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August 21 2014

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Her Majesty And The Medusa: Donatella Versace On Fashion, Armor, And Her Dreams of Dressing The Queen

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“The talk seems very popular,” I said to the man at the door collecting tickets and checking membership cards at the Oxford Union. At that moment he was ushering in a flock of fresh-faced students.

“It is and that’s why she’s here,” he responded quite practically. “But the way I see it, nobody is bigger than The Union,” he sniffed in loyal qualification, just in case any of us fashion types were getting any fancy ideas. “What’s she like anyway?”

This seemed to be the crux of the matter. The main focus of Donatella Versace’s time in that famous debating chamber will be about getting to know Donatella the person, as opposed to the brand. The decision for Versace to appear at the Oxford Union might not have started that way, but by the close of the proceedings it will end that way. And that is the power of La Versace: She is a person first rather than a media-trained mouthpiece. You essentially warm toward her because of that. She also doesn’t take herself too seriously.

When asking Tim Blanks, Style.com’s editor at large and Versace’s interlocutor for the occasion, what will be the topic of the debate prior to the engagement, he equivocated for a while before answering, not entirely seriously: “Versaceism.” And in this post-ism world, where fashion, celebrity, and brand loyalty tend to fill certain parts of a political void, that answer seemed quite apt.

Perhaps that is why the Oxford Union has had some unconventional speakers of late, in contrast to its reputation for bringing in political heavyweights. Yet underestimate the seriousness of Ms. Versace at your peril, and in any case, to be the artistic director of a fashion company, especially when it is a privately owned one, is sometimes akin to an upper-echelon job in politics, and one on the global stage at that. Granted, you get to wear better shoes. Today the shoes are precipitously high and she is clad in a black leather dress with crystal stud detailing, the trademark long blond locks flowing. Nevertheless, Donatella Versace openly confessed after the talk she had been nervous.

For moral support, Donatella’s daughter and heir to the Versace empire, Allegra Beck, was on hand. As was her close friend Rupert Everett. In the audience was her protégé and collaborator on Versus, Christopher Kane. The designer Erdem Moralioglu and the legendary head of the Saint Martins Fashion MA, Louise Wilson, also made up part of the front bench.

Mr. Blanks was there to take Ms. Versace through a somewhat gentler version of the Socratic method—although they did not really have opposing viewpoints. And there were no Ayes to the right and Nos to the left at the end. Instead, parts of the dialectic unfolded thus:

TB: “What is the purpose of fashion?”

DV: “People have to feel fashion, to feel good about themselves, to achieve goals in life. Fashion can be looked at as a weapon.”

TB: “Why do young people like you so much?”

DV: “I don’t know.”

TB: “You’re such a graphic creature. You are an iconic figure—but there is a human behind the icon. Do you use your image as armor?”

DV: “I am told I look intimidating, I look like this blonde, tough person. It is like armor. It was very useful to me—especially when Gianni died. I used it then because it is hard to have that pain in public. I used my style to hide all of those emotions.”

TB: “Versace was the first fashion house to really utilize famous people. Can we talk about your experience with Liz Taylor?”

DV: “I finally realized why everybody wanted to marry her! She made you do things you really did not want to do. My brother was a jewelry collector and he had this ring he gave me. She tried it on and then just didn’t give it back. She was like a little girl, you couldn’t resist.”

TB: “Who is the person you would choose to dress today?”

DV: “The Queen.”

TB: “The Queen?”

DV: “I am not joking, she can handle anything. She is the most fashionable person.”

TB: “And what would you dress her in?”

DV: “Black.”

TB: “Black leather?”

DV: “Well, she could handle it. And the Medusa.”

Photo: Courtesy Photo

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