Donatella Versace Unveils Budget Fashion Line for H&M

Ami Sioux for Newsweek

It's 3:30 on a recent Friday afternoon at an atelier in Milan, and Donatella Versace is fashionably late for her own photo shoot. Ninety minutes late. In the background, a slew of lab-coat-wearing seamstresses work on couture gowns. Red-carpet shots of stars such as Charlize Theron and Jessica Biel are taped on the walls. Nearby, a very well-groomed young man in a tuxedo jacket is futzing with a dangling drape on one of the windows, clearly nervous about the lack of glamour such an image conveys. Another assistant reports that Donatella is due to arrive any minute, which in Versace time means simply “not yet.”

Finally, at 4:05, she rolls in, wearing a slinky black dress and sky-high stilettos, trailed by a phalanx of subordinates. (“It’s in her DNA to be late,” says Franca Sozzani, the editor in chief of Italian Vogue and a close friend of Donatella’s for many years.) She clutches a pack of Marlboro Reds and a lighter bedazzled with rhinestones. There’s water on a tray behind her, in a large glass emblazoned with the Versace Medusa-head logo. These things—the cigarette lighter, her Reds, and that glass of water—accompany Donatella everywhere. “We don’t know how that glass gets there every time, but it always does,” a member of her staff says.

The photographer begins shooting, only to be interrupted within seconds so that someone can restraighten Donatella’s hair, which, of course, is straight as a pin to begin with. In short, Donatella appears to be every bit the Saturday Night Live parody of herself, her very own Maya Rudolph impersonation come to life. That is, until she opens her mouth and an entirely different person emerges.

First comes the apology for being late. Then, Donatella starts peppering the photographer with questions about where she comes from and compliments her on using film in a digital age: “I can’t believe it,” the fashion maven says in her thick Italian accent. “No one uses it anymore, and I so prefer it. You know, the photo—it just look different. It has soul.”

The photographer pops what seems like hundreds of nearly identical shots, then announces she’s going to change the film and do two more rolls. “One more,” Donatella says, with a little smile.

It’s not because she’s a beetch, as she later pronounces the word, that she’s cutting the shoot short. It’s just that she’s busy. Incredibly busy. Donatella is flying to the United States for meetings in New York and Los Angeles. There’s an advertising campaign that has to be shot for Versace’s ready-to-wear line. Most significant, there’s the Nov. 19 launch of Donatella’s new H&M-designed Versace collection, the first time the brand has ventured into low-cost fashion.

Unlike Versace’s couture and ready-to-wear lines, which are typically produced in a matter of weeks, the collaboration with H&M was the result of more than a year’s worth of planning and work. Other high-end designers—Alber Elbaz, Stella McCartney, and Karl Lagerfeld—have done collections with the Swedish discount retailer; Jil Sander had a successful line at Uniqlo, the Japanese casual-wear retailer, that’s now wrapping up. The difference is that these designers are minimalists compared with Versace, which is known for its elaborate prints and complicated diaphanous gowns.

To make matters more difficult, Donatella decided from the get-go that the only way she would partner with H&M was to do a collection that hewed closely to Versace’s louche sense of glamour from the 1980s and ’90s, designs pioneered by her brother Gianni before he was murdered by a spree killer in Miami in 1997.

“I said I wanted to do the iconic pieces of Versace, Versace through history until now,” Donatella says, sitting on a couch in her corner office at the company’s headquarters, with a cigarette dangling from her mouth. “I wanted to show the young people what is Versace. I was expecting H&M to tell me, ‘No, you can’t do this,’ but I gave them some sample, and they came back with something very similar. If you look very close you can see it’s not the same, but three meters away you really get confused about which one is the original.”

So that’s what will be hitting store shelves in mid-November. Among the offerings, there’s a palm-tree-print dress ($129) with matching leggings ($29.95) that recall Jennifer Lopez’s plunging 2000 Grammy Awards stunner. There’s a metallic party dress ($249) that barely covers the tops of the thighs. For men, there’s a zebra-print jacket and matching jeans ($100 for both). And there are couch cushions ($29.95) with that iconic Medusa logo. Taken together, the ensemble has the feel of a Las Vegas vacation without losing your shirt at the casino.

As Donatella tells it, raiding the archives for this collection also offered an opportunity to celebrate the company as it emerges from a particularly dark time. In case you’re not a dedicated follower of fashion, this included, first, the tragic death of her brother; then, the migration of Versace’s customer base to Dolce & Gabbana and Roberto Cavalli. As things got worse, Donatella turned increasingly to cocaine, which made her manic and irrational.

The turning point came in 2004, when a party thrown for the 18th birthday of her daughter Allegra became an intervention for Donatella, who flew to rehab that night with minimal fuss. “The only thing she complained about,” Sozzani says, “was not being able to wear high heels. She said, ‘I can give up anything, but not my high heels.’ She’s totally ironic and self-aware.”

Nearly eight years later, Versace is poised to turn a profit for the first time in a decade. Reviews for Donatella’s last two ready-to-wear collections have been stellar; the addition of wunderkind designer Christopher Kane at Versus, the secondary line, has earned accolades as well. “Our business hasn’t been so good in 10 years,” Donatella says.

Partly, this change in fortune is the result of Donatella’s opting during the recession to embrace Versace’s over-the-top DNA, rather than go for modest and practical. “When the 2008 financial crisis happened, everyone did safe clothes thinking people would invest money in an outfit they could wear again and again and again,” she says. “Well, nothing could be wronger than that. It turned out to be the opposite. People with money were looking for special pieces. They want something recognizable, so I captured this feeling very early.”

Versace also cut costs on marketing, slashed advertising budgets, and laid off roughly a quarter of the company—around 300 people—in 2009. Donatella hated every minute of it, but she’s relieved it’s done, particularly as clouds loom on the European horizon. She hopes “something good” will come out of the G20 summit in France to deal with “the mess with the euro,” but it’s clear from the expression on her face that she’s not holding her breath.

Certainly, her own government, led by Silvio Berlusconi—the womanizing premier currently facing two corruption and tax-fraud trials—hasn’t given her much confidence in the system. “The Parliament is good at selling lies. That’s what they do, they sell lies, and I’m embarrassed. I hope it’s going to change soon. I’m proud of my brother Santo.” In September, Santo Versace stepped down from his role in Berlusconi’s conservative political party and publicly rebuked the Italian premier. “He left. More people should have the courage to do that.”

At 56, does Donatella worry about not being able to capture the zeitgeist forever? “Of course you worry,” she says. “We live in the world of fashion, the world of young people. It would be fake if I said, ‘Better to be young inside.’ No. Better to be young everywhere!”

Still, she takes inspiration from people like Lagerfeld, a friend of many years and a testament to the idea that while youth may not be eternal, you can stay in the game a long time if you remain curious and keep reinventing yourself. “He’s a living genius and he’s fearless,” Donatella says.

She’s not so kind about Cavalli, the Italian designer who’s become a favorite among the Euro set, largely by combing the Versace archive for endless inspiration. “I think that to do a collection—how do you say—as an homage to Versace, this is fine. But when you do a lot of collections as an homage to Versace—why? What’s the point?”

She sees a look of concern on the face of her PR person, who’s sitting across from her.

“Was I a beetch?” Donatella asks. Then she bursts out laughing.