It’s a frigid October morning, and Donatella Versace has just slinked into the vast back room of a palatial suite at the Waldorf Astoria. She drops gracefully onto a gold settee and lights the latest of today’s cigarettes. Dressed all in black, the petite designer seems impossibly tiny in this enormous room—a grownup Eloise chain-smoking Marlboro Reds.
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She orders an orange juice with a straw and starts reminiscing about old friends, past trips to New York, the time she went horseback-riding and whitewater-rafting out West with Anna Wintour. She laughs a lot, youthfully. If you didn’t know she was a fashion legend and lifelong party girl just from looking at her, you would know from that laugh.
“It’s all right if I smoke,” she asks, lounging against embroidered pillows on the couch. It’s not a question, more a concession to American fussiness. She takes a sip of juice. “I love New York,” she says. “I think it’s a fantastic city, full of energy—especially in this economic crisis. There is always a chance that new things will happen.”
There’s a baby grand piano in one corner of the room and a strong smell of gardenias in the toasty air. Every available surface is covered with vases of fresh flowers. Earlier this morning, one of Versace’s many assistants laid out a lighter, cigarettes, and a crystal ash tray for the designer, who’s in town for a week to attend the Whitney Museum Gala and Studio Party, of which she’s a sponsor, and to promote the charity work she does, alongside actor Jet Li, helping needy children in the United States and China
Donatella is the head of the Versace empire, a mantle she’s carried ably for her slain brother Gianni for the last 12 years. A few weeks ago, she debuted her spring collection of breathtakingly short, tight dresses and skirts, to critical raves. Last February, she reintroduced the Versace Versus line under the direction of British designer Christopher Kane, another move that delighted the fashion world. She’s done three recent campaigns with muse and good friend Madonna, and now finds herself transfixed by Colombian singer-songwriter Shakira. Next week, she’s heading off to Brazil for a fashion event. It’s been a busy fall.
“I think she has one of the best hearts in the world,” says Lindsay Lohan in a shimmering gold Versace fringe dress. “Ungaro always said: ‘Shorter and tighter. Women should be wanted and sexy—but with class.’ That’s exactly what she does.”
And yet, at 54, with two grown children and a lifetime’s worth of tragedy and glamour already lived, the famously excessive designer is now unexpectedly serene. The old Maya Rudolph Saturday Night Live caricature, in which a husky-voiced Donatella, in full-length sequined gown, guzzles Champagne and barks orders at the nearly naked men who ferry her around on a sedan chair, feels like another life. Today, the woman whose motto is “Don’t let the rappers wear more bling than you do!” sports black pants, black pumps, and a tight black top. She has one ring on each hand and a half-foot of bracelets on her left arm. Her hair is platinum, pony-straight.
Versace says she loves her trips to the U.S. and seems to delight in the differences between this country and her native Italy. Americans, for one thing, are obsessed with sex—in fashion and in public life—whereas Italian women are a little more subtle, in her view. “There is a lot of talk about being sexy here. Maybe too much,” she says. “We talk less. Maybe we do more.”
Credited with perfecting the idea of fashion as a celebrity enterprise—of literally safety-pinning actors and rock stars to her brand—Versace has strong feelings about many prominent American women, especially the ones in politics.
She loves Hillary Clinton: “She's a strong, strong woman. I admire her so much. And how she dresses? I always say she should wear dresses because I think she doesn’t care that much about clothes, but she's a very good-looking woman.”
She respects Michelle Obama: “I think she's another intelligent woman, as intelligent as her husband. And she’s trying to find her style right now.”
As for Sarah Palin: “Honestly! What do I think of her? Nothing. Is that a good answer?”
Her own personal wardrobe is of less interest to the designer. “I don’t think too much about my style,” she says, in her famously deep velvet voice. “When I work, I wear pants usually because I want to be comfortable. I wear dark colors, especially in winter, because I don’t want to concentrate on myself but on what I’m working on. Because I really, really love clothes, I can start to think too much about myself. It’s distracting.”
More and more, Versace has been thinking of other people lately. It all started a few years ago, when she met Jet Li. He told her about the devastation wrought by the 2004 tsunami that killed 300,000 in East Asia. “It was terrible. I was so touched,” Versace says. “The priority in my life changed. It really pushed me to do something different. It changes life completely this experience. You want to do something for other people, especially the children.”
“There is a lot of talk about being sexy here. Maybe too much,” she says. “We talk less. Maybe we do more.”
For the last two years, Versace has partnered with the Whitney’s education department on “Art Unites,” a program that helps needy children in the United States and China. As part of the program, kids use art as therapy, creating original works on the theme of “friendship.” Around 1,400 children participated this year, and Versace made one-of-a-kind handbag out of each child’s work. The bags are sold in the label’s boutiques worldwide for $250 apiece, and all proceeds go to the two participating charities: Starlight Children’s Foundation, which helps seriously ill children in the U.S.; and One Foundation, which works on long-term recovery projects, including two Versace children’s centers in China’s earthquake-devastated Sichuan province.
Versace speaks emotionally, even personally, about the psychological strain children suffer in times of tragedy. “I think the most important thing for children is not only food,” she says, “but to get over post-trauma stress, which is most important injury you have. All of a sudden to see everything disappear from her life, lose her parents, lose her siblings, the family, and try to forget—not to forget, you can never forget, but to try to get over this tragedy, you know.” It makes sense, considering her own life history. She says she thinks of Gianni every day. “I never look back,” she says. “It’s very hard for me to look at the past, but the past is inside me, of course, because I was there.”
Even with her philanthropic work, Versace finds time for parties and is still surrounded by starlets and rock stars when she does. She glided like a queen into the Whitney Gala on Monday night and watched as hot young things preened and posed in her gowns.
“I think she has one of the best hearts in the world,” said Lindsay Lohan, the actress, and newly minted artistic adviser for French fashion house Emanuel Ungaro. Lohan wore a shimmering gold Versace fringe dress and pushed through the crowd to pay her respects to Donatella. “Ungaro always said: ‘Shorter and tighter. Women should be wanted and sexy—but with class.’ That’s exactly what she does.”
“Her clothes make me feel glamorous and chic at the same time, and still young and cool,” said Gossip Girl actress Taylor Momsen. “Versace’s very sexy. It gives a girl confidence when you put on a tight, short minidress. I’m all about minidresses,” said model Chanel Iman, who walked in her first Versace show this fall. “She has really great eye makeup,” said Talking Heads frontman David Byrne, a longtime Versace fan.
For now, this lifestyle satisfies her: Good deeds by day, black tie by night. But she longs to spend more time with her family and do more traveling.
“We all retire one day,” she says. “If we want to, if we don’t want to. That is going to happen.”
Rebecca Dana is a culture correspondent for The Daily Beast. A former editor and reporter for The Wall Street Journal, she has also written for The New York Times, The New York Observer, Rolling Stone and Slate, among other publications.