It’s like a bakery in here. Hot, yes, but also cake everywhere. A colossal chocolate torte, some kind of pear-and-custard thing, and it smells wonderful, but it’s also confusing, like a dream, because the cakes keep coming from one direction and the models keep coming from another. Man after man, boy after boy, in slouchy, sexy, beachy linen, parades out in front of Donatella Versace and her staff and the cakes on the ground floor of the Versace headquarters on Via Gesú in Milan.
Upstairs is the apartment once occupied by the slain king Gianni Versace. Donatella, the sister whose hair he dyed blonde, who has been blonde ever since, who has become terrifically famous, iconic even, for her blondeness, among other things, stands with her hands clasped behind her back and says, “Before was very macho, very aggressive. Now much softer.” Her voice sounds smoked. She fingers the leather edging of a pool-blue jacket hanging off a cutlet of a man. “I think the woman’s perspective on the man is very important.”
It is a few days before the men’s show, and Donatella; her stylist, Bill Mullen, who is from New York and wears only black; her assistant Bruce, a long-haired, French surfer god; and a dozen or so junior designers and publicists and tailors are analyzing who will wear what in the show. “I never eat cake,” says a girl in jeans with a tape measure, but she keeps looking at the shiny chocolate round.
Donatella’s recent collections for women have been embraced by the fashion world—nine years after her brother’s murder, she’s finally being given credit for being a real designer. There will be a few looks for women in this show, too—the precollection, they call it—and a spindly blonde comes out on towering silver stilettos decorated with rhinestones the size of nickels. She walks like an arrogant ostrich for several paces, then wipes out and lands with a brutal thud. Everyone gasps. “Okay. The first fall. We fix,” says Donatella, and pulls out a Marlboro from a pack customized with her initials in Gothic script. “Theez can’t happen on the runway.” Donatella lights the cigarette with a Zippo encrusted in black crystals and the golden Versace Medusa-head insignia. The model squats to scrutinize her heel and you can see her underpants.
Suddenly, someone brings up shakerados! “Who wants?” says Donatella, and within minutes they appear on a silver tray. Heaven: espresso and ice and sugar and vanilla shaken up and poured in dazzling crystal goblets that sweat in the heat. The second they’ve been consumed, Joseph, Donatella’s Filipino manservant, whisks them away.
Then the most beautiful woman in the entire world enters in a dress made of clear plastic and dove-gray silk jersey. “I hate her,” says Donatella. “I ask her every day, ‘How come your ass don’t move?’ ” Which is funny, because Donatella’s own ass absolutely does not move. It is small and encased, taut as a water balloon, in shiny gold silk pants with a slight flare at the bottom. She wears them with platform shoes, a pink pedicure, a skintight side-zipped orange top, and false eyelashes.
All this you expected. The tan skin, the Rapunzel extensions, the chain smoking. The whole freaky, gilded, Jan-from-the-Muppets visual you’ve seen sandwiched between P. Diddy and Madonna in every magazine in the world.
What’s surprising is that Donatella Versace is warm, maternal, an arm-toucher. She pushes a plate at you. “Please. Eat some cake.”
It has long been Donatella’s role to play hostess in the court of Versace. When Gianni, the Sun King, was alive, he was famously regimented—early to bed, early to rise—and utterly uninterested in alcohol, drugs, partying. It was Donatella’s job to be the warm entertainer, the toasted bronze devil proffering temptation: food, leather, gold, and, until recently, cocaine. Gianni was initially in the dark about his sister’s drug use, and later, when it became both obvious and legendary, he frowned upon it, but in truth it was useful to his empire.
Italian fashion in the eighties—and perhaps the aesthetic of the eighties itself—was defined by two oppositional dynasties: Armani and Versace. The one represented crisp class, the other louche glamour. Cold versus hot, old money versus new, understated elegance versus over-the-top indulgence. The hard-partying, coke-snorting, platinum-blonde Donatella was Gianni’s mascot and muse, a necessary figure to round out the Versace fantasy. “She had always been the person who worked the parties and entertained celebrities,” says Jason Weisenfeld, Versace’s former head of publicity and one of the people who sat Donatella down for an intervention about two years ago before she went to rehab in Arizona. “It was up to Donatella to go out and be the face of the company. A lot of it was Donatella’s creation: She became friends with a whole different world of people who she brought to him.”
At her peak, nobody could top Donatella for all-night, full-on excess—a critical component of eighties mise-en-scène. Everyone knew that there would be coke at the Versace postshow parties (at least after Gianni went to bed), coke backstage (and not just models but supermodels), wildness on their ad shoots (Latin boys in tight white pants, and sometimes tigers). Versace meant whatever you wanted, whenever you wanted it. (Cake! Coke! Shakerados! Who wants?)