By Hattie Brett

Donatella Versace’s American Dream

With the Oscars days away, Donatella Versace took the brand that invented red carpet dressing to Hollywood. Here, she tells GRAZIA about her LA adventure—and what fame really means...
Photo: Courtesy of Versace

Liz Hurley’s safety-pin dress. J-Lo’s jungle-print Grammys dress. Katy Perry wearing angel wings so wide she had to be taken to the Met Gala standing up in the back of a van… Versace dresses haven’t just launched careers and broken the internet; they’ve been responsible for creating the multimillion-dollar phenomenon that is today’s red carpet dressing. So it makes sense that 32 years since a Versace dress first hit the Oscars—red, plunging and worn by Cindy Crawford in her public debut with Richard Gere—Donatella Versace decided to bring the brand into the heart of Hollywood.

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Days before the Academy Awards, the designer unveiled her FW23 collection in front of an audience of Hollywood’s finest. Music’s OG influencers Cher and Elton sat alongside the new wave Miley Cyrus and Lil Nas X in an all-gold show venue constructed on the rooftop of the Pacific Design Center. Demi Moore and Rummer Willis made it a mother-daughter night out, the latter dressing her burgeoning baby bump in a bodycon LBD (Versace, naturally).

Elton John and Donatella Versace. Photo: Doug Ordway / Courtesy of Versace

And actors Anne Hathaway, Lily James and Simone Ashley were accompanied by their super-stylists, no doubt trading notes about which of the bustle-and-bow embellished dresses on the catwalk they’d be borrowing for their next event. Whoever had their eye on the sheer panelled gown Gigi wore in the finale would have been disappointed. Lady Gaga nabbed that one; wearing it less than 72 hours after the show on the Oscars’ champagne carpet.

That Donatella could draw such an eclectic crowd shouldn’t be a surprise: after all, this is a woman who’s dressed everyone from Michelle Obama to Madonna. So why do so many stars gravitate towards the brand? “I think because they feel the dress is not going to wear them; they are going to wear the dress,” Donatella tells me, when we meet a few weeks before the show in Milan. “It’s a weapon, a way to feel more confident.”

We’re in her office—all marble tables, white leather sofas and scatter pillows decorated with the famous Versace medusa head—to firm up the details of her guest-editing this issue of GRAZIA. As we look through pictures of some of her most iconic moments, Donatella reflects on how much the game has changed. “There’s so much attention on the red carpet now,” she says. “Many people want to feel safe but, for me, safe is not a word in fashion.”

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Donatella in Los Angeles. Photo: Courtesy of Versace

Indeed, some of the most magic Versace moments have been the most audacious. Case in point the jungle-print dress that Jennifer Lopez wore to the 2000 Grammys. “She wasn’t famous then. Puff Daddy had called asking to borrow a dress for his girlfriend,” Donatella says of sending the singer a dress that both she and Geri Halliwell had worn previously. What happened next shaped the world: so many people were searching for pictures of J-Lo it led to engineers inventing Google Image Search. “The dress made her famous. But she also had the courage to wear it,” Donatella says of the alchemy that goes into one of those viral moments. “You can’t plan it. If you think too much about it, it doesn’t happen.”

Of all the famous faces Donatella has worked with, there’s one who really stands out. “Lady Diana was iconic. She was so full of joy and she really knew clothes. In her position she couldn’t take that much risk, but she still did: with the length, the colour…” she says. She recalls one particular lunch at Kensington Palace early on in their relationship. “It was me, Elton and Gianni, Diana and the two kids, who must have been 11 or 12. And I was shocked. These kids went to eat like this: fork to their mouth and very formal,” she recounts. “And we said, ‘But Diana, you’re not like that.’ She replied, ‘Well, you know, they’re going to be King.'”

Such was their friendship, that Princess Diana was famously pictured comforting Elton at Gianni Versace’s funeral in Milan. But Donatella remembers something different from that day. “She was serving drinks to all the people. I said, ‘You can’t do that.’ But she kept saying, ‘If there’s anything you need…'”

The irony is that, for all the pop stars and princesses Donatella has helped propel on to the global stage, she finds her own fame hard to reconcile. Despite being mobbed in the street (that trademark platinum hair somewhat of a giveaway), she says the idea of being a celebrity herself makes her feel “uncomfortable”. She hates being photographed (“I don’t want to see myself. I want to think, Oh I look like that…”) and thinks being a woman in the public eye is getting harder. “In the past, we decided when to be seen. Now pictures are everywhere… taken by people with a telephone and then they post it. You can’t control what you want to show about yourself.”

As she sips her ice-cold water through a straw, she goes further: admitting that she suffers from impostor syndrome. “I’m confident when we do the collection but, when you do the show, I start to question myself. I always feel I’m not enough,” she says, insisting that, despite her public persona, she’s shy. “They see somebody very confident. I think I’m open because it’s my way of covering my shyness.”

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It’s easy to forget, of course, the traumatic way Donatella came to lead the Versace brand. After her brother Gianni was murdered in Miami in 1997, Donatella had just two months before her first show in charge. It’s a memory she still finds painful. “It was not a great show because I didn’t want to do it,” she remembers. “I thought, no I cannot do this to Gianni. I felt like this is not my place, you know, I was so destroyed.”

You get the sense her way through was to throw herself into work. “The best bit of my job is being backstage with the girls doing the fittings; when you take a dress and you fit it on a girl and it changes the dress,” she says. She admits she’s a workaholic who finds it hard to switch off, although swimming laps at the pool in her lake house (“in a bikini, always”) and watching Netflix with her dogs helps. Jenna Ortega’s Wednesday is a recent favourite. Many of her team have worked with her for years, and she says she relies on their honesty. “I say to them, tell me what you think. Don’t ever say something just to please me because it wouldn’t make me happy.”

Donatella with her dogs. Photo: Courtesy of Versace

These days, Donatella says she’s more interested in using her platform for purpose than parties. She tries to answer all the hundreds of letters and sketches she receives from young fans asking her for advice. “To give back is important, otherwise what is this all for? You’re famous, sure, but who cares?” she says. That’s why she’s also used her trip to LA to shine a light on marginalised communities, announcing a scholarship for LGTBQ+ fashion students, supported by Versace and the CFDA with
a keynote speech at the LA LGBT Center. “Donatella’s visit meant so much,” says Joe Hollendoner, the centre’s CEO. “Her life’s mission is a testament to the power of meaningful allyship: Showing up on the front lines to join us in our fight for liberation.”

Above all, though, Donatella uses her clothes as armour. “If you look better, you feel better,” she says—a principle that fed directly into the collection she showed in LA. Heavy on tailoring, it was all about cuts that make the body look hot. “I’m a woman, so I understand women’s insecurities. So, I try to think about different kinds of women and give them confidence.”

The approach is working. After more than two decades at the top, she’s built Versace into a luxury powerhouse that’s not just still creating red carpet currency, but has also surpassed $1 billion in annual sales, according to figures released last year.

What does she think her brother would say to her now? “Oh, we would fight as always. We would always fight and then he’d tell me, OK you’re right and I would say, ‘Yeah, I’m right!'” she laughs, before trailing off, emotional and lost in thought for a moment. But then, just like that, she’s back in focus. She grabs her gold Sharpie marker pen, pulls out the pages of her GRAZIA and gets to work…

This story, edited by Donatella Versace, first appeared in GRAZIA UK, out now.