was saying.

Much of the initial conversation was about the photographers she had worked with, and the models. Most of whom were “difficult”. Prince was lovely, private and gave lots of money to charity. Madonna. Kate Moss. Supermodels. Richard Avedon, Helmut Newton – most of them were “difficult”. The discussion veered off to cover Donatella’s thoughts was about men and women, power and image. It was fairly interesting, she wasn’t particularly self-aggrandising, but she didn’t really have much to say. It ran along quite well, but mainly because the interviewer Tim Blanks, Editor at large of The Business of Fashion who worked hard to help make it so.

Yet she has taken hold of a company that was floundering after the murder of her brother Gianni, founder of the house, in 1997. Over the past two decades she has turned it round from near bankruptcy to an annual turnover of $500m. She has employed a good team, both to run the business and to design the clothes, and it seems to me that she is a competent and effective leader. Her approach to fashion is to create powerful, strong women, often dressed head to toe in tight black outfits, or flamboyant, colourful dresses fit for red carpet events. There is some superb fashion coming out of the house across all the ages, all types of clothes, different ranges and price points and lots and lots of inspiration. The luxery brand even did a link up with High Street shop H&M.

Unfortunately a long history of extreme plastic surgery and facial alteration has made her look unnatural and freaky, and her face is devoid of natural expression. With her unusual appearance, somewhat determined but flatly expressed opinions, with a fondness for bling and logos,  it would be pretty easy to send it up, and it won’t surprise you that has already been done.

Despite her human faults you could not help feeling warmth and understanding, as well as excitement about her achievements. She lost her younger sister as a child, and her brother was murdered. She was obliged to take on the family business in the midst of her grief, which has been commercially successful. She is personally worth over $2bn She had a serious drug habit for 20 years, and looks old for her age. I felt that she was genuine and had created something very beautiful. She gives money to AIDS charities and she has given clothes to the V&A including this pink one, on display on the night.

Donatella Versace dress at VA
Versace gown, donated to Victoria and Albert Museum

25years ago, in about 1988, I heard Jean Muir speak at the V&A, in the same lecture theatre. She too was rather eccentric with her blueberry lips, skeletal appearance  and verbal tics. It is not uncommon to find the humans behind our favourite books, art or fashion to be flawed and somewhat unusual. Creativity  is a gift that thankfully surpasses the frail individuals that possess it.


11 Responses

  1. Stephanie

    Wonderful and very sensitive take. Thank you. I have observed fairly regularly that literary writers are people who suffered some kind of a major loss or displacement as a child. I have the impression that creativity may flourish where there is vulnerability/a wound that motivates seeking. But just an opinion. I don’t really follow fashion in a direct way so it is nice to be brought up to speed by your blog.

  2. Kim

    That was a talk I had thought about trying to get to. I suspect I may have found it disappointing in proportion to the effort I would have made to get there from the Midlands. Thanks for your post reporting the detail. She is clearly a gifted, if flawed, lady.

  3. Amanda

    What an experience to hear her speak in person! I can’t believe it’s been so long since Gianni was killed; I remember it like it was yesterday 🙁 Versace has been one of the very few fashion houses that consistently impress/inspire me again and again, and much more so since Donatella took over. I admire her tenacity and creativity, and despite her flaws, I think she is quite brilliant. Many artists, including myself, are naturally introverted, so I can relate to that completely; it often comes across as being either nervous, insecure, or cold, but doesn’t mean that we don’t like ourselves or others. Who among us is perfect, anyway? At least she has had the courage to continue to create despite so much personal hardship 🙂

    Thank you for sharing your experience – I would have loved to be there too 🙂

  4. Annieloveslinen

    Introverts express themselves through creative means that are often solitary activities, the viewer fills in the blanks and meeting a hero can be somewhat disappointing.

    I recognise that in a blogger I read too and while I can admire the workmanship the dissonance comes through, I don’t know if one can be ‘shy’ yet have a prolific social media presence it seems passive aggressive but that could just be me.

  5. SJ Kurtz

    I really appreciate your measured thoughts about the Versace siblings and their business. It is very easy to dismiss Donatella Versace as a freak show sidelight (it is HARD to look at her and not wince), and important to remember what has come out of the house under her leadership. The work speaks louder, as it should.

    Hiring and directing is an art; if you’ve ever worked in your life for someone else, you can surely appreciate that. And thank you for the reminder.

  6. Buttercup

    Thank you for such a well crafted review. I think Donatella is a very interesting woman but i can’t quite come to terms with how she looks. I liked your description of her. All things considered though she is definitely one smart cookie at least in a business sense.

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