When the lights dimmed toward the end of Versace’s spring 2018 show, the crowd in attendance could sense that something momentous was about to occur. Billed as a homage to the label’s founder, Gianni Versace, the presentation at Milan’s Triennale museum unfolded like a collection of greatest hits. Gigi Hadid and Kendall Jenner had bounded across the runway in some of Gianni’s most memorable prints while a female voice-over seemed to address the late designer from beyond the grave: “You helped invent the future,” it said to him. “Because of you, we’re not afraid.” When the lights came back up, Donatella Versace emerged alongside five of the first-wave supermodels she and her brother helped create—Carla Bruni, Naomi Campbell, Helena Christensen, Cindy Crawford, and Claudia Schiffer, all draped in Versace’s iconic gold chainmail—in a blinding moment that collided past with present, and crystallized the label’s long-held perch atop the fashion chain.
It’s now been 20 years since Donatella took over the house of Versace after her brother’s shocking murder. At the time, onlookers doubted whether Gianni’s younger sister— also his muse and confidante—could steer a company that had defined ’90s excess into the 21st century. But Donatella, who has struggled with public perceptions, shifting tastes, and periods of substance abuse, upheld Gianni’s legacy of feminine opulence while exerting her own vision as the label’s creative director. Donatella’s spring collection, officially named the Versace Tribute Collection, is a testament to that: Gianni Versace’s instantly recognizable prints—butterflies, Warholian pop art, golden baroque swirls—plastered over Donatella’s modern designs. Over the phone in January, the newly anointed supermodel Gigi Hadid reconnected with her friend for the first time since that magical night in Milan.
GIGI HADID: I just found out that your mom was a dressmaker and that she had something like 50 people working under her.
DONATELLA VERSACE: Yes, in Reggio Calabria, in the south of Italy. She’d make these incredible dresses and embroidery, and the most important families went to her atelier for clothes. I didn’t see much of that because Gianni was eight years older than I am. By the time I grew up, she had already opened two boutiques.
HADID: Even though you weren’t there in the atelier, was it creative at home? Did you draw? Did you make art? What was it like?
VERSACE: It was a very creative home, not in the sense that I was drawing or anything, but my brother and I were always talking about something different, something new. When I was a little girl, Gianni would sketch clothes for me and then give them to our mother to make. Gianni used to dress me in little miniskirts, you know, black shiny leather—I was 11 years old. My mother was always saying, “She’s too young! She’s too young!” [laughs]
HADID: You were his biggest inspiration.
VERSACE: Yes, I was. And in a way, I was living life like an older girl. I was traveling with Gianni, going out to discos with Gianni.
HADID: When did you start to advise on his collections?
VERSACE: At 17, I moved from Reggio Calabria to Florence to go to university. My last year in university, Gianni was already working for a company in Florence. On the weekends, I went to work with him, and he was always coming to the station to pick me up. We’d get on the train, and he’d show me his designs and ask, “What do you think?” Because this was not my job, I could say whatever I wanted. I was always opinionated.
HADID: So you were friends with rock stars and models before you were even a designer?
VERSACE: Yeah, my brother was the designer. I always thought music was very connected to fashion, and the musicians I knew thought the same thing. It was like a cultural moment where fashion and music really went together.
HADID: Were you the one who thought that celebrity friendships were important to elevate the brand?
VERSACE: At the time, there was a big difference between the kind of model you put on the runway and the kind of model that was on the cover of American Vogue. I was doing a campaign with Richard Avedon, and Cindy Crawford and Christy Turlington came in. I said to Gianni, “Why don’t we bring these girls to Milan for the fashion show?” Gianni wasn’t sure. But we brought them, and there we were: Linda Evangelista, Christy Turlington, Cindy Crawford, all together backstage with hair and makeup done, and Gianni looked over and said, “My god.” Something had lit up in his eye.
