Donatella, fashion's rock'n'roll queen, goes head to head with J.W.Anderson, its young prince, about rebellion, reinvention and reviving Versus
Taken from the August issue of Dazed and Confused
For Donatella Versace, it all started with a safety pin. In her hands, the humble tool became an utterly desirable accessory, first when she used it while helping her beloved brother Gianni on his couture line (pre-empting his famous safety-pinned dress for Elizabeth Hurley in 1994), then in her first collection for Versus, Versace’s younger, sportier diffusion line, in 1993. “For me the safety pin is about rebellion, and I’m punk in the soul,” she intones in her famously husky voice. It’s with that indomitable spirit that she has weathered the ups and downs of the last two decades. Versace was the loudest, louchest, most glamorous name in fashion ever since its inception in 1978, and Donatella upheld that after taking the reins as creative director in 1997 following Gianni’s tragic death. More than anything, she is a survivor: she steered her family’s empire through drug addiction and company restructures to return the brand to profitability in 2011; last year, revenue grew 20 percent to €408 million. A blockbuster line for H&M, critically acclaimed couture showings and the hi-octane AW13 Vunk collection have seen Versace’s old 90s electricity roaring back into focus.
In 1993, Jonathan William Anderson, better known today as J.W.Anderson, was eight years old and living in rural Magherafelt, “wearing a promotional Versus Jeans t-shirt, cycling shorts and jelly shoes, and you can imagine how that goes down in Northern Ireland!” He studied acting but caught the fashion bug working with Manuela Pavesi of Prada on visual merchandising. He dropped out of London College of Fashion in 2007 to start his own label, and since then his rise has been nothing short of meteoric – he recently added an acclaimed collaboration with Topshop and an Emerging Talent award at the BFAs to his list of accolades. As he becomes more successful, his collections have become increasingly perverse – by treading the tightrope between “wrongness” and cool and powerfully mixing feminine and masculine elements (something he undoubtedly picked up from Versace), he consistently makes work that is thrillingly awkward yet covetable at the same time.
Twenty years on from Donatella’s first Versus collection, she and Anderson are gathered at the Versace flagship in Manhattan to talk about his capsule collection for her beloved label. The departure of Christopher Kane, who had been leading a successful revival since 2010, has prompted a rethink of Versus Versace as a seasonless line that features the brand’s signature elements (studs, op-art prints, safety pins) and drafts in different designers for special collaborations, starting with Anderson. The atmosphere at the flagship today is electric, and not just because Lady Gaga is in the building mixing up an exclusive soundtrack for the launch event. Sitting with the gangly, fresh-faced Anderson, Donatella strikes an imposing figure – all platinum hair, pillow lips and black leather, as larger-than-life as you could hope for – but she wears it lightly, drawing on an electronic cigarette while considering questions and frequently joking with the younger designer.
And then there are the clothes. Any doubts as to the appropriateness of mixing Anderson’s cool conceptualism with the decadent hedonism of Versace were dispelled at the collection’s launch at the Lexington Armoury. Interspersed by live sets by Angel Haze, Dead Sara and Grimes, three separate catwalk tableaux distilled the sharp, precise message of the collaboration. Anderson has found a way to update that old Versace va va voom and make it modern by infusing it with his twisted brand of perversity. Tops were cropped to reveal midriffs, asymmetrical blazers were fastened by leather bands and bright neon knits were cut away to reveal sprays of black lace. The event was livestreamed and the core collection made available to buy online the very next day (Anderson’s collection a few short weeks later), upending the traditional paradigm of fashion consumption. Buoyed no doubt by her recent successes, Donatella is looking to reset the course for the future of fashion. As the lady herself puts it, “I always look forward, I never look back. I want to change the rules again.”
Donatella Versace: When Gianni asked me to design the first Versus collection in 1993, that was my time of rebellion, my time of provocation, my time of daring, when I wanted to do something different and not be safe. At the same time, I was also doing haute couture with Gianni. I was in a fitting for couture and they were very precise and Gianni asked me to go back to do a fitting. I said, ‘Come on Gianni, don’t make me go back.’ So I took a safety pin to pin the dress – I said, ‘Who’s going to see?’
J.W.Anderson: I’ve never heard that story! (laughs) And there’s something about a safety pin as well – maybe this is me – but it’s never-ending, you can open and close it. I think that the safety pin belongs here. This is the house of the safety pin.
DV: And from then on I got obsessed. For me safety pins are something that belongs to us. We did it with Versus and then we did also Versace with Liz Hurley. It’s something we kept going back to. It was a moment of rebellion, you know. I started something else.
JWA: Did you feel scared because you’d never designed before?
DV: I was petrified but at the same time this was still Versace – it was still the DNA of ours but it was totally new. That’s why I flew out to New York (for the first Versus show). At the time, because of the mix of cultures and energy, I found New York very inspiring. I came to find the young soul of Versace and I did, I think. That show broke all the rules: it was the first time we showed a rock’n’roll concept live, and I remember everybody came to the show. I mean, it was the thing of the year, but I didn’t think about that. I thought about just the clothes, the collection, and what I’m feeling now is the same – it’s the same, a few years later. (laughs)
JWA: What’s changed since then?
We were always looking for the new thing, the next model, a new emotion and attitude. It’s important to be fearless
DV: I have evolved for sure, because that was a different moment – there was no internet, there was nothing. People would sit and take pictures of the show and the rest of the world didn’t know what was going on. Can you imagine the difference? I mean, it amazes me that when I do a show tomorrow, everybody in the world will know what is in it – the transparency of the process, the immediacy, because you show right away. Which is why I wanted someone who likes to dare – I want to talk to somebody who thinks and has courage, and that’s why I chose you.
