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Donatella Versace: The Blonde Takes LA

Hollywood has always been close to the designer’s heart, so it was pure kismet that Donatella showed her latest collection in Los Angeles three days before the Oscars.
Donatella Versace at the Versace Autumn/Winter 2023 show in Los Angeles.
Donatella Versace at the Versace Autumn/Winter 2023 show in Los Angeles. (Getty Images)

It never rains in Southern California. Except lately, when it just won’t stop. Donatella Versace had to move her show from Friday to Thursday, because her spectacular venue, atop the Pacific Design Centre, was exposed to the elements, and the weather gods were promising more chaos. No option to take it inside. The view from the roof — city lights twinkling all the way to the Hollywood sign — was just too good a backdrop for the presentation, which was, in a way, Donatella’s homage to LA.

She has a longstanding relationship with the city, as did brother Gianni. Hence the timing of the show, three days before the Oscars, when it’s certain that Donatella will be dressing a handful of high-profile attendees.

She’s gotten used to experiencing their award show jitters. “It doesn’t matter who they are, people feel they didn’t act well and they’re not going to win. You find these important people in the most vulnerable moments of their life. I like that moment,” she said when we met up in Milan a few weeks ago. That’s because, given everything she’s endured over the years, Donatella identifies. So it seemed appropriate that the collection she showed in LA, in Oscar’s halo, offered her antidote to vulnerability.

“I really thought about clothing as armour,” she said. “How can a person feel stronger through an outfit?” Versace’s answer? “When you have a great cut, fantastic fabric and it looks perfect on your body.” Donatella made it sound so simple, but she was working from an unimpeachable blueprint with this collection.

For Spring/Summer 1995, Richard Avedon shot a campaign for Gianni starring Kristen McMenamy enjoying some fiery interaction with Nadja Auermann as “Two Tall Women.” “We went back to that collection, the Avedon shoot especially, because it is so pure, so real, so strong. Today you put a thousand things on the runway to sell, but that was pure fashion, pure creativity.”

Looking back on those famous images now, it’s the stark, tailored precision of McMenamy’s black suit that really stands out, so that was Donatella’s starting point. “We made everything — women’s and men’s — here in Milan, in the atelier. It was like couture. I had the pleasure of finishing it here, reacting in the moment, not sending samples away to the factory and waiting for them to come back. To be close to what you’re doing, following the amazing woman who cuts the cloth and sews it… it felt like going back to a real intimacy, back to our roots. I had the best time.” Remember that’s how Gianni and Donatella grew up, with a mother who was Reggio Calabria’s star dressmaker.

Taking its cue from 1995, the essence of the new collection was sartorial. Donatella claimed she wanted to do something unexpected for LA. “We went totally away from street fashion. Not that it’s irrelevant, but if you do a show like this, you have to show who you are, where you come from.” Instead, there were strong shoulders, nipped waists and a clear accent on the bust, made more emphatic with bullet bras. It’s a bombshell silhouette which evokes a distinct period in Hollywood history. Mamie Van Doren, one of the original Blonde Bombshells, was on the mood board as a reminder. She made a career playing bosomy bad girls in the 1950s, but that’s not exactly what Donatella had in mind while she was mulling over her inspiration.

Sure, she showed strict skirts and sweaters, a combo so identified with bad girls that John Waters chose the look for Chiclet, Concetta and Dawn Davenport, the worst bad girls ever in “Female Trouble.” But Donatella was more taken with the idea of the glamorous contents of a Beverly Hills closet at that time: the simple but perfect tailored suits, the luxe of cloqué, croc-embossed leather, fur (now faux to reflect the passage of time), the graphism of a dalmatian print, borrowed from Nadja’s dress in the 1995 shoot. And all of it balanced on stilettos. But there was nothing retro in the effect. The simplicity, the sharpness and the silhouettes broadcast power, Versace-style.

It was emphasised by the menswear in the show. Again, sartorial rather than sporty, harking back to the days when Versace models were gods of the catwalk. “More dressed, more refined and more elegant in a way,” mused Donatella. She even brought some of the famous faces back from that time to reinforce the message.

She always has the state of the world on her mind, so she was brooding on fashion as an escape. She was, after all, showing in the heart of America’s Dream Factory. But ultimately, Donatella saw her collection as a moment of calm, of reassurance. “You go the purest line, the purest shape, because you want something stable.” That state of mind is the start of a new chapter for her. And it’s a message worth getting for the rest of us.

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