The Genteel
March 7, 2021


Versace Haute Couture 2012-3. Source:

Once synonymous with the trashy, flashy glamour that exemplified the boom years of the '80s, the House of Versace was suddenly thrown into chaos with the shocking murder of its founder, Gianni Versace, in 1997. Sibling feuds, drug addiction, lavish splurges leading to near-bankruptcy all soon quickly followed, making Versace's history the stuff of opera.

After almost two lost decades, the brand has gradually begun to reposition itself, and on July 1, Atelier Versace made an emotional return to where Gianni used to hold his couture catwalk shows: the pool room of Ritz Hotel in Paris. The question on everyone's glossy red lips was: after a few disastrous collections and poor reviews, could his sister, Donatella, actually pull this off?

Versace Haute Couture 2012-13
Versace Haute Couture 2012-3.

After all, in the late '90s, when Donatella first showed her brother Santo the first couture collection she designed after their brother's death, he was said to be "horrified," wrote Deborah Ball in her book, House of Versace: The Untold Story of Genius, Murder, and Survival. Donatella had attempted to make Versace more "hip" and "young"; she employed a ragtag group of freshly graduated British and American fashion students to help her, and the result was a rather incoherent mess: tulle mixed with copper fibres; metallic threads incorporated into delicate lace; cashmere made heavy with aluminium. Donatella had flown over the hottest stars at the time to sit in the front row, but not even the presence of Bon Jovi, Matt Dillon and Isabella Rossellini could distract the critics from this car crash of a show.

Since then, her rise as a designer has slow and uneven. Donatella's personal problems, including her cocaine addiction and her daughter's struggle with anorexia, no doubt distracted her focus from designing, but poor business decisions, including overstretching the brand; outsourcing the production of accessories; refusing to close unprofitable retail spaces, and (arguably) not succumbing to a takeover attempt by the Gucci group, all contributed to Versace's reported 100 million euro (C$127m) of debt by the late '90s.

Although Gianni's brother Santos had always handled the House's finances, in June 2009, Donatella made the controversial decision to take on Gian Giacomo Ferraris in order to redirect the brand back towards financial health. He acted immediately to cut losses, and attacked every element of the business with the exception of the creative team and product development. He simplified and consolidated IT, logistics, manufacturing, streamlined production systems and facilities, and laid off 25% of the House's workforce. He was tough, but his actions showed dramatic results fast: by 2011, net profits were at 8.5m euro (C$10.8m), as opposed to a loss of 21.7m euro (C$27.6m) the previous year. Not surprisingly, other failing or stalled labels have been begging Mr Ferraris for his services - no longer are luxury brands run by bijou family groups; a corporate approach is necessary in a globalised clothing market.

Soon, first face Lindsey Wixson strutted out from the mirrored panels, a descendant of the Amazonian supermodels Versace made famous.

With full corporate restructuring in place, Donatella decided to also turn around the initial project Gianni gave her: Versus. This diffusion line always had a more rock-chick vibe than Versace couture, reflecting Donatella's personality and spirit. Having decided to focus more on couture, she rendered control of her own line to rising fashion star Christopher Kane, and the result was spectacular growth: Versus is opening increasing numbers of retail spaces, and there should soon be a store in London's Mayfair. Ms Versace is also very much aware of the current state of the world, and has wisely been focusing on the growth potential in emerging markets, especially Brazil and Korea, and the House is re-launching revamped websites to attract global shoppers. Following other high profile, core design houses such as Marni and Jimmy Choo, Versace launched a high street range with H&M, which sold out almost immediately.

After almost two decades of struggling, the House of Versace was finally in order. It was time to return to couture, and Donatella knew it. She made an "emotional" decision to show Versace's couture collection, its first in many years, in the same spot Gianni had always shown his.

Guests at the Ritz were greeted by handsome Versace staff, wielding clipboards and dressed in black. Polite yet firm, they greeted guests, including Milla Jovovich, Pierce Brosnan, Christina Hendricks and Jessica Alba, as they walked through the velvet ropes into a completely black room. There was a palpable sense of expectation; guests chatted softly as classical violin music played. An enormous back-lit, panelled mirror bearing the Versace logo dominated the silver catwalk. Soon, first face Lindsey Wixson strutted out from the mirrored panels, a descendant of the Amazonian supermodels Versace made famous. Kasia Struss and other models of the moment followed, wearing mini dresses in chainmail, corsets fashioned from patent leather panels, and best of all, floating, billowing, shimmering skirts that were so light, they seemed to move in slow motion.

Versace Haute Couture 2012-13
Versace Haute Couture 2012-3. 

Donatella's inspiration, according to the press pack, was taken from tarot cards. Roman numerals were constructed into belts; star and lover motifs were embroidered into fabric and embellished with metal and plastic "to give positivity and strength." Always celebrating the fierce sensuality of women, teasingly short skirts, feminine hues and plunging necklines all cemented Versace's place as the wardrobe "for the mistress, never the wife." Even the Techno Silk parka, in metallic rose gold with a revealing neckline and silk chiffon lacing binding the back of the sleeves and waist, exuded an air of confident sexuality. These were clothes for women who demand male attention; who know the Power of Pretty and aren't afraid to use it.

When the tiny figure of La Diva Dontatella came out to take her bow, there was no doubt which destiny lay in her cards - if it continues like this, the future of the House will indeed be positive and strong.



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