Donatella Versace: 'How do I keep young? I sleep every night in the freezer!’
AT 57, Donatella Versace looks astonishing. "How do I keep young?" she growls in a dust-bowl of an accent so thick it sometimes requires subtitles. "Haven't you heard? I sleep every night in the deep freezer!"
Those acquainted with Donatella Versace only from her pictures in the press sometimes take violently against her style. And in truth, she can look a bit fearsome.
But to know her even a little is to understand that 70 per cent of her armour - the flaxen, waist-length extensions, the fake lashes, the Botox ("only on my face, not on my body, that's the result of hard work") and stormy expressions - is a front she has been cultivating ever since, aged 11, her big brother Gianni goaded her to peroxide her hair.
The rest is humour and self-mockery. Not for nothing is she good friends with fashion's totemic intellectual, Miuccia Prada. That surprises a lot of people, I suggest. "It surprises me," she retorts. They first met in Milan, "at some event, somewhere… I made a joke and she started to laugh and she said let's go and get some paninis because we're starving… and off we went. We just talk, talk, talk. She's so inspiring. We make fun of each other and teach each other. She says, 'I could never make sexy clothes, but I love them.' And I say, 'Well, I love what you do'."
Miuccia Prada recently told me, dejectedly, that feminism was dead in Italy. Does Donatella agree? "Feminism is dead in the world. It comes from another time. I'm a feminist. I want to fight, but I don't see many people with this desire to fight for something. Women don't help each other, especially in fashion. I know Miuccia… but that's it. Nobody else."
This doesn't sound like the old Donatella, shy to the point of aloof incoherence. She's in London to pick up an award from Glamour magazine, and the day after our interview she's due to address the Oxford Union. Clearly, that prospect terrifies her, but she'll disarm the lot of them the moment she totters in on five-inch cobalt blue platforms, those chiselled teak arms on full view, and begins telling them that the only reason she didn't give up and shut up shop after Gianni's death was because she felt responsible for all the people who worked for Versace.
Living up to the expectations and subsequently the legacy of Gianni - murdered outside his Miami home in 1997 - wasn't easy. That's partly why she does things to extremes - whether it's the drugs and partying of the past or the exercise now. "You're right," she says. "I've always been hard on myself. I still am. In order to be responsible you need some discipline in your life. For a while I lost mine. But I've got it back now. Maybe a bit too much… I'm so disciplined. I'm so on time. What happened to me?"
Discipline for Donatella means working out four times a week ("not in fresh air, I'm not going to pretend I'm a country girl"), rather than giving up smoking. She has cut down - just one packet a day, for which she has created a special cover so that she doesn't have to keep looking at the Smoking Kills message. So far, so classic Donatella. Less predictably, she says she loves reading historical biographies - her current book is on Queen Victoria. She tried reading Fifty Shades of Grey , the erotic mega bestseller, but found it too badly written to finish. Actually, she is surprisingly old-fashioned - especially where her children are concerned: "I think there was a time when I was too strict and controlling," she admits. "I think I asphyxiated my children."
It all came good, though. Allegra, her 24-year-old daughter who inherited 50 per cent of the company and who, Donatella says, plays Saffy (the sensible daughter in Ab Fab) to her Eddie, now works in the family business, researching textiles, having previously turned her back on it to act. "I've been surprised by her concentration and determination," says her mother.
Daniel, her 20-year-old son, is a rock musician living in London. "He's recording right now. He's always in the studio but he never lets me listen. He's very private. He doesn't want to be recognised as my son. Not that Allegra listens to me, either. Neither of my children listens to me," she sighs contentedly.
After the tumultuous years following Gianni Versace's murder, the family has clearly regrouped, with Donatella at the centre. She's even achieved that grail of modern life, an amicable relationship with the children's father, her ex-husband Paul Beck, who now lives in the US. She sees less of her other brother, Santo, though, who used to run Versace's finances. "He's gone into politics," she wrinkles her nose. "We don't agree."
Santo's departure was the cue for some draconian changes, just as the brand seemed at its nadir. Donatella credits the new team members with turning around the company's fortunes. Their arrival came after a dismal decade in which sales slumped, creative credibility wobbled and some of the luxurious palazzos and extensive art collection were sold off. These were painful steps but the savage re-trenching put the company on a stable footing, and gradually Donatella emerged from the toxic fug of self-doubt and hedonism. "The problem was that Gianni was a genius, and for a while I struggled to find my way."
Oddly, the two events that proved most restorative were her recent collaborations with Lady Gaga, who is something of a DV doppelgänger in looks as well as spirit, and the high street chain H&M. The former had personally requested that Donatella dress her. "We opened the archives and she was, like, wow, and then I designed some pieces for her and she went crazy."
The H&M tie-in was bigger still, bringing with it the ultimate status symbol for any brand claiming to be relevant: queues snaking outside branches around the world. Donatella was in shock - so much so she dispatched one of her PRs for photographic evidence before she ventured out. Not that she hadn't put her all into the collection.
"H&M were amazing. Everything I asked for, the packaging, the metalwork, the prints, they agreed and they did it so well. Even me, from far away, I was thinking, 'Is that the original?' " Naturally, H&M also supplied the Maserati in which Donatella - ever the show-woman - roared up to the Regent's Street branch on launch day, to the delight of the fans. "I had 15-year-olds asking to have their pictures taken with me. That's when I realised this brand still means something. It sounds stupid, but before that I wasn't so sure."
So now she's on a roll. The flip side to the H&M gig is the haute couture line, Atelier Versace, that she has relaunched: the show this Sunday in Paris is, for the first time since Gianni died, back in the Ritz. It's further evidence of her rebirth. "After Gianni died all these experts kept telling me what would sell and what wouldn't. After a while I realised nobody knows. He always said, you have to follow your instincts. There was no 'safe' with Gianni. He wasn't a safe person. He kept telling me not to be afraid of anything."
The thing is, Gianni had Donatella encouraging him to be brave. "That's true. I was always pushing him to be more daredevil," she laughs. Who pushes her? "I have this young team. One of my designers is a minimalist - the opposite of me. Long black skirts, everything. I love that. And there's Christopher and Tammy…" She means Christopher Kane, the talented Scot she hired to design Versus, the line her brother originally gave her to oversee, and Kane's feisty sister and business partner. In a way, the Kanes' relationship mirrors that between her and Gianni. Once the interview's over, she'll visit Tammy to see her new baby.
"Family…" she breaks off. This is the real key to her revival. "You do what you can for them. They don't listen," she shrugs. "But if they did they'd be telling me that the most important things in life are strength, determination, loyalty and never giving up. You have to fight for everything."