The show goes off without a hitch. It is unusual for an Italian family company to have a formal dress rehearsal—it isn’t done at Prada or Armani—so Versace shows always have a special polish. Donatella receives plaudits from the press for the collection, and then she flies to L.A. with her ex-husband for her daughter’s birthday and sits by the pool and wears flip-flops and does not have her hair and makeup done for several days. “It was fabulous, really fabulous,” she says. “Just family and two friends of my daughter.”
Donatella’s family has become a much closer unit since she gave up drugs. “Because I had so much ashame … shame? When I wasn’t sober, I would be a little bit distant. I knew they knew because it was impossible not to. I was there all the time because I was a very present mother, but I realize the intimacy was very difficult with me. I was shy, I have something to hide. I still feel guilty.”
Her children came for a family session while she was in rehab. “They were asking me, ‘What is the number of your children? We want to contact your family because we want them to come here.’ I said no, no, I don’t want to involve my children; there is too much pain in this place, because it really is a place of pain, so much suffering going on. I mean, I hear stories in there … I felt so fortunate in a way. I thought I was going to protect my family, but in fact it was the opposite. They really want to come; they felt, why didn’t you want? You don’t want nothing to do with us? So it was a lot of explanation. I think I never cried so much as when the children left.” She smiles. “So for me to be so open now, so close together, I feel so much joy.”
Paul Beck works out of New York, where Donatella is today, sitting on a sofa in the $10,000-a-night Royal Suite at the Waldorf Towers on Park Avenue. (These rooms are so named because they were once home to the Duke and Duchess of Windsor.) She has a new CEO, who has helped her cut down on expenses (no more traveling by private jet, the selling off of Gianni’s Manhattan townhouse and the Miami mansion in front of which he was shot by Andrew Cunanan), but a level of luxury has to be maintained. “We live in a time when you cannot do certain things anymore all the time,” says Donatella. “Every once in a while, okay.”
To look around at the fashionable elite in Manhattan, you might think the Versace aesthetic passé. All the fashion girls have been in flowy, flowery, deconstructed Marni things that look like they were made out of fabulous old pillowcases. Otherwise, they’re wearing sleek, Frenchy bits of elegance designed by Alber Elbaz for Lanvin. Come fall, they will switch to skirts called poufs and bubbles from Balenciaga. In all these cases, the sexuality and the luxury of the clothes are understated, almost evasive. (Your eyes have to swim laps around a Marni top to locate a breast. A simple, shiny Lanvin skirt with a bit of pin-tucking costs thousands and will be recognized as a status symbol only by the most educated of fashion consumers.)
But in Southern California, as in Southern Italy, louche never went out. And the luxury market is rapidly expanding in places like China and India, where the concept of decadence requires little postmodern reinterpretation. Here in Manhattan—as in Milan—Donatella has also toned things down: The full-on gilt and Medusa, buckles and baroque of the Gianni era is no more. The flagship boutiques on Fifth Avenue and Via Monte Napoleone have been redone in black and white, marble and glass. And this men’s collection was more Santa Monica than Palermo. “I think Versace missed that softness—I always told to Gianni that, but you know, he was a big designer,” says Donatella. Her fall looks for women have been hailed as among the most wearable in the company’s history: clean pantsuits and mini-coats in camel and midnight blue, soft wool and softer Astrakhan, a simple pair of $620 jeans with rhinestone V’s on the ass.
“My mother was the strong one, and when my mother die, I took her place,” says Donatella. “I thought of myself as the one who really was able to tell Gianni the truth, because with a big designer, nobody is able. That’s the big threat for a big designer.”
Donatella has found someone to fill that role for her, now that she is herself the big designer, the ruling queen.
“I do for myself.”