On Thursday evening, Donatella Versace drew a crowd of elaborately dressed socialites, fashion devotees and students to the Metropolitan Museum of Art for a one-on-one interview with former CNN host Alina Cho to discuss the upcoming Met Ball, her company's plans for an initial public offering and her personal approach to style. (The latter was on full display in Versace's choice of outfit: a neatly tailored red pantsuit with large gold buttons and matching platform stilettos.)
Over the course of the hour-long discussion, Versace's comments drew laughs and applause, but the tidbit that got the greatest reaction was Versace's admission that it was she — not Jennifer Lopez — who was the first to wear that plunging, semi-sheer green dress that garnered so much attention at the 2000 Grammy Awards. (It was even responsible for inspiring Google Image Search.) Versace wore it to the Met Ball the year before, where it, needless to say, did not attract quite the same level of notoriety.
Versace announced that she would be dressing Lopez once again for this year's Met Ball on Monday, though the gown is not yet complete and three seamstresses have been flown over from Milan to help finish it. Versace, for her part, will be wearing a dress that incorporates the emoticons shown in her fall 2015 ready-to-wear line with Chinese symbols.
The talk kicked off with a question about Versace's recent decision to star in Givenchy's fall/winter 2015 ads. Though Givenchy is arguably a competitor, Versace said she did not hesitate when Givenchy Creative Director Riccardo Tisci asked her to pose for the campaign, which was styled by Carine Roitfeld. "Riccardo said, 'I'm afraid to ask you, I know you're going to say no, but would you accept to be the face of Givenchy?'" Versace recalled, adding that Tisci paid her the compliment of saying she had been his inspiration for many years. "In fashion you have to break rules," she observed. "We did a bold and brave statement together."
Cho asked Versace about her decision to sell a 20 percent stake in the company to Blackstone for $205 million early last year. "I always say I will never give [up so many shares] that I'm not in control of [the company], so 50 percent I keep control [of]," Versace said. "But meeting [Blackstone Chairman and CEO] Steve Schwarzman opened a whole new world to us… In only one year, we opened 15 more stores between Versace and Versus." Versace noted that the company has expanded into several new categories over the past few years, including home goods and timepieces, and together they are concentrating on completing five strategic points before the company stages an initial public offering (IPO). One area of focus is making the lines between Versace's various brands — haute couture, Versace collection, Versus, etc. — more distinct, she said.
The conversation then took a more personal turn: Versace appeared embarrassed when Cho mentioned that the designer likes to bring elements from her home — from purple sheets to furniture — with her on her travels. "When people buy a pair of sunglasses, they feel like they're part of [the Versace] dream," she explained. "I make sure I have enough objects around me so that wherever I am in the world, people come into my world." She said that she "never" goes out when she is in Milan, preferring to focus on her work. At home, she wears a Versace jogging suit to be comfortable, but even then she won't take off her signature stilettos, joking that if she were to put on a pair of flats, she'd fall, she's so used to being in heels.
In a poignant moment, Cho recalled their last meeting at the Ritz in Paris and mentioned that the hotel had special significance for Versace. "[It was] where I saw [my late brother] Gianni for the last time," Versace said. It was July 1997, and the pair had just finished showing the house's latest haute couture collection. "Gianni left the show to go to Miami, I kissed him and hugged him and [said], 'I'll see you in two days,'" she recalled. "We were supposed to vacation together."
Speaking about her own style, Versace said she first went blonde when she was 11 and a half years old. Her brother had decided to put in some highlights, and they brought in a hairdresser friend to do it at night "so Mother wouldn't see us." A few highlights turned into a full head of blonde hair, which Versace hasn't changed since. Speaking of her look — the long blonde hair, the heavy eye makeup, the heels — Versace said it's about creating "a barrier between you and the rest of the world. Many people think I'm somebody who is not easy to talk to, but I am, I'm just very shy."
Versace's look isn't the only thing that hasn't changed over the years: Her approach to design has stayed remarkably consistent, too, rooted in "rock chic" and an insistence on pushing boundaries. "[My fashion philosophy is] to dare. If you think something is good, you have to think, is that good enough? And push."
Many students were in the audience, and they lined up eagerly when Cho opened questions up to the audience. When asked to give advice to young designers, Versace said, "You have to be ready to suffer. It's not an easy industry. It wasn't easy for my brother when he started; it wasn't easy for me. But you have to push yourself, work hard and send it over to people like me." You must also, she added later, not look at anyone else's clothes and let them influence you. "You have to look for what is not on the market and think about it, something that will attract attention and then you cut from that." By all appearances, the designer has been good about following her own advice.