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Grace Under Fire: Luxury leadership in troubled times

The power of the Medusa – an interview with Donatella Versace

Walpole star columnist Peter Howarth, editor, content expert and CEO of luxury creative agency Show Media, talks to luxury’s leaders about their approach to the crisis, and shares his insights into these extraordinary times. In the latest in this series, Peter Howarth speaks to Donatella Versace about charity, overcoming personal crises, strength, and the importance of hope.
13th May 2020
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Grace Under Fire: Luxury leadership in troubled times  The power of the Medusa – an interview with Donatella Versace

Picture this: you’re in the middle of south west rural China in a recently built school, sitting in chairs that have been arranged in rows in a concrete playground area. Kraftwerk’s The Model is playing and kids are strutting their stuff in homemade clothes, putting on a fashion show. In the front row, of course, sits none other than Donatella Versace in platform heels, skin-tight black trousers and a fitted black jacket, having made no concession to the fact that instead of her habitual habitat of Milan’s streets, today she is having to traverse the Chinese countryside. In her entourage are her ponytailed assistant, her bodyguard, hairdresser, and make-up assistant, who all look like a handsome security detail in matching long-sleeved black T-shirts featuring a white circle logo displaying the word ‘One’. To her side sits Jet Li, Chinese action-hero superstar.

I too made up one of the number of the guests at this, the most bizarre – and hands down, most moving – fashion show I have ever attended. The year was 2008, and we had travelled three hours by road from Chengdu, deep into the Sichuan province. I was accompanying Donatella on a trip to the school Versace had helped fund for victims of the terrible earthquake that had hit the region that year. Registering 7.9 out of a maximum of 10 on the Richter scale, it had a catastrophic effect, and today the number of killed stands at more than 87,000.

Donatella had become involved in the project after seeing coverage of the devastation on TV. She was particularly struck by the images of the children who had been affected. She wanted to help, and then heard of what Jet Li was doing. The actor – hugely famous in China – had founded a charity, the One Foundation, and was working with survivors. That was how she came to pledge funding for the Versace/One Foundation Children’s Centre in Sanjiang for a year, including the cash for 40 doctors for that period. Versace would specifically fund the psychological post-trauma therapy and counselling, aiming to help 400 children and their families. At the time, the designer said: “I want to make sure they have hope, because hope is the most important thing in life. At least with this kind of help, hope is a possibility for them.”

It was to be the first project in a whole raft of activity that Versace committed to in China. As well as a yearlong partnership with the One Foundation, the firm also undertook a charity auction and fundraising fashion event in Beijing, donating a portion of sales in China for the following year. It also facilitated customer donations at all of Versace’s 21 boutiques in the country, as well as creating an exclusive range of Versace/One Foundation charity merchandise, with 100% of sales proceeds going to the One Foundation for the earthquake relief of Sichuan.

Known as the Red Cross Society of China Jet Li One Foundation, Jet Li’s organisation, as I discovered, was created after he’d experienced an extraordinary personal crisis. While on holiday in the Maldives in 2004 with his family, the tsunami hit. He found himself actually standing in the rising sea water holding his four-year-old daughter over his head and grasping his babysitter with his other hand, who in turn had charge of his one-year-old daughter. He lost his grip on the two of them and they were swept away. Luckily, the family survived but, from that moment, he was a changed man and determined to do something to help others.

Donatella for her part has also known her fair share of personal crises. It’s easy to forget in the light of sensationalist headlines and a glitzy Netflix series that the murder of her brother Gianni was a very personal and human tragedy – the reality is, here is a woman who suffered the most awful and unexpected loss in appalling circumstances.

What I witnessed in Sichuan was, on one level, no more complicated than two famous and successful people sitting side by side, united in their determination to do something for children who were suffering because of a natural disaster that was beyond their control. Sound familiar? For what else is Covid-19 if not exactly that: a natural phenomenon that reminds us of our impotence in the face of mother nature’s power.

But Donatella Versace is also a mother. She may appear to be “a kamikaze blonde in black leather and stilettos, more like a character from Blade Runner than the stately doyenne of a Milanese fashion house,” as Rupert Everett describes his first impression of her in Red Carpets and Other Banana Skins, his first memoir, but she is also a parent with two kids. And it was the mother who turned up in China, interacting easily with the children who had done drawings for her to look at and made clothes to model on a makeshift concrete catwalk. In fact, at the time she said: “As a mother, I instinctively wanted to do something for the families that are suffering.” At the end of the fashion show, she gave a standing ovation and distributed lots of toys she had bought in Chengdu the day before.

The year before our trip into the Chinese interior, I had spent a week with Donatella in 2007 in the very different setting of Los Angeles, shadowing her as she prepared to receive the Rodeo Drive Walk of Style Award, a gong for remarkable services to fashion, design or costume. As well as a bronze plaque in the pavement of the famous street dedicated to Donatella and Gianni – who was being honoured posthumously – there was a huge Oscars-meets-This-is-Your-Life-style bash with the great and the good from the designers’ past parading on stage to pay homage to her and her brother. Rupert Everett was the master of ceremonies and Naomi, Cindy, Demi and the like gave speeches. Sharon auctioned a one-of-a-kind Versace-designed Lamborghini Murcielago Roadster for the Elton John Aids Foundation, Elton himself played some tunes on the piano and Guns N’ Roses finished things off with a bang. It was a different time. Pre-financial crisis. Pre-pandemic. Pre-new normal, whatever that is going to be.