JWA: I think the first show you came to of mine was a spring/summer one.
DV: It was the one with the men in collars.
JWA: I think you were more obsessed with the men. (laughs)
DV: I was obsessed with the men! I think when I saw your work first, I liked it very much but at the same time I didn’t understand it. But then I went back and went back. Then I said, ‘This guy is a genius. I need to have a conversation with him because we need to exchange what we believe in.’ I like that you’re fearless and not afraid to provoke.
JWA: It was quite interesting really, because on our moodboard we had a lot of imagery from Versus. I think what was achieved with Versus, with the catalogues, the collections, the energy – how things were done was new, and it’s still new today. That’s what genius is about – ultimately it’s about actually taking a risk. Every image I look back on could be put right into a magazine now and it would feel relevant, and that’s the hardest thing to do. What I really like about the imagery is that you want to be part of a gang. It’s like you want to be drawn into the character, and that’s what’s important in clothing in general, because there is a reality to it. I remember when you sent these massive boxes that landed at my studio, full of magazines, books, photographs...
DV: I sent you all the information.
JWA: And so I literally spent a whole weekend going through it. It was stuff I’d never seen and which now you just take for granted, but these were massive statements that changed the course of fashion. I’m very honoured because you let me have free rein, which has been incredible. Because it was a period of time, I think ultimately you can’t fix something like that. It’s genius, it’s iconic.
DV: You know what? It’s timeless too.
JWA: It’s timeless. When you look through the past, all of it is relevant right now because it’s part of the story of the house. It’s become a massive influence on a whole market.
DV: I’m glad I was there but I don’t miss it. I loved every minute of those times. Things happen that you never forget and that can never happen again, ever. It was a time of excess and loudness in many aspects, but at the same time there was another side that was very discreet. Of course we won, the loud one! (laughs) But you know why that part won? Because there was a lot of personalities, like top models – you know, these great girls with great personalities, attitude. We didn’t have to interview anybody else – it was not like now, we create a girl with the look...
JWA: They were there.
DV: They helped us. They were very creative themselves and there was competition between the models backstage, you could feel the razor... (laughs) After Gianni died, then that time was no more. Ah, I think we miss great photographers. There are a lot of good young photographers but there is not a new Bruce Weber.
JWA: No, there only ever will be one.
DV: You couldn’t stop looking at his pictures. This was like, wow! It was totally different from everything else, very provocative – half-naked men, more boys, women, clothes. We were always looking for the new thing, the next model, a new emotion and attitude. Now everything is the same, I find. Maybe it’s not the fault of the photographer, it’s the fault of the commercial factor. The commercial part is very important because you need to be real, but it’s also important to be fearless. In the end I think that what is important is the idea. I was always pushing for something that nobody did. So I said to you, ‘This is what Gianni did, this is who I am and what I did for Versus. But just see it through your eyes; be free to do it through your eyes.’
JWA: I threw myself into it. I was just so excited to go through the archive, because I love the brand. People probably think we’re quite far apart but I just went for it in the end.
DV: What I love is attention to detail. You went through the archive for days just surrounded by clothes – it was mesmerising.
JWA: For me it’s always a rejection process. You kind of OD on everything, and then it’s like, ‘Okay, we’re ready to start.’ I wanted things a little more twisted because ultimately you want to modernise it. And you really pushed me on the colour thing, because it’s something that I’m maybe not so great at but you know colour so perfectly.
DV: That’s the moment really that I understood your efforts. With Versus you have to have a bit of craziness, but I want to push you to be not so conceptual.
JWA: When I think of the brand and youth I like the idea of a shared wardrobe, that you can pick up a sweater and anyone can wear it. It could be bigger on a woman or small and tight on a guy – it gives different vibes and energy. Maybe androgyny is a little bit old-fashioned. There’s something different here, it’s a little bit more...
DV: It was more about a tribe. You know, for so long you didn’t see a show that mixed boys and girls – the last one was ten years ago, fifteen years ago. But this is right now. This is a group of people with a special personality, who want to say something. Youth are not afraid. They want something they can be inspired by.
JWA: They want something really gritty. If there’s something we can achieve here it’s ultimately to challenge, because that’s what fashion is about – you have to challenge people’s opinions on things. Unisex is the most modern thing that a lot of people do not touch on. That’s why I don’t see it as a guy wearing a dress or a girl wearing a man’s jacket. It’s not about that – it’s about challenging people’s perceptions to make them think. The internet’s about that – it’s about finding new things. Every day you go on the internet and you can find something new. If you can find one element in that collection that you are turned on by, then fantastic, we’ve done our job.
DV: Yes, I agree with you. It was because I was doing Versus again that I did Vunk for Versace. Because I was feeling like a rebel again.
JWA: I remember when the H&M collaboration happened, you realised that people love this brand. It went straight to a younger audience and they had a hunger for it.
DV: Many people were not even born when these things first came out, but the reaction was amazing. I was talking to kids and to the internet. I was surprised and honoured, I felt so humble. You know, because this is not journalist to journalist,
it’s the world.
JWA: I think Versus is going to have an organic process. It’s going to do what the world tells it to do, and that’s what the internet is about.
DV: The internet is the new house of fashion. I think Versus is totally different today to what it was in the past because it’s going to be online. I always live and learn – I love to challenge myself. If you feel you’ve reached something you’re finished, and I don’t feel like I’ve reached anything yet. I want to reach different crowds – I want to talk to musicians, I want to talk to artists. The age we’re in now is so exciting. It gives me more energy.