With colorful, riotous prints on display in so many of the Spring 2012 collections, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the fashion world was making a collective tribute to the exuberant, extravagant late ’80s, early ’90s aesthetic of the inimitable Gianni Versace. But to understand the true nature of the Versace-inspired baroque resurgence that seems to be afoot, it’s best to go to the source: namely, the late Italian designer’s younger sister, one-time muse, and majordomo, Donatella Versace, who assumed the role of creative director of Gianni Versace SpA in 1997, after Gianni was fatally shot outside his South Beach home. In the 14 years since his tragic death, she has guided the house she helped build with her brother through myriad ups, downs, shifts, and reinventions.
This past season’s Versace men’s and women’s collections, shown at Gianni’s former Milan palazzo on the Via Gesù for the first time since his passing, were heralded as triumphant homecomings—not least for their modern distillation of the house’s iconic codes of elegantly gilded excess, including golden Medusa-head buttons and blown-out intarsia patterns, as well as invigorated reimaginings of the strong silhouettes and sensuality that have always defined the label. With its abstracted patterns and repeating prints of seahorses and starfish, Versace’s marine-themed women’s collection for Spring 2012 manages to be both playful and lightly subversive while calling on even more of Gianni’s signifiers: studding, bandeau tops, hipbone slits, and micro-shorts galore, all in sun-washed art deco colors and cut with a surgically sexed-up precision. In addition, Versace’s relaunch of its younger diffusion line, Versus (for Spring 2010 under the guidance of designer Christopher Kane), the label’s new children’s collection, Young Versace, and its highly anticipated neon-hued collaboration with H&M all have the brand riding higher than it has in years.
Singer Nicki Minaj—no stranger to towering Versace heels—recently caught up by phone from L.A. with Versace, who was in New York City. They were both preparing to celebrate the launch of the H&M capsule collection at an event featuring performances by Minaj and longtime friend of the house Prince. Minaj had spent the previous evening at the emergency room after injuring her eye following a video shoot.
NICKI MINAJ: How are you?
DONATELLA VERSACE: Very good. How do you feel today? Your eye is better?
MINAJ: I’m feeling better. I had a little health scare yesterday with my eye. But I drugged myself up and got really drunk and passed out, and now I’m feeling better.
VERSACE: Sometimes that’s the only therapy that works anyway. I can’t wait for the show. It will be amazing.
MINAJ: I know. Everyone is talking about it.
VERSACE: I love “Super Bass.” But the song I’d really love to hear you sing is “I’m the Best.”
MINAJ: You like that song?
VERSACE: Love that song. Love it.
MINAJ: You know, that’s one of my favorite songs, but people usually don’t like it as much because it’s not one of the party songs. But I love to sing that one. Tell me: Have you ever picked up a microphone?
VERSACE: Are you kidding? No . . . Believe me, you don’t want to hear me sing.
MINAJ: Really? Well, we’ll see when we come and perform. Everywhere on the Internet they’re talking about Prince being there. How do you feel about Prince?
VERSACE: Prince is one of the people who has been closest to me and closest to the company both in the past and now. He’s one of the most loyal people—and such a genius, with real ambition. I think people need to see Prince live to really understand how remarkable he is. He has always been inspiring because he is never afraid to break rules or barriers or invent something new—and if you love fashion, then you need to be able to do that.
MINAJ: I wanted to talk a bit about the recent collections. We’re really seeing the influence of Versace a lot right now in fashion. I think a lot of critics were excited to see the return of some of the iconic house codes in your Fall 2011 collection—the studding, cut-outs, micro-shorts, Miami art deco colors, and Medusa heads, and stuff like that. Was there a specific reason why you chose to return to the history of Versace for that collection?
