Milan Fashion Week

Wave of nostalgia hits Versace

Designer Donatella Versace not only celebrated her late brother's works, but had also invited some of his favourite models to strut down the runway

Italian designer Donatella Versace (in black) with former top models (from left) Carla Bruni, Claudia Schiffer, Naomi Campbell, Cindy Crawford and Helena Christensen.
Italian designer Donatella Versace (in black) with former top models (from left) Carla Bruni, Claudia Schiffer, Naomi Campbell, Cindy Crawford and Helena Christensen. PHOTO: REUTERS

MILAN • When she began creating her Tribute collection, an ode to the work of her brother Gianni Versace that would become her spring womenswear show, Donatella Versace knew what people were going to think. Not of the clothes; of the rationale behind the clothes.

She knew the rumours that have been roiling the fashion world since January. "Rumours," she said, sitting on a dark, squashy sofa in an opulent reception room in the Versace Palazzo on Via Gesu a few days before the show, rolling eyes rimmed in dark shadow and making exaggerated quote marks with her fingers. "Oh: rumours."

She knew people had been saying she was going to step aside as designer and name a successor. First, it was Riccardo Tisci (that was after he resigned from his job at Givenchy); then Virgil Abloh; and, as of last week, during the London shows, Kim Jones, menswear designer at Louis Vuitton. The front row had been abuzz with the whispers.

She knew the risks: that a show premised on nostalgia would be seen as a farewell, a sign that her era was over. But Versace, 62, decided to do it anyway as a statement about what is next.

It has been 20 years since Gianni Versace was shot and killed on the steps of his Miami Beach mansion, and the world has been busy mining his narrative in time for the anniversary: FX's American Crime Story has a Versace series in the works starring Penelope Cruz as Donatella and Edgar Ramirez as Gianni, set to air early next year; starting next month, FarFetch is selling a selection of 500 Gianni-era Versace pieces curated by William Vintage.

Why should Gianni Versace's younger sister - who has been creative head of the house her brother built a year longer, in fact, than he ever was; who has overcome drug addiction, industry scepticism and her own platinum Barbie cartoon of an image; who, along with her older brother, Santo, has transformed her company from a family-run house to a professionally managed brand with private equity investment and a may-be-possible future IPO - why should she cede that territory to others?

Creations (above) by Versace at last Friday's show.
Creations (above) by Versace at last Friday's show. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Instead, she decided to own it.

"Over the years, I've seen so many homages and direct reference to Gianni Versace," she said. "But I didn't have the courage to do it myself. I was always afraid to touch the work of Gianni. I thought I would be criticised: 'She isn't Gianni.'

"I thought I was going to fail. I mean, I did fail for a while.

"But then I realised: I was there for all of it. And the younger girls - Kendall, Gigi - kept asking what it was all about. Because you know, he died before there was social media."

So she went into the archives: a 10,760 sq ft storage facility in Novara, Italy, a town west of Milan, which houses 13,000 pieces by Gianni Versace.

And she came out with a collection that would be a celebration of 12 classic prints her brother created between 1991 and 1997, including the Warhol (a primary-coloured riot of Marilyn and James Dean portraits), the animaliere (leopard) and the baroque (ornate gold squiggles).

And while she remade a few pieces in their entirety, most she decided to reclaim via her own specifications: more day wear, sharper shoulders, fewer slits.

What would her brother say about the result? Donatella Versace laughed. "B***h."

Then she added: "No, he'd love it.

"The difference between my brother and me is I also love women and think clothes are a good weapon to show, 'Here I am, look at me,'" she said, "But for me, it's not 'Look at me, I am so gorgeous', but 'Look at me, I have something to say.' When I started, I was doing 12 or more pieces of evening wear a collection. Now it's like two."

Creations (above) by Versace at last Friday's show.
Creations (above) by Versace at last Friday's show. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

The result, at last Friday's show, was Versace past through the eyes of Versace present, with a riot of in-your-face prints given the platform to speak very loudly indeed, unrestrained by overcomplicated cut or concept.

Every garment will come with a label that notes the collection and the year, so consumers will know the moment of origin.

And then, to top it all off, Donatella Versace invited some of her brother's favourite models, the ones who had been most associated with his glamazon ideal - Cindy Crawford, Claudia Schiffer, Helena Christensen, Naomi Campbell and Carla Bruni (or Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, as she is now) - to create a finale tableau for the show that mimicked a 1994 advertisement campaign shot by Richard Avedon of many of the same models in gowns of gold chain mail.

In the original, they were draped over or dominating the prone figures of naked men, but Donatella Versace thought she would skip that part of the re-creation. It is 2017, after all.

Indeed, the effect may be almost distracting enough to overwhelm the rumours - except for the fact that invited to sit in the front row were a host of other designers: Pierpaolo Piccioli of Valentino and Alessandro Michele of Gucci; Anthony Vaccarello of YSL, one of the designers who worked with Donatella Versace in the past on her second line, Versus; and Jones.

Wait - what? Just imagine the freakout. Presumably they did, because he decided not to come.

Still, it was as if Donatella Versace was teasing the Kremlinologists of fashion, dropping breadcrumbs to see who would follow.

'Maybe I'll pick among all of them," she said archly, referring to her peers.

Having done her take on her brother's work, having said that the experience of making the Tribute collection had liberated her to move on, that the result gave her closure, it is easy to see her considering the possibilities of someone else's (Jones'?) take on the brand.

"To replace me completely? No," she said. "Where would they get a platinum blonde like me? I'm irreplaceable."

But to work with her, or nearby? "I've never been afraid to confront myself."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 25, 2017, with the headline 'Wave of nostalgia hits Versace'. Subscribe