Donatella Versace showing her more complex side

Sunday, March 12, 2006

NEW YORK -- The V in Versace is for va-va-voom. That's what makes Versace the go-to label for the woman who wants to be the center of attention, the woman everyone looks at when she enters a room.

A woman like Madonna, Demi Moore or Halle Berry, the most recent stars of Versace's ad campaigns.

But, says Donatella Versace, the brand's creative director, those sexy Hollywood stars -- whom she also calls friends -- aren't the bread and butter of the business. The core customer is a working woman, probably even a mother, who wants a wardrobe to reflect her success but also remain wholly feminine.

Someone much like herself, Versace says.

"Working mother" probably isn't the image you have of Versace. Instead you envision a woman with very long blond hair, a perpetual tan, voluptuous lips, a compact toned body, a cigarette dangling out of her mouth and speaking a mile a minute in barely decipherable Italian-tongued English. You see Versace's alter-ego "Saturday Night Live" character.

Donatella Versace, though, is both those people -- a combination almost inexplicable until one meets her in person. She is definitely a whirlwind but she also comes across as thoughtful and sincere.

Versace was in New York earlier this month to rechristen the Fifth Avenue boutique as the brand launches a new look for itself. That new look -- more gentle, more approachable -- is part of a strategy to court more regular folks who happen to have a lot of money to blow on clothes, shoes and leather goods. More attention has been paid to the men's section and the development of new products.

Giancarlo Di Risio, chief executive officer of Versace, notes that in a year the accessories business has grown from 4 percent to 18 percent of the brand's business. "Today, someone who is hailing a taxi could be wearing Versace, not just the woman who's getting into a limo," he adds.

Not to say that Versace is for shrinking violets, though. "The woman who wears Versace wants to be noticed. She'll never be banal," Di Risio says.

Versace wants to persuade people that daytime suits, handbags and sunglasses are the focus instead of red-carpet eveningwear. But, Donatella Versace says, the company can't abandon the celebrities, either, because that's what draws in ordinary people and keeps the Versace name in the news.

Plus, she says again with a smile, they're friends.

"Last year, I decided this was a new age for Versace," she says. "There's a new fashion cycle every 10 years, and it was time. The Versace style is still glamorous and sensual but not as sexy. I'm now using less decoration, better quality, more muted colors -- which I wear and can be very sexy and sensual."

She adds: "We have to show we can change and evolve, otherwise we're finished in this business."

It's actually been nine years since Donatella Versace assumed all design duties. She stepped in when her brother and fashion superstar Gianni Versace was murdered in Miami.

Donatella Versace, who calls her late brother "a genius," says at first she followed his mold of strong and aggressive clothing because she knew she was going to be compared to him, so she had to prove she could pull off that style. Also, she notes, a decade ago women wanted to look strong and aggressive because they thought they had to if they were going to succeed.

"Now that women have had some success, they can show their softer side. It's what happened to me," she says.

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