VERSACE: The reason I did it is that I feel like so many young people today don’t know Versace’s past and what it stands for, so I wanted to make an homage to that history in the collection. Of course, you can never put out the same thing exactly as it was because we live in different times, but I wanted to show with that collection where Versace comes from. I felt the Medusa is an iconic sign because people in the past were afraid of the Medusa. In mythology, the Medusa can petrify people with a look—which is a good thing, I think. [laughs] But the Medusa is a unique symbol—something strong. It’s about going all the way. That’s why I do things like the H&M collaboration, because I want to reach a bigger audience of young people. These are the people I look to for inspiration, so I wanted to make it affordable for them to buy a piece in the Versace style. Versace was—and still is—about the sophisticated woman who is elegant, not afraid of her own sensuality, and not afraid to dare or take risks in life. I think women are much stronger than men in society now. We take more risks than they do in general . . . I mean, there she is: Nicki Minaj.
MINAJ: [laughs] What about your Spring 2012 collection, which had an “under the sea” theme. Where did the ideas for that come from?
VERSACE: Well, I think it’s a great place to fantasize about, under the sea. So the idea for that collection came from closing my eyes and fantasizing about being under the sea and seeing certain colors and a certain kind of beauty. I imagined this woman coming out of the sea with all of these elements attached to her that I thought were very special.
MINAJ: You can see that in the prints and colors.
VERSACE: Yes, this kind of sea life.
MINAJ: I know that you’re doing a new Versace children’s line now, too.
VERSACE: Oh, it’s amazing. It’s a little bad boy, with the black leather and studs, and a little bad girl, with all the black on black—I mean, in a sense, it’s a strong, feminist little girl. So they’re little Versace clones going around.
MINAJ: Did you find any inspiration in the archives of the youth-oriented line that you designed for Gianni?
VERSACE: The thing is that, yes, you go to the archives, you go to things of the past, but you still need to be contemporary for today. You can never forget the time you’re living in because the past is the past and it will never come back. So to adjust your philosophy and creativity in fashion to the time you’re living in is the most important thing.
MINAJ: How do you feel when you see things similar to what you’ve already done turning up at other houses? Do you feel like it is a compliment? Or would you rather just be in your own lane and everyone else do their own thing?
VERSACE: This is a compliment, especially when a designer like Riccardo Tisci, who I like very much, says Versace is an influence. When they do something once, it’s a compliment. But then there are other designers where . . . In a word, often, it’s not a compliment. [laughs] It’s hard to see certain things repeated. I think you would say the same about your music.
MINAJ: Absolutely. But then, on the flip side, they say imitation is the best form of flattery.
VERSACE: Which is why I don’t get upset at all.
MINAJ: Where do you find your inspiration? Would you say you’ve had a muse at any point?
VERSACE: Well, my muse changes all the time because I think every designer is a bit of a muse for themselves in a way—they just don’t want to say it. But I also think Madonna was an influence in the ’90s. I love her. I think she’s the most amazing, talented woman around . . . She’s an incredibly well-styled woman. Prince, obviously, is someone I’ve been close to also. I think Lady Gaga today is very inspiring. But as a designer, you always take facets of different people and you mix them together with your own thoughts and information and creativity and passion—because I think fashion has a lot to do with passion—and that’s where you get your inspiration.
MINAJ: To me, you and Madonna are very similar—and not only because of what you both represent fashion-wise, but because you’re both strong female figures. I had a chance to work with her, and she’s just the most amazing person. Would you ever see yourself collaborating with her again?
VERSACE: Absolutely. I am very good friends with Madonna. I admire her, but we are friends, too. I have so many beautiful memories of being with her. I think she inspires a lot of people.
MINAJ: Obviously, you like music. Does it play any kind of role in your design process?
VERSACE: Absolutely. I’m like a little kid when it comes to music. I mean, the music is always blasting wherever I am that people always knock on my door and say, “It’s too loud!” But I think music gives so much inspiration. I only used to listen to rock ’n’ roll, but now I listen to all kinds of music—pop, hip-hop, everything. I also love classical music.
MINAJ: It’s interesting because yesterday I was in a car driving and a Biggie Smalls song came on the radio, and I remember that he used to shout-out Versace in a lot of his songs. Obviously, Biggie is no longer with us, but he was one of the reasons why the hip-hop world got so interested in Versace. Obviously, we couldn’t really afford Versace at that time, but what do you think about Biggie being so into Versace? I think he even wore Versace in a lot of his videos.
