Once a month, from her office at the Versace Headquarters in the north of Milan, Donatella Versace selects a piece of fan mail. She receives a lot of messages from young people, as many fashion designers do. Unlike most designers, Versace responds herself.
She talks to them about her brand: what they thought of recent collections, what they liked, what they didn’t. And she takes notes.
“That ‘macho-man’ thing is so over.
It’s not sexy.”
Versace began doing this around four years ago, just as the menswear at her brand entered a period of evolution. After several years of producing men’s collections that offered a high-glamour, high-camp, leather-chaps-on-the-catwalk aesthetic, the label was struggling to resonate with real consumers, and Versace herself felt estranged from what she was presenting. “I realized that I didn’t like it how it was,” she says now. “My taste had changed. And with a brand that’s been around for 45 years, at some point you have to change. You have to adapt yourself for the new world.”
As a result, in her monthly conversations with young fans of the brand, she tried to learn what they want to see now. The answer? Print, colour, and all of Versace’s most recognisable design signatures. In other words, everything the brand was known for during its first boom, during the 1990s.
It makes sense: for a generation nostalgic for that period, Versace’s 90s shows represent a golden era. Nevertheless, Versace was nervous about embracing the aesthetic of that time. By her own admission, she doesn’t like thinking about the past, and she was afraid of losing the brand’s identity by shifting its look too abruptly. And she felt, too, the weight of comparison to her brother, Gianni, who founded and ran the label until his murder in 1997. “Everything I did, I was always comparing it to Gianni,” she says. “I suppose it was about confidence.”
But in 2017, she decided to pivot the brand. “It was a kind of breaking point for me,” she says. “I had to make peace with myself, and what happened to my brother, so that I could turn the page.” Gone was the soft-core luxury, and in its place was something younger, cooler, and more streetwear-adjacent. If the shows of old were dominated by waxed chests and six-packs, they’ve been replaced by a more freewheeling, eclectic, and inclusive approach.
“Nobody in fashion was working with Black artists. It was not inclusive, at all”
The brand’s Spring/Summer 2021 collection, for instance, bounces between archival prints, highlighter-coloured suits, and retro sportswear. What unifies it is the extravagance, optimism and punchiness of the clothes — an ethos that channels the brand’s 90’s heyday. “The motto at the time was, ‘if you want to be seen, wear Versace,’ she recalls. “I wanted to bring that back.”
Besides, she says, “that ‘macho-man’ thing is so over. It’s not sexy.”
It’s working. Even in the midst of a global pandemic, and despite the closure of most of its physical retail stores due to lockdowns, Versace is on the ascendant. Though the company declines to share sales figures, its menswear sales increased sharply during 2020, while wholesale retailers report strong results. Earlier today, the brand’s CEO Jonathan Akeroyd confirmed to Business of Fashion that despite challenging conditions, retail sales achieved double-digit growth by the end of last year.
“Sales are really, really up,” Versace says. “I’m really happy about that.” The online retailer Browns, which has been steadily growing the Versace business for several years, reports that the brand’s 90’s prints and silk shirting are “pandemic-proof” best-sellers, while the brand’s $600 USD bathrobes are in high demand. “We can’t keep them in stock”, says Ida Petersson, the store’s buying director.
Matches Fashion, which also carries the brand, reports robust sales. “There’s really no resistance to price, especially for pieces that carry that iconic Versace DNA,” says Damien Paul, the retailer’s head of menswear.
“I had to make peace with myself, and what happened to my brother, so that I could turn the page.”
So why, when other brands have floundered, faltered, and crashed during the lockdown, has Versace boomed? “Something is different,” Versace says. She is quick to attribute the success to her “great, great, great” menswear design team.
But there’s a new attitude at the brand, too. Its broader, more inclusive, more playful approach has also extended to its collaborators and celebrity relationships. At last year’s Grammy Awards, shortly before the global lockdowns began, Lil Nas X appeared in a bright fuschia leather ensemble, finished with a gold-accented cowboy hat and silk scarves tied to his wrists. Some loved it, others hated it. But it was, unarguably, the most-discussed look of the night, and an icon of the brand’s newly-found confidence. Versace recalls being shown the outfit for the first time, ahead of the fitting with Nas. “I was worried that it was too much,” she says. “But of course, he came back to me and said, ‘I want more’. And I love that word, more!”