HADID: I remember for my first Versace show, everyone was very surprised because no one really saw me as the runway type. But you believed in me from the moment we met. You always said it’s not about changing yourself to be on the runway. Be yourself and honor your body.
VERSACE: Be yourself, absolutely. Your legs and your body and your attitude are your way to walk. Of course, you are not the typical runway girl, but that will make you big.
HADID: Well, you always made me feel special in that way, and I love you for that. You made me feel like I could be a supermodel.
VERSACE: You are. It happened so fast!
HADID: [laughs] Thank you. When you were designing your first solo collection at Versace, what did that feel like? What was Italian fashion like, and what did you want to change or bring into it at that point?
VERSACE: My first collection was in 1997, a few months after my brother was killed, and I was like…
HADID: “What do I do?”
VERSACE: I just kept reminding myself, “Gianni would want me to go ahead.” I needed to do something different with fabrics, and then rip it off and punch it up a bit, make it punkier and a bit younger. Milan was very serious—beautiful tailors but very serious women. No color. When Gianni was alive, I was pushing to dress Courtney Love because she was amazing and different. I remember she wore this white simple dress that everybody talked about—very, very simple. I was the creative one in the family, always.
HADID: I remember when you told me for the first time that you were going to do the tribute collection. I was so excited for you, because I could really see that it was something that was hard to face in a lot of ways. But I could also see the joy that it brought you when you told me you were going to do it. What was it like to go back and choose what you wanted to celebrate with the 2018 collection?
VERSACE: Those were very difficult choices because Gianni did so many incredible things. I looked at the black leather Gianni did—he did a ball gown in black leather. All the theater clothes he did. It was cathartic. My only goal was to do something that Gianni would be proud of.
HADID: It was amazing to be a part of and to see you experience that. I wish I could have met Gianni, but that day at the show I felt like he was there with us.
VERSACE: He was there. He was looking down at us. I know that, for sure.
HADID: I still go back and watch the show, and listen to the words that were spoken over the soundtrack, which so perfectly explained what it was to know him and what it was to be with him and wear his clothes.
VERSACE: It took 20 years for me to be able to do that. It was traumatic for me, what happened.
HADID: All of your incredible campaigns made me want to be a supermodel. And so when you asked me to do this one, it was a dream come true. When you look back on everything you’ve done, what do you think has been your proudest moment?
VERSACE: The tribute show. With you and the iconic supermodels of before. It was an amazing moment, the supermodels of today with the supermodels of a different generation. Supermodels with strong personalities—Naomi, Claudia, Cindy—got lost a little bit. The models became so serious, with no makeup on the runway. For a few years, you didn’t see models as celebrities. And then last season you were there, and your sister and Kendall. You are where they were at the time—a beautiful group of girls on the same level as those iconic models, and for the two groups to meet was a dream for me.
HADID: You really made us feel like we can be more than just hangers on a runway who aren’t allowed to have opinions.
VERSACE: Oh no, I would hate that. I don’t know if you remember, but every time we have to do a fitting before a show, I ask, “Do you like your dress? Do you like your shirt?” Because that’s the most important thing—the model needs to feel what she’s wearing.
HADID: How do you choose the girls for your shows and campaigns?
VERSACE: I always just say, “Give me Gigi Hadid!” [both laugh] It’s about personality. When I believe in somebody, I want them there.
HADID: At the end of the day, we work with the people who make us happy. It’s not just about business.
VERSACE: It’s about life.
HADID: What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever gotten?
VERSACE: Be yourself. Trust your instinct. My brother always told me that.
HADID: One of my favorite lines from the tribute show was, “I will zig when the world zags.” I think that described Gianni and what he taught you very well.
VERSACE: That feels like a perfect way to end this conversation. Should we finish here?
HADID: We can talk about the rest at the Met Ball.
GIGI HADID IS A MODEL AND SPOKESPERSON FOR SUCH BRANDS AS MAX MARA AND MAYBELLINE.