VERSACE: I think Biggie was amazing. He came to my shows in Paris many times, and we’d see each other often. He always used to talk so nicely about my family. I think he was so smart, so intelligent. He had such a mind. So I loved what he was doing and how he was giving people a way to know about Versace—I do think a lot of people started to know about Versace because of him.
MINAJ: I wanted to talk to you a little bit about growing up with Gianni. You’re from the southern part of Italy, right?
VERSACE: I grew up in the south of Italy, next to the sea, which was a great place to grow up. The type of life we lived there was very relaxing, you know? Just very fun, open-minded people . . . It was all very sociable and low-key. I was the youngest one in the family, so it was nice for my brother and I. But fashion was always in the air. My mother worked as a seamstress, and Gianni was always looking at the dresses she would make for clients.
MINAJ: So how old were you when you started to get into what Gianni was doing?
VERSACE: Well, I studied at a university in Florence and finished my degree. My mother was very strict about this recipe: You need to get your degree. So this was in the ’80s, and around that time, Gianni had gotten his first job in fashion for another company, so on the weekends I used to go see him because we were a one-hour train ride away from each other. When I’d see him, he was always working, and he would ask me what I thought about his work, like, “What do you think?” So he got me into this, really, because I’d studied something different at university. It was really the way our family was, because Gianni really trusted women’s opinions, and he felt it was his sister who was able to tell him the truth. So this is how it started.
MINAJ: You said you studied something different in college.
VERSACE: I studied literature.
MINAJ: You and Gianni were obviously very close. After you lost him, was there ever a time when you thought you wouldn’t continue with Versace, or felt like you couldn’t do it because you were too drained emotionally? Did you always feel like you’d have to do even more or work even harder in order to honor your brother’s memory in a way that would make him proud?
VERSACE: After we lost Gianni, I was emotionally drained . . . Destroyed, really. But I couldn’t show my pain in public because if I crashed, then everyone around me would crash. So I had to be strong for my children, for the company, for the people working with Gianni and me. I also wanted to pay homage to Gianni and say, “Listen, he taught me everything, so I think I should at least try to keep it going.” I’m such a lucky person to have been able to even walk next to my brother. He taught me to dare. He taught me to not be afraid. He taught me the importance of showing one’s sensuality. He taught me to never hide from yourself. This is what was working for him, so I felt like I had to try.
MINAJ: You’ve started showing the collections again at Gianni’s former mansion on Via Gesù. Why did you decide to do that?
VERSACE: I’m feeling very confident right now with my work and my vision of fashion, so I thought I should go back home. In a way, Via Gesù has been a place that was amazing to be in when Gianni showed the collections there in the ’90s, but it was also a place that belonged to my brother. Gianni was my brother—who I loved dearly—but he was also a genius of fashion. So I needed to feel strong enough and convinced enough of my own vision to go back and have to step into Gianni’s shoes. It’s hard to step into the shoes of Gianni.
MINAJ: There are some people who may not even know you as a designer, but as an iconic figure—almost like a kind of pop star—outside of fashion. How do you feel about that?
VERSACE: Well, I feel like I’m a designer, not a pop star. I’m a designer, and I work very hard at that. People sometimes want to put down fashion by saying it’s frivolous or superficial, but it’s not that way at all. It’s actually very hard work. I have to have the sensibility to keep the company in good shape because there are so many people working for it, and we need to have the company grow and also be relevant. So I work very hard for all that to happen, and I wish people would know me for that and be satisfied . . . But if certain people think of me like a pop star, then the only thing I could do about this is dye my hair black and cut it short maybe.
fter we lost Gianni, I was. . . destroyed, really. But I couldn’t show my pain in public because if I crashed, then everyone around me would crash.—Donatella Versace
MINAJ: Would you ever change your hair color?
VERSACE: No, no, no! I love my hair. I don’t even remember my original color because I started bleaching it so young. I was, like, 11.
