Provocative, controversial, daring and fearless — that’s what Versace stands for, Donatella tells Claudia Croft. So how does she communicate that to a new audience?

[dropcap size=small]I[/dropcap]t’s a revolution,” declaresDonatella Versace, settling into an overstuffed sofa in her favourite suite at the Dorchester. The designer herself is anything but overstuffed. Her tiny frame is encased in shiny black leather leggings from herAW13Vunk collection. (“Punk is old,” she says by way of explanation.)A heavy gold key chain is slung over one wet-look hip, and diamonds as big as quail’s eggs dangle from her slender fingers. Her hair is a perfect, unimpeachable sheet of pure platinum blonde.


Donatella Versace

Donatella is 58, and, despite her commitment to tanning and smoking (she later admits that she fired one personal trainer because he wouldn’t let her smoke during sessions), she is remarkably handsome. Her heavily kohled hazel eyes flash with passion and her conversation is punctuated by a warm, throaty laugh. One of the most recognisable women on the planet, she is the Mae West of fashion, the ultimate personification of cartoonish glamour. Yet she wears her charisma lightly (unlike her perfume, which fills the room with a heady tuberose smog).

She wants to talk about the future of fashion, and Versace’s stake in it. This Wednesday, the brand takes a bold step into the digital unknown. It is relaunching its Versus range as an onlineonly experience, kicking off with a live-streamed internet extravaganza in New York that will be a mix of fashion show, gig and global social-media happening. Grimes will play, Lenny Kravitz will DJ and models will pose, although, Donatella stresses: “It’s not going to be a fashion show with a normal catwalk. It’s all about music and rock’n’roll and rebellion and JW [Anderson] and me.” This she declares with such a triumphant gesture that one of her huge diamonds flies off her finger and rolls under the couch.

Her confidence is hard earned. When her brother Gianni was murdered in 1997, a grief-stricken Donatella had to assume his role or see the house go under. The critics were not always kind when comparing her efforts with those of Gianni, a fashion genius. Yet her brand of rock’n’roll glamour prevailed. Yet it wasn’t until she collaborated with H&M in 2011 that she realised the true, untapped power of the Versace brand. Kids who were too young to remember Gianni’s glory years queued overnight to get their hands on the vibrant line — which sold out in half an hour — and a second, exclusively online collection last year had so many hits, it crashed the site. Moved by the passion this new generation had for her brand, she used the H&M experience as a blueprint for how to take Versus forward.

“It made me stronger. I was not afraid to show the iconic Versace, through my eyes and through a price for young people.”

“It gave me so much energy and so much security for what I am, what I stand for. Sometimes you need a different crowd to tell you, ‘You are doing good. You are doing the right thing. Go for it.”

And she has.

The new Versus goes to the heart of Versace’s blingy, sexy, rock’n’roll DNA. A core collection of sporty skintight jeans, tees and dresses (pictured here) pays homage to the gilded Versace legacy, while a capsule collection designed by JW Anderson offers a more avant-garde take on the brand’s heritage. It is seasonless, available to buy hot off the runway and aimed squarely at the coolest kids in town. “It’s a new chapter for the brand,” Versace says. “It has always been provocative, controversial, daring and fearless, but if you don’t have a young spirit or are not aware of a young culture, then I think you cannot exist as a fashion house. And what is a young culture today? It’s the internet.”

From left, Victoria Beckham, Diane Von Furstenberg and Donatella Versace attend  the International Woolmark prize grand final during London Fashion Week Fall/Winter 2013/14

Victoria Beckham, Diane Von Furstenberg and Donatella Versace attend the International Woolmark prize grand final during London Fashion Week Fall/Winter 2013/14

So committed is Donatella to the power of the web, she’s even considering crowd-sourcing design ideas by showing fittings online. “We’ll see if the kids say ‘yes’ or ‘no’. I want young people to come inside and feel the energy that’s in fashion.”

Versus, the second line launched in 1989, became her baby in the early 1990s, when Gianni handed over creative control. “It was the first collection Gianni let me do on my own. It was the first time the Italian line had showed in New York, the first time a live band had performed during a show. Everything there was revolutionary.”

At the heart of the revamped Versus project is her mission to seek and promote new talent in fashion and music, and London is her preferred hunting ground. “I get so much energy from London, I would move the company here in one second if I could. My CEO is upset when I say that,” she says with a naughty twinkle. When it comes to spotting talent, “it’s all about emotion”. She looks for “something I’ve never seen before”, yet her approach to collaboration is surprising. “If I don’t have tension and insecurity and energy, I can’t do my work. I tend to surround myself with people who don’t like the Versace style in order to confront it, because, before, it was me confronting Gianni.”

JW Anderson’s androgynous, minimalist and often austere designs took her out of her comfort zone. “I looked at the clothes and thought, ‘Oh my God, I don’t understand it. Then I realised this is the future. He could do something amazing with me because he is not me at all. So I can give my style and he can show me through his eyes.” Anderson spent several days immersed in the Versace archive. “I came away with a fresh respect for the brand’s influence,” he says. “He recognised all the fashion moments of his era were done by Gianni. That’s where it started from. He was amazed and humbled,” Donatella adds with visible pride. She raves about Anderson’s use of colour and the accessories. “He was so obsessed with the It bag and he did it. The only thing… you say I like to challenge myself… but only flat shoes,” she says with a dramatic sigh.

Donatella knows she’s taking a risk with Versus. No other big fashion label has chosen to organise itself so collaboratively, focus itself so squarely on youth, disregard the seasons and base itself so firmly online. “People might not understand it, but the internet community will,” she says.

“It’s a risk I want to take. This is the only way to keep a company alive. Don’t be afraid to have young talent next to you.”

And her eyes blaze as brightly as her diamonds.