Combing Through Donatella Versace’s Blonde Ambition

The house of Versace is about two things: youth and vanity. It’s often credited with creating the supermodel, a woman with seemingly divine powers that elevated her, in stature and status, above her working peers. Those plunging necklines that inspired women to heed, or perhaps prove, that sex can be a powerful weapon. It’s a cliché, for sure, but isn’t Versace all about a scandalous archetype? Garish and outré iconography that borders on bad taste has made the Versace clan a superbly wealthy one. When the matriarch witch in American Horror Story: Coven, played by Jessica Lange, declared that she “took all that power, poured it back into myself, and dressed it up in Chanel,” somewhere Donatella sprang from her vinyl leopard couch and proclaimed, “This bitch is a Versace woman!” All fanciful guesswork, of course, because it’s hard to imagine Donatella Versace ever sitting still. After all, she designs upward of twelve collections a year, not to mention her side projects, including Versace hotels and decorating the interiors of private jets for Russian billionaires.

If fashion, like Versace, is about youth and vanity, it’s interesting that Donatella has decided to cast Madonna for her third Versace ready-to-wear campaign. “Madonna is one of the true icons of Versace,” the designer said. “I am thrilled to have my friend and the most powerful and directional artist as the face of Versace for spring 2015.” Madonna’s arms are long and robust, her hair a manicured mess of blond tresses that makes her look similar to Courtney Love. Her eyes impose an animalistic yearning, the kind that says that if she can’t have you in bed then she’ll have you for dinner. In a 1997 profile in The New Yorker, published just days after Gianni’s assassination, Andrea Lee wrote that Donatella “seems to have come from within Gianni, like a rib taken from his side; he often told journalists that she was his ideal woman” (a curious observation, if only for its serpentine symbolism, as the same slithering reptile that adorns Medusa’s head might have lured Eve to sin). And, in an effort to multiply that image, Versace now gravitates only to other dangerous blondes: Lady Gaga, who fronted the brand’s last spring campaign; Anna Ewers, the face of fall 2014; and, finally, her many fragrance models, including Lara Stone, Candice Swanepoel, Lindsey Wixson and Iselin Steiro. Donatella herself was the original model of the Versace fragrance, Blonde, first released in 1995.

Lady Gaga for Versace, spring 2014

In that New Yorker piece, when asked if she enjoyed being photographed, Donatella Versace cried, “I detest it! But it’s good for business.” So explains the near-Medusa level of intrigue with vanity and image, not unlike another self-mythologizing designer, Rick Owens. He once reprimanded those who, as he told The Telegraph, “send these models out wearing these concoctions, and then they come out [after the show] in jeans and a sweatshirt.” He added, “It makes me crazy, because you are sending out this message that you don’t believe in what you’re saying.” For Owens, who forgoes traditional channels of advertising and instead embodies and inhabits with an almost ecclesiastical fidelity the perfervid pursuit of “glunge” (glamour and grunge, as Owens calls it), his best form of advertising is himself — in any number of guises. This September, a 25-foot polystyrene statue of Rick Owens was erected outside the Selfridges department store on Oxford Street in London. Hard to miss.

But that was an awesome display of vanity rather than an effort to guarantee immortality. And immortality is what all these blonde Versace advertisements are about. Gianni Versace once wished he could alter the passage of time, saying, “I’d like to live forever. If there’s anything I’m afraid of, it’s missing what will happen tomorrow.” If the social and cultural fabric wrapped the elite in comfortable layers of their own mightiness, Gianni ripped those layers to expose midriffs and thighs and daring inches of neck. It’s possible that Donatella might not have become aware of her own mortality had Gianni not met such an early death. In fact, she is known to carry the pewter skeleton key to Casa Casuarina — the last thing Gianni touched — as a reminder of what it means to live, and to live with purpose. It’s fair to say that Donatella is one of the most ingenious branding strategists of our time. She’s the most bankable blonde since Barbie. She carried Gianni’s flame with pomp and pluck to generate her own heat. And it’s very, very hot.

Gianni and Donatella Versace at the launch of their Blonde fragrance in 1996

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