Summer for the Sun Queen

Photo: Olaf Blecker

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?)

Photo: Olaf Blecker

“It starts as a celebration,” Donatella says. “You don’t do drugs because they’re not fun … they are a lot of fun. But you know, the celebration gets too often celebrated.”

Like Princess Diana, who poured tea for aggrieved family members after Gianni Versace’s funeral and was herself killed just six weeks later, being struck down in his prime has served to gild Gianni Versace in myth. Fashion people gush about his talent, museums hold exhibitions of his work, and everyone who knew him adopts a glazed look and a reverential tone when they speak of him. But the Sun King’s brilliance seems, at times, to have fried his sister.

Rumor has hardened into accepted wisdom in the fashion world that Gianni arranged Donatella’s marriage to the male model Paul Beck because he wanted an heir for his throne. It is also widely believed that Gianni’s feelings for his sister’s husband were more than platonic. It is certain, at least, that Gianni had a role far more powerful than uncle in the life of Donatella and Beck’s children, particularly for their daughter, Allegra, whom Gianni called “Little Princess” and to whom he left the majority share of his company.

“My cheeldren were his cheeldren,” says Donatella. “He was always with Allegra. Since she was 9 years old only, she would listen to him, she was going to see museum, she knew all the museum in America, in France, in England, and Gianni loved art. She would sit with him and go through art books, and she knew the art of Picasso … it was adorable. She was such an amazing, special leetle girl.”

Donatella always knew Allegra would someday hold the controlling stake in Versace: It was, she says, a kind of parental incentive the king created for her. “ ‘I want to leave everything to your daughter because I want to make sure you take care of her so well.’ This is what he was telling me. ‘Do such a good job, because everything goes to your daughter.’ ” She did not question the king’s decree: L’Etat, c’est Gianni. “Gianni was amazing,” Donatella says ruefully. “He really was amazing. But if he wasn’t like that, he wouldn’t have reached what he reached in such a short time.”

Though his murder was, of course, a shock, he had already been preparing for his own death. “Gianni was sure he was going to die,” says Dona­tella. “He was sick with cancer in his ear before he was murdered. The last two years of his life, Gianni was hiding, hiding up in his apartment in Via Gesú, because his ear was so big. It was impossible to do a surgery because of the position, because to do a surgery, part of his face was supposed to drop. That’s why the will and everything was done, and I knew everything about, because he thought he was going to die. But then it was declared cured six months before he was murdered. We celebrated; we drink champagne and everything. Six months later, he was killed.”

After the regicide of Gianni Versace in July 1997, Donatella was catapulted into the throne. At the Metropolitan Museum’s Costume Institute gala a few months later, at which an exhibition of Gianni’s work premiered, guests counted the number of times Donatella ran to the bathroom with Kate Moss. “I don’t want to act like a victim, because I hate women who acts like a victim, but I had a lot of responsibility when my brother died,” Donatella says. “He was my best friend. I really loved him. I couldn’t find a reason why he was killed. This was a horrible murder, and this company he created, they were looking at me like, ‘What’s she gonna do? The king is dead.’ ” Donatella lights a cigarette and laughs out a stream of smoke. “So I realize that all the eyes of the world were on top of me, and really, people didn’t believe I was going to pull through. All these people depending on me, their jobs on my shoulders, to live up to Gianni’s dream. I’m going to fuck up everything Gianni did?”

It would have been a failure too epic to contemplate; the opera would have become too tragic to sit through. “The thing that killed me the most was to show this strong façade in front of everybody because I wasn’t strong at all. I was going home and crying tears. I also had my cheeldren to be strong for … Why Uncle Gianni die? Why? Why? Why? Why? It was a lot. It was a lot of things together, my marriage falling apart at the same time.” She doesn’t talk about what happened with Beck except to say, “I have been living with a lot of pain in my life: private problems, family problems. I found an easy way to numb everything … drugs.”

Now, of course, cigarettes are her last vice, the only remaining fix in a clean new world of light food and heavy exercise. A trainer comes to Donatella’s vast apartment every morning. “But I don’t get this ‘feel better after,’ ” she says. “After I feel tired. I’m waiting, waiting all day to feel better.”

“I like beauty,” Donatella says the following evening, over a plate of prosciutto and a little pile of melon balls. “Hair that moves. I don’t like anything stiff.” She is talking with her team about the way she wants the precollection styled on the runway—everyone eats dinner together, family-style, in a room on the ground floor of the palazzo on Via Gesú.

“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.”