After so many years of accommodating the conservative tastes of men on the red carpet, Versace has lately found herself gravitating towards artists who share her more exuberant, extravagant aesthetic, from Maluma to the late Chadwick Boseman. And, of course, 2 Chainz, with whom she collaborated on a best-selling sneaker, the Chain Reaction, in 2018. It remains one of the brand’s most popular footwear styles.
She believes these kinds of men are emblematic of a new generation, who no longer have the hang-ups about wearing bold clothing. “Before, the intellectual guys didn’t care about what they were wearing,” she says. “But now, men who are interested in culture, they’re interested in fashion too. This new generation of men have really shown that fashion is part of culture. You can’t divide the two.”
“Salehe Bembury? He’s the greatest sneaker designer in the world. There is no competition”
Yet a zeitgeisty roster of collaborators and brand ambassadors isn’t always authentic: at most luxury brands, such partnerships tend to be controlled and coordinated by vast teams of marketing professionals. I begin to ask Donatella whether the brand’s relationships with musicians stem from her, or if she relies upon canny talent-spotters within her company. She cuts me off.
“Listen”, she says. “If we’re going to talk about rappers…”
“I remember when Gianni was alive, it must have been maybe ‘94, or ‘95, and we brought Tupac to Milan. And nobody in fashion was working with Black artists then. Nobody was working with rappers. It was not inclusive, at all. But we had him perform for us during a men’s show.” Her point is that Versace’s proximity to music — and in particular, Black music — goes back to the brand’s earliest days.
“I always loved rap music,” Versace says. “And I always thought that community was so important. That culture was important. That pain that the culture was going through, because they were not accepted.” She is insistent that she works only with artists with whom she has a connection, and that such relationships stem from her own admiration for their work.
“After Tupac it was Puff Daddy, and Migos, and 2 Chainz, and Skepta, too….it’s been every generation up until now. I didn’t miss one.” Most recently, that includes the British rapper AJ Tracey, who performed during a digital presentation from the brand last summer. “He’s an amazing guy,” she says.
Why was she drawn to working with rappers, when so much of fashion — particularly European fashion — pointedly ignores them? “I understand them, they understand me,” she shrugs. “There’s a special attraction.”
She pauses, and laughs.
“An attraction of ideas, of course.”
It helps, too, that Versace is a natural collaborator. She acts as a mentor to many of luxury menswear’s most highly-regarded names, including Kim Jones, who is a close friend. (When HYPEBEAST spoke to Jones, he was effusive about Versace. “I love and adore her,” he said, “and I really loved that Summer collection. It was wild.”) Burberry’s Riccardo Tisci is close, too: during his tenure as creative director of Givenchy, he invited her to be photographed for one of the brand’s campaigns. And she remains close with Anthony Vaccarello of Saint Laurent, who previously worked under Donatella at her diffusion line, Versus. “I cried when he left me,” she recalls. “He did, too.”
Most recently, there was Salehe Bembury, the footwear designer who, as VP of Sneakers and Men’s Footwear at Versace, was responsible for pretty much all of its most successful sneakers — including the 2 Chainz collab, and its more recent Trigreca. Bembury left Versace in late 2020, to pursue his own label. In those circumstances, most creative directors would refuse to discuss their former employees. Versace herself is less circumspect.
“He is the best sneaker designer in the world,” she says. “There is just no competition around that. He finished his contract with us, but I adore him. I think he’s brilliant.”
Bembury, for his part, shares the feeling. “Donatella taught me to create from the gut,” he says. “The idea that design — and more specifically, fashion — is created with an emotion and perspective that is necessary in birthing compelling and potentially iconic products.”
Versace’s next presentation is slated for March 5. It won’t be a show, as such, given Italy’s strict COVID-19 lockdowns (the restrictions have been “my idea of hell,” Versace says. “Thank god we work in fashion, so we don’t get bored with ourselves”.) Instead, the brand will release a film project, about which the details remain guarded. Unsurprisingly, though, it’s big. “It’s like a movie,” Versace says. “It’s quite an incredible production.” Yet she’s ready for things to return to normality, and to be able to put on real-life events again. “I need that energy,” she says. “You can feel it, even from backstage.”
“And besides,” she says, “You need an audience.”