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Donatella Versace on the next fashion steps

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After months of lockdown, Milan had recently reopened, with employees flocking back to the offices, and Donatella Versace was happy to be back in the office (although she had learned Zoom skills in quarantine.) Below, as part of ELLE’s look. in the future of fashion, the designer explains how this moment makes her push even harder for sustainability; the downsides of digital catwalks and why she thinks smaller, seasonless collections are the future of fashion. (In July, after this interview, she put this into practice by showing Versace Flash, a unisex capsule collection.)

How do you see fashion transforming during these difficult times? How can we take advantage of this moment to change it for the better?

I’ve had a lot of time to think about this, and my first answer is: nothing will ever be the same. Over the past three months, I have been thinking, thinking, thinking – we have really had time to think about our jobs and fashion. How to make fashion different and more in touch with life, with the new normal, which is completely different than before?

We started the discussion on sustainability before COVID. But for example, for me, going out in Milan on the first day, I felt the air was much cleaner. I saw that the sky was finally blue. For years and years, I had never seen Milan so clearly. There were no cars. No people. I don’t think I was the only person to have seen this. So I’m going to focus more on sustainability. I think we’re going to be irrelevant, showing things that aren’t sustainable. Now 100% of fashion cannot be sustainable. It is not possible to do 100%. Plus, the most durable things are very, very expensive. We have a wide range of clients and we have to think of a young client with little money. But we are working on it. I have a large team working on this and giving me answers. And once again, I would like to point out that I have been working diligently on this subject for the past few years. And now, step by step, we will come to a point where the environmental impact of fashion will be greatly reduced. So that’s my goal.

versace milan fashion week fall / winter 2020 2021 show

Virtual images of Donatella Versace on screen during her fall 2020 show.

Jacopo RauleGetty Images

I am convinced that nothing will ever be the same again. So fashion will finally change. There will be different rules, if we can call these rules. Because, I mean, it was getting too predictable. We had Fashion Week in September; menswear week in June, and that hasn’t changed in years and years. When something never changes, it’s no longer relevant, and the most important thing is to keep the fashion relevant. How to do this is another discussion.

Another thing I want to focus on is a seasonless collection. Something very light when it’s snowing outside; it’s ridiculous. This type of delivery – the bad season in the bad season – must stop. You have to be free, if it’s a nice spring day, to go to the store and find something for spring, not find a coat. Or a fur, although we no longer use fur. This is the immediate reaction to fashion: “I want to wear it now”.

Going back to what you said about the pace of the industry for a second, there have been a few open and overt letters: Alessandro Michele wrote about this, Dries van Noten posted an open letter which was signed by many different designers because I’m sure you’ve seen it, and they were talking about these issues: changing the pace of fashion, changing the way the seasons work to avoid, as you said, the jersey problem bath in December. Do you think this is something the rest of the fashion industry will support?

All of the designers achieved what we wanted, but we couldn’t ask for it because the industry behind us wouldn’t follow us: collections without season, smaller, more often. Instead of doing a fashion show where you show off 70 or 80 looks, I would like to do 30 looks for men and women and do them more often. When I have the right idea, to be able to build a small collection around this idea, then in two to three months we do more looks. We should be freer to create when we have the idea.

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That’s right, and I think people are reconsidering right now, how much they’ve consumed in the past, and take stock of what they have, wanting to invest in quality.

Absolutely. I think the fashion to use and throw away is over. I think people who invest money in fashion want something that can stay in their wardrobe and wear season after season, and be relevant, always. Quality is therefore so important. If you really want to call yourself a luxury brand, a luxury brand is quality. Other luxury brands have used cheap fabrics for cost reasons and cheap means of sewing clothes, and said, “This is a luxury brand”. No, it is no longer possible. If you are a luxury brand, you make luxury clothes. That doesn’t mean luxury has to be very, very expensive. You can get around that. You cannot wear an outfit for [just] one or two seasons – it must live in your wardrobe.

versace milan fashion week fall / winter 2020 2021 show

Looks from the fall 2020 show.

Victor VIRGILEGetty Images

Italy has an incredible tradition of quality and craftsmanship; the most beautiful things I own are all made in Italy! I really hope that with all that the country has been through, you can continue this tradition.

The workshops we use for production were all struggling with the pandemic, and many of them were very small, with only 10 or 15 people working there. So we took care of that, in order to give them more business, so that they wouldn’t die. Because if this small artisan business dies, fashion is dead. Fashion has meaning in society. Fashion helps a man or woman to feel better, to feel stronger, and to feel relevant in one way or another. Not because you are well dressed, but because you are a relevant person: your attitude, your intelligence, the way you explain yourself. We’ve made sure these small businesses don’t die – so that Italian craftsmanship doesn’t die.

The conversation about diversity and inclusion in fashion has become more urgent right now. What must the industry do to remedy this?

We have to be inclusive, we have to be courageous, and we have to give different people a chance to come in, learn and express themselves. There are a lot of talented people who deserve to be heard, to be seen, and to have a chance.

Do you think digital shows will replace face-to-face shows, or do you think they’re irreplaceable?

The emotion of a fashion show cannot be replaced digitally. That’s for sure. I don’t think you can “visit” the emotion from your laptop; it’s impossible.

versace milan fashion week fall / winter 2020 2021 show

A look from the Fall 2020 show.

Jacopo RauleGetty Images

I was there for the top model moment that you did in 2017. It was something where, if you were in that room, it just looked like nothing else, instead of seeing it on a screen. So I don’t think it goes away. I’ve been interested in how people find workarounds now, but I think we’ll probably go back to the mainstream show. Are there different ways of doing the things that you have adopted?

I’m going to go back to a traditional show, I think, but I’m going to put a little more tech into it. It will be a mixture. During this lockdown, without the technology, we would not have seen each other. I never thought we were going to work so much from home through technology, Zoom chats. But I did; you adapt. But when we opened the office and saw each other again, it was a whole different emotion. You have to be able to touch the fabric, see the outfit on a real person, to understand what you are doing. Then yes [to] digital, but not completely.

Campaigns also change completely, with Zoom campaigns or even avatars as models. Is this something that you think will become more common, or do you think it’s just this once?

Maybe people will do more, but that’s not the point. You cannot show your clothes on Zoom. I do not believe it. You need your team, a studio and a photographer. It has to be a combination of weeks in the digital world and in the real world. People are real, too, digitally. [laughs] But I want to feel the people around me.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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