Alain Elkann interviews Gianni Versace

Carla Bruni and Naomi Campbell pose with designer Gianni Versace

So many years have passed since I went to interview Gianni Versace in June 1993, but I still remember him very well. He was a clever man, a talented man. He was not pretentious and really friendly. I saw him again a couple of years later on a boat in Turkey. He was the same: simple, friendly. When I heard about his death in Miami in 1997 I was sad for him and also felt sorry, even if I cannot say that we were friends, because he was gone forever and we would not be able to talk any more. It has been a real loss for fashion. Versace was a free spirit and he brought something new. I know that his sister Donatella is doing very well, they were very close and loved and respected each other so much. I am moved to read Gianni’s words again after so long….

Gianni Versace, 46, works and lives in an ancient palace on Via Jesus in Milan. His apartment is on the first floor, the door is opened by a rather Po-faced middle-aged servant. We pass through living rooms with floors of inlaid wood, libraries full of old books, there are comfortable sofas, splendid objects, two paintings by Paladino, one by de Chirico. Through a glass door you can see the kind of terrace full of flowers that you would find overlooking the Mediterranean Sea.

How do you live, Gianni Versace?