“Like your hair?” someone suggests.
“Better,” she replies, and everyone laughs.
If you were to go by the Ralph Lauren headquarters, it is unlikely you would find Ralph himself sitting down to supper with his staff, but this is Italy. Donatella likes to see people eat, she likes things familial, she likes to be intimate with the people who work for her. “Dinner was always in her suite, she tells you where to sit, she makes sure everybody eats,” says Jason Weisenfeld wistfully. “We were always very well taken care of.”
When he would travel with her by private jet, for instance, Weisenfeld came to expect that upon arrival at whatever five-star hotel they were staying at, his suitcase would be unpacked, clothes neatly hung on satin hangers, fruit chilled and peeled and waiting in a bowl, every detail art-directed. “Life with Donatella for my first year or so was like a combination of being with a very strict boss and touring with the Rolling Stones,” he says. After the opening of a Gianni Versace retrospective at the Victoria and Albert museum in London in 2002, Weisenfeld recalls going back to her hotel room with about five other staff members and noticing after a while that Donatella had disappeared. “All of a sudden, the doors to the suite swing open, and this ice-cream cart comes in with all these different big, giant silver domes and trays with ice cream on them, and there’s Donatella in her silk robe, high heels, a black mini-stole wrapped around her, and all of her jewelry, saying in her heavy Italian accent, ‘Ice cream for everybody! Get your ice cream! Who wants ice cream?’ So here’s a woman who had just been in front of a hundred camera crews and paparazzi, and she’s doing all this work, and she gets a free couple of hours and all she’s focused on is feeding everybody and making everybody laugh. Donatella is a, you know, she’s an Italian woman. She’s a mother.”
Besides her staff, Donatella is joined for dinner tonight by her older brother, Santo, who wears white linen pants and has a face that looks like it was painted by Pontormo 500 years ago. Santo has been going back and forth to Dubai to work on the new Versace hotel, which will have a temperature-controlled beach.
“It’s like Disneyland, yes?” says Donatella.
Santo is very grave. “I like very much Dubai seven or eight years ago, but now it’s a very crazy place.” They will bring in barrels of fish to put in the lagoons and ponds.
“Very natural,” says Donatella with a small snort. “Similar to Las Vegas.”
“Las Vegas is not real. Dubai is real,” Santo says.
“I want to go there next week!” says Bill Mullen.
“Pfoof,” says Donatella, and exhales a plume of smoke.
Gianni Versace left 30 percent of his company to Santo, 20 percent to Donatella, and 50 percent to Allegra, who will turn 20 this weekend and is studying drama at Brown University. And so it is that Donatella Versace finds herself from time to time in Providence, Rhode Island.
“I couldn’t picture me in Providence, let alone her!” says Mullen, who attended Brown himself.
“I stay at theez terrible hotel in the mall,” says Donatella, “in the presidential suite ... is not very presidential.” She laughs at the idea, and then so does everyone else. “But now Allegra has bought a house, so I stay there.” Recent pictures in the Italian press show Allegra heartbreakingly shrunken. According to Donatella, “she is better now.”
It’s a funny thing about coke, how it’s always the people who are already kind of manic who are the most drawn to it, like they want to see how amped-up they can possibly get without their heads’ blowing off their bodies. (Don’t they ever want to unwind?) There is something a little cokey—but very nontoxic—about Donatella’s vibe even now that she’s sober. She speaks very quickly. She laughs easily. She paces. She is little and coiled: a tight, tiny spring.
A photographer and his assistants are waiting upstairs for Donatella to come out and have her photo taken. She is running late, and she has allotted very little time for them anyway, and everyone is edgy but awed by the surroundings. These were once the king’s quarters. There are giant bowls of pungent lilies; a phalanx of marble heads carved before the birth of Christ; a collection of priceless antique globes; and a series of black-and-white photographs of Gianni, Donatella, and Santo with their relatives in Calabria, the Southern Italian town of their birth. Gianni sits grinning in front, Santo stands smiling behind him, Donatella looks very young, very modest, and very distant. Her nose looks different.
She says she never planned to have such an operatic life—some have greatness thrust upon them. “I knew I was going to work in fashion; I really didn’t think of nothing else,” she says, because her parents were tailors. “But I always thought it was Gianni who would live a grand life, not me. Because I really was not interested. Really I was … when I was at university, that was the happiest time of my life.”