MINAJ: If Marilyn Monroe were alive, do you think that you would style her?
VERSACE: Yes, of course! She was sexy, she was brave, she wore makeup. Love her.
MINAJ: If you could design for any woman you consider a style icon who’s no longer with us, who would it be?
VERSACE: Marilyn Monroe for sure. Also, Liz Taylor—I’d design for her. I’d put so much jewelry on her . . . Actually my brother did design for her—a few outfits. I had the honor of meeting her with Gianni. But both of those women are legends.
MINAJ: How did you wind up collaborating with Christopher Kane on the relaunch of the Versus line?
VERSACE: I wanted to work with him because he’s so talented and he’s such a big fan of Versace. How I started to work with him was that when he was doing his final examinations at Central Saint Martins, he was looking for a kind of mesh, and he knew of the mesh we use in Italy, so he asked someone who we knew if they could get him a little piece of this mesh. Through this, I saw some of his sketches, and I was like, “Wow. This guy is now.” So I sent him tons of mesh. [laughs] He was so excited, and I said right after that I wanted to meet him, and he came to our show in Milano, and it all started from there. He’s so humble, like really talented people are. To collaborate with him now just seemed like the right thing to do.
MINAJ: Are there any other up-and-coming designers you like?
VERSACE: There is a guy named J.W. Anderson in London who I think is very interesting. He is just starting out . . . I’m always looking at young people. The things they do sometimes are unwearable, but you see the value. You see the one piece that you’d be happy to wear.
MINAJ: I know that you like to travel. Where are some of your favorite places to go?
VERSACE: I love to move around—I’m not a person who likes to stay in the same place all the time. But as far as cities, I love London. I go to London very often because I think the young people there are very creative. I also love New York, of course, and the clash of different cultures you find there.
MINAJ: What’s the most romantic place you’ve ever gone?
VERSACE: Lake Como, Italy. It’s like a painting out of the 18th century. You look at it, and it feels like you’re looking at a painting. It’s like one hour from Milano.
MINAJ: What about Miami? I know that place has difficult memories for you, but you used to spend a lot of time there. Do you ever go back?
VERSACE: Miami is a bad memory for me, so I don’t go much. I used to love Miami. I was in Miami when Miami was at the top. All of the interesting people were living there. Madonna was living there and we’d see each other almost every day. Bruce Weber was shooting a lot in Miami. There was a really good group of creative people in Miami at that time. I remember going there in 2001 to go to the house and to go to Art Basel, to the exhibition . . . But, for me, it’s still very painful because you can’t escape South Beach, and it takes me to the house where my brother was killed, so . . . It’s really hard.
MINAJ: Do you still have close relationships with any of the big models that you’d worked with like Cindy [Crawford] or Naomi [Campbell]?
VERSACE: Oh, I love them all. That was real a moment in the ’90s when the supermodels were born, and part of what was special was that Gianni helped bring them up. I see Naomi. I see Christy [Turlington]. I’m going to see Cindy Crawford soon. Linda Evangelista is coming to our show. She was such a perfectionist. She never made a mistake. She knew more than the photographer sometimes. But it was the personality of those girls that made them special.
MINAJ: Finally, I have a personal question: You do all of these amazing high-heeled platform shoes, and I wore your shoes in my “Super Bass” video, and it was very sexy and amazing, but the whole time I was thinking, How do these girls dance with these shoes on? The whole time I was afraid that I was going to fall. So my question is: Do you ever wear flats?
VERSACE: Oh, Nicki, I’ve never worn flats in my life. I haven’t owned any since I was a kid. I suppose the only flats I have are the shoes I wear to the gym, but I put them on just before I start to work out . . . I like heels.
MINAJ: Donatella, this is not fair what you’ve done to me. Should we just say that fashion hurts and leave it at that?
VERSACE: What is comfortable fashion? To be comfortable—that can’t be in the vocabulary of fashion. If you want to be comfortable, stay home in your pajamas.
Nicki Minaj is a singer and a Grammy-nominated recording artist.