One evening, I found myself in Bungalow 1A of the Beverly Hills Hotel talking to Donatella Versace. She was reclining on a sofa, very relaxed, and she spoke candidly about her brother’s death. “I didn’t want any of it,” she told me, referring to her instant elevation to head of the firm and chief designer. She wanted instead to be able to bring up her family. She was perfectly happy in her role of muse for Gianni, working with celebrities, overseeing advertising campaign shoots with famous photographers such as Richard Avedon and Herb Ritts, and designing her own punky collection, Versus. When Gianni was killed, she was distraught. “I was sobbing in private – I couldn’t cry in front of people, people were looking at me asking, ‘what shall we do?’ I had to keep it hidden from everybody – even my own family. Because everything was falling apart,” she confessed.

Perhaps Italy is, after all, a matriarchy. Since we had that conversation, whenever I see her, which is typically only twice a year at Versace fashion shows, I have never been able to entirely rid myself of the image of this woman having to shoulder the responsibility of keeping the show on the road and her brother’s legacy alive. She was grieving and everybody was looking to her for what to do. The fact that she managed to hold it together is remarkable. Maybe that was also the mother at work? Mother to a family of workers, colleagues, and, in the end, customers too.

Today, therefore, it comes as no surprise to me that when Covid-19 took Italy in its grip, Donatella the mother acted. First there was a donation to the Chinese Red Cross Foundation of ¥1 million, surely with some remembrance of the time she worked with the Red Cross Society of China Jet Li One Foundation to help the earthquake victims of Sichuan. Then €100,000 to the Italia, We Are With You initiative set up by the Camera Nazionale Della Moda Italiana – the official body for the Italian fashion industry – which is providing ventilators and medical equipment to Italy’s hospitals and health professionals on the front line. Versace donated €400,000 to the intensive care unit of the San Raffaele Hospital in Milan and together, Donatella and Allegra Versace – mother and daughter – gave €200,000 personally to the same Milanese hospital.

I call Donatella to catch up and ask her what she feels about the situation at the moment, and why she felt compelled to donate personally as well as through the company? “I don’t really understand the question,” she says. “We are going through something so strange at the moment I just felt that as Versace we should do something, of course. But then Allegra and I are individuals too, so we should play our part too, we should do whatever we could. I feel it an honour to be able to help, and a duty too.”

How does she feel Italy has responded in general? “Honestly, I am very proud. I have never been more proud of being Italian. Despite all the uncertainty and the fear, I feel we have really shown the world that in this country we have a real sense of community. We have been strong and we have stood together and we have helped each other. The Italian people have been amazing and generous.”

Did that surprise her? “It is always a surprise when you realise people can achieve things by coming together. In fashion we deal in appearances, and appearances can be deceptive, of course. You like to think that we care about each other, but it is something you discover to be true when you are in extraordinary circumstances.”

I remind her of our conversation in Los Angeles all those years ago, when she explained how she had felt she had to take care of all the people in the business after her brother died. Is there a part of her that feels responsible for looking after others, I wonder? “That is just being human, is it not?” she asks. Yes, but it might surprise people who see her as the epitome of the high-handed diva? “I am full of surprises,” she says, and you can hear the smile on the end of the line.

For several years, Saturday Night Live comedian Maya Rudolph did a skit where she played Donatella as a ridiculous spoilt party princess surrounded by muscly boys stripped to the waist, making regal demands. At the time, I remember Donatella saying that she didn’t mind the caricature, found it quite amusing, actually, but that she would never wear fake diamonds, as Rudolph did. The one-liner is something she is good at. People are often disarmed by the fact that this famous fashion icon – and in this case the word is appropriate – has a wicked sense of humour.

Today, she clearly finds little to laugh about. The Donatella I speak to in May 2020 is fully aware of the cost Covid-19 is exacting on people’s lives. Versace, like it’s global peers, is a fashion brand on hold. When does she think things might return to some semblance of normality? “You tell me. It is so hard to tell. People’s safety has to come first. But I do know that there is a desire out there for expressing ourselves. That is why, for example, we have a series on our website where young up-and-coming artists make work inspired by one of our sneaker styles. There’s a Serbian origami artist up there at the moment who has made a huge two-metre sculpture of the Squalo sneaker out of five and a half thousand pieces of paper.”

So during lockdown, the creative urge is important. “Of course – more than ever.” Is she creating? “Every day. I have so many new ideas. I listen to music to inspire me – loud – and I am planning all the things I will do with Versace when I am able.”

It sounds like she sees this as a time for recharging. “There is a young German digital artist who is also on the website who has also created a work around our Squalo trainer. He is using this time to learn new skills, to experiment. I understand that impulse. If you can’t do the things you would normally do, then think of new ways to learn.”

This is something she has been trying to express to her design team too. The way through this crisis for a fashion company like hers, she says, is to focus on its creativity, to understand what it is that it contributes to its customer’s lives.

I ask her to explain what she means by this. “It comes back to the Medusa,” she says. “When Gianni designed our Medusa logo in 1978, he chose the mythical Greek Gorgon because she represented the power of attraction. She would paralyse anybody who was weak enough to give in to the temptation of looking at her. For me she is a symbol of female power and confidence, which is an incredible thing. That sense runs through Versace, a real feeling of strength.”

Like the strength she and her countrymen have shown in the face of the pandemic? “If you like – you certainly need strength at a time like this.” And as a creative leader of a company, is that what she brings too, strength? “I certainly hope I bring confidence. That is what people are looking for at the moment. That is what we need. A conviction that people are stronger than they fear they might be. If I can help my colleagues feel that, then I am doing my job.”

And, I venture, they need hope, just like those children in Sichuan 12 years ago. “Of course. We always need hope. Life is about hope. And the way people have responded to this terrible crisis should give us all hope that we can build a better future together.”

Donatella Versace is right. She is full of surprises.