She studied literature and languages in Florence and lived with three friends, one of whom was also named Donatella. “She has dark, dark hair, long, long hair. She had a child when she was 20. They were very, very avant-garde, my friends at that time. It was a very glamorous time! It was very political time, too, a lot of demonstrations against everything. We were into music a lot, we would go to every concert. I hate the Beatles. Hate. Too commercial for me, but I loved the Rolling Stones. I met them twenty years ago, when Jerry Hall start to date Mick.” Donatella dressed like a gypsy and wore black eye makeup and had very little responsibility. “When I was in university, I love my life.”

That was then. Now Donatella must run the kingdom until the Little Princess is ready, and she has a show to put on and a collection to edit and a photo to pose for. But the makeup and the hair take so much time, and they are so crucial, she knows. Nobody wants to see just some person; she cannot appear before her subjects out of full regalia. So she keeps the photographer waiting as someone works on the eyes and someone works on the tresses, and she sends Joseph out with yet more cakes.

“God, it’s always like Mom’s kitchen in here,” says a blonde American called D. J. Coleman, who wears sunglasses inside and is waiting to talk to Donatella about the music for her show. “When I worked for Tom Ford, you couldn’t even say his name. Seriously, if you were at a restaurant and you were talking about him, you had to say, like, ‘Grandpa is doing a lot of red this season.’ ”

“It starts as a celebration,” says Donatella. “You don’t do drugs because they aren’t fun. They’re a lot of fun. But the celebration gets too often celebrated.”

Donatella emerges in all black. She always kept a room here as a place to stay when they were working late. “The last two years of Gianni’s life,” says Donatella, “I was going up into his apartment, showing him the work, getting the approval from him, but I ran the company because he wasn’t showing himself. It was like a year and a half I did everything.” On her walls there are two pieces by Julian Schnabel made from ceramic shards, a portrait of Gianni, and another of Allegra and Daniel. “The other way was more convenient for me, when I was next to Gianni, because Gianni was the one with all the responsibility, taking all the criticism. It was a more comfortable position.” She laughs. “Even if he said what was wrong was my fault, that was okay.”

She paces, smoking, lets them take a few shots, and then announces she is going back to her room. “I change clothes,” she tells the photographer. “I am insecure.”

The next evening at the New York Times party in the garden of the Hotel Bulgari, people are gushing sweat and drinking champagne. Paul Beck, Donatella’s ex-­husband, is in a gray shirt soaked through the armpits and the front of the chest. He still works for Versace, as he has for some twenty years, and he is circulating among the fashion press while Donatella prepares for the men’s-show rehearsal. He says hello to Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana, who both wear their company’s name on a gold plate on the tail pocket of their jeans. He exchanges greetings with Pharrell Williams, who is in pink sneakers. “He played at my daughter’s birthday party,” Beck explains—Allegra’s 18th, which was just before Donatella went into rehab.

There is something guilelessly flat about Paul Beck—you can imagine him appealing very much to Andy Warhol. Beck grew up on Long Island and rode his Ken-doll looks into a modeling career in Manhattan in the eighties. He worked for Armani before he met Gianni and Donatella, and took on a larger, more familial role in the court of Versace. He was their fit model and then became a kind of consultant; “like the pockets are too deep, that kind of thing,” he explains. “I’d start, like, the personal relationships. We did this T-shirt for Bruce Springsteen when he played the stadium in Torino. There were four different categories of staff with four different colored T-shirts, like acid green, orange, yellow, and black, that said SPRINGSTEEN on the front, VERSACE on the back. At that time, especially in Italy, those things were not happening.” It was a stroke of magic Versace inspiration to posit that fashion could be more than what the rock stars wore: Fashion people could be rock stars themselves. “These guys really did become friends with Gianni,” says Beck, with feeling. “Like Springsteen dedicated a song to us when he was in Torino.”

Beck goes on to a party Vogue is throwing, at which Santo Versace is already chatting with Rupert Everett, who wears head-to-toe gingham. He makes an appearance at a glittering GQ soiree held in Milan’s Humanitaria. Gardenias float in little candlelit pools, and everyone is getting drunk and waiting for Pharrell to perform. Finally, Beck heads to the Milan Stock Exchange, where Donatella is having her rehearsal.

“We are civilized people,” she says. She and Beck want to maintain a sense of family even though they are split. (But then, all the roles in the court of Versace are fluid, shifting.) “In the beginning, it was more difficult. But a while after you separate … you get over whatever makes you separated.” She laughs. “I don’t think we could work in the same city together, though.”

Four of Donatella Versace's signature looks, from left: Ready-to-Wear Spring 2000, Ready-to-Wear Fall 2000, Ready-to-Wear Fall 2006, Ready-to-Wear Fall 2006.Photo: Firstview

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.”

Summer for the Sun Queen