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Designers Dish: A Conversation With Donatella Versace

We chat with the Italian designer about Lady Gaga, L.A.'s missing "fashion courage" and Elton John's critique of Oscar dresses ("Bitchier than any critic!").
Lady Gaga (left) and Donatella Versace
Rahi Rezvani

Donatella Versace -- she of the straight platinum hair, mile-long eyelashes and blazing diamonds -- whips out a skinny electric puffer as she strides into her Beverly Hills Hotel suite on Oscar morning. “I quit smoking,” she says. “Italian doctors never tell you to quit. But this American doctor wasn’t afraid of me!” While she was in town to oversee Kate Hudson’s gown, THR sat down with the designer.

STORY: Lady Gaga and Donatella Versace at the Oscars: Separated at Birth

How does an e-cig help?

Because it’s not about the flavor, it’s about the gesture.

Weren’t you just terrified of gaining weight?

I was afraid of that. But in the end, I lost a little weight. I started a diet with no carbs -- just lots of protein, lean protein with just vegetables.

How do you live in Italy and not eat pasta?

I have my cheat days. I do. It’s so good, so good. Milano has the best food. No one eats in L.A., do they? They just hike and have health shakes.

I think you may be even smaller than the last time I saw you! How do you do this? It must be a lot of discipline!

It is. And boredom. I have a gym in my house and I just do the treadmill – that’s what I do. One hour a day – I listen to music, four days a week. And I do small free weights. I never do machines or anything. I’m obsessed with abs! After I had my first child, I looked down at my stomach and said – What is this? Will it go away? So I started to go heavy on abdominals. In fact, I think I could train people how to do abdominals. I know every exercise you could do! I don’t need a trainer anymore. For 18 years, I worked with a trainer – 18 years. An American trainer. Now I know what works for my body. I do arm weights all the time too. I work out in the morning, when I’m still sleepy, like [at] 6:30, 7.

STORY: Anthony Vaccarello Tapped to Design Versus Versace's Next Collection

There were many gowns with sleeves throughout this awards season. What do you think about gowns with sleeves?

What do I think? It can be good on a very young and sexy woman. If you go over 40 already – it’s not so much age, but looking a little bit mature – you should not wear them. That’s the irony: If you don’t need to cover your arms – it doesn’t look good! (Laughs.)

When did you arrive?

I arrived two days ago and have three different outfits to wear Oscar night. I will change in a hotel suite midway between Elton John and Vanity Fair, and Vanity Fair and Madonna. I don’t travel light. Gaga and I are going to the parties together and changing together. I don’t know who has more luggage. And I will wear my own diamonds that Gianni bought me as a gift years ago.

I wouldn’t imagine you borrowing jewelry.

No! (She laughs for days.)

It’s easier to imagine you wearing your diamonds in your underwear watching television.

Yes. Why not?

Lady Gaga in the Versace spring ad campaign is very Donatella.

That was her choice. She said to the photographers Mert [Alas]Marcus [Piggott] at the beginning that she wanted to be the strong iconic woman in the pictures and have a look like me. I call her "the fresh Donatella."

Even the pale eyebrows look like the way yours do now. You haven’t always had blonde eyebrows, have you?

They go in and out! It depends.

We hear you haven’t been in Los Angeles for a very long time.

It’s been six years. I came here very often when my daughter Allegra was attending UCLA, but now she is back in Milano, working on Versus. But I was here in 2011 – I shot the ad campaign with Mario Testino. I slipped in very under the radar. I loved that time – I came to L.A. and didn’t tell anyone I was here, so nobody called me, and I just discovered things. I went to Venice and found this little store, which I could have missed easily and in another moment, not seen. It’s very cool here with the dressing, I notice. And downtown L.A. Different places are important now.

Have you been to downtown L.A. and seen what’s going on there?

Of course. There’s a lot of creativity in L.A. This city obsesses me a lot. There’s a lot of creativity and a lot of glamour. This time I find it even more glamourous than before. And it’s trendy too. Before we used to think of L.A. -- oh, the red carpet, the Oscars, that’s it. Now there are a lot of trends, young people looking really, really good, and good music. For me, a European, I often go to London and New York for inspiration – they’re all about the clash of cultures. I never thought of L.A. to get creative inspiration and ideas and stimulation – but now, honestly, I think L.A. is the new place.

What did you do in the last few days?

I went to Kitson for my 20-year-old son. That was his request. On Robertson Boulevard, I saw different brands I’ve never seen before. That doesn’t happen often. I bought a few things. I’m very dangerous in stores – let me tell you. I went to this place for sunglasses – and found the most incredible original Ray-Bans, they used to produce them here in L.A. It’s called RetroSpecs and Company. I love this little store. Trust me, my itinerary for the next trip will be much bigger.

The Versus fall collection 2014 you just showed in Milan was not designed by J.W. Anderson or Christopher Kane, who have been guest designers for the label. Who designed it?

I designed this fall collection of Versus. It was my baby -- Gianni gave me this collection to do. Now and again, I like younger designers to do it. You know Christopher Kane designed it for a while, and now he is very well known for his own collections. Yes, it’s all from me! I’m very proud.  He’s such a great person, and so talented – full of ideas – maybe too many. Now Anthony Vacarello is starting next week. He arrived with so many materials. He’s really talented, somebody who knows how to cut. He understands proportion, which is difficult. Proportion is everything. If you want to be super cool, you go out of proportion, make everything oversized, long down to here – that’s cool. Not flattering, but cool. Well, cool is not enough anymore. It used to be.

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In your spring 2014 collection – you can see all the music in it. What music are you loving right now?

Nine Inch Nails. That’s what I like right now. I go through different stages of music. I do listen to hip-hop too. People say hip-hop all sounds the same, but not at all. I like quality in music. Too much has been done with digital. For my shows, I like drums and guitar – no digital. I want to listen to real music. I like Beck too – he’s quality.

For the spring 2014 show, there is a lot of hardware and flared skirts shown with cropped tops – would you wear this? There are lots of exposed waists.

Yeah. Naked waist, I’m not so sure. You don’t want to see someone wearing a look like they would wear it on the runway – nobody does that anymore. Not even me! I will pull looks from the runway show but not wear them together. Today it’s not about buying full looks – it’s about items: a great jacket, great leather pants, a great shirt, that’s a more contemporary wardrobe today.

We were shocked to read about your long, close friendship with Miuccia Prada in the debut issue of Porter magazine!

(She stays very still and quiet.) Why are you shocked? That’s what I like – the unexpected. We became friends about 15 years ago. We shared the same stylist at the time – me for Versus, her for Prada – Joe McKenna. We would call each other and ask, "Can you send him here now? Can you get him here? You keep him for one hour, okay?" That doesn’t happen often. Then she came to my show, and said, “Oh my God, I wish I could do such glamourous clothes like you do.” I said, “I wish I could do such cool clothes like you do.” Miuccia does not take herself or fashion too seriously. She understands that fashion is not a cure for a disease. It is serious, but you cannot think of yourself like a curator of a museum. They’re clothes! And the purpose is to make people look better – more confident – that’s what it is. Miuccia’s clothes for spring look like a painting. The picture of the face on the bag. She knows art.

The fall 2014 Versace collection you just showed is a breakout for you -- is that really the first time you did a bias cut?

Yes. I didn’t think of one the first etoile (pattern), but then I thought, oh my God, it’s so sexy. Not too sexy though.

Well, nothing is too sexy for you.

Well, the word sexy is in the Versace vocabulary – but it is not the only word in it. Today you need more than one word to describe a style. Sexy contemporary is a good way to describe us. Not sexy Vegas. I put long sleeves on the bias dresses – it was very serious for us to open a show with a long-sleeved long black dress. But I find it sensual, liquid. All the girls backstage loved the asymmetrical hems, it made them so excited. When you see young girls like this get enthusiastic, you feel you did the right thing.

And you combined two rich colors in one dress that don’t appear to work well together.

Yes, petrol with dark red – it’s the first time I used such dark colors together. I want to give a new perspective to Versace, moving forward, I want these women to be more liberated. Of course, we’re about dresses. But I don’t do only dresses -- I do T-shirts, skirts, pants. I emphasized the daywear more in the fall collection, and not so much evening dresses. I want to change the perception that that is all we do. The craftsmanship in the jackets is great – there is one cashmere black jacket and the sleeves are in pony, with leather and suede in the shape of a tattoo. It was pretty original the way it was done. What is luxury these days? To me, one of the ways you define it is – where you make the clothes. We make the clothes in Italy, not in China. I made a point about that. There’s a new world, a new market, but so much that is supposed to be luxury does not feel like luxury. There are not so many luxury brands when you look around these days. It's a question of cut. Designer clothes should not look like contemporary clothes.

It can’t be lost on you that on the red carpet this season, the Angelina Jolie slit-up-the-leg look -- a Versace Oscar dress -- is everywhere now.

Yes, but I don’t do it anymore. (She chuckles.)

What do you think of the Oscar gown silhouettes – no trains, no ball gowns?

Columns. It’s about great cuts. Uma Thurman wore our column dress at the Golden Globes – a strapless black column, so simple. She looked fierce.  It’s all about the cut and the fabric. This is the way to go, with an incredible cut that makes your body look amazing. This is the way to go – unless you have the courage to go with something showstopping. But I don’t think there’s much of this kind of fashion courage in L.A. Too safe! The manager, the producer, they are keeping everyone so safe. Here it shouldn’t be safe at all – everyone should just go. Just go for it.

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I recall that when you came here in the past, you would rent all the TV shows and watch them within a few days!

In Italy, we get everything so late. It’s a country that’s fabulous, but a little bit behind. Now I’m watching Scandal and House of Cards on Netflix. I watch four in a row. And Breaking Bad – that was the best thing ever. The last episode, both my children were glued to it! It was very intense.

Do you get this all the time, that men are so intimidated by you?

I hate that. Grow up – I’m not gonna eat you. Or bite. Or bark. Everywhere they’re scared – Europeans too. If you are powerful, men think of you as competition. They still don’t accept a woman in a career who has success. So there’s no hope. I have no hope.

What’s your absolute favorite thing about the Oscars?

It’s fun to gossip and criticize. I will sit with Elton and we’ll gossip about everyone and all the gowns – he’s worse than any woman! And he’s bitchier than all the fashion critics. But truly – the hair and makeup in L.A. is not nearly as good as it is in Europe!

A version of this story first appeared in the March 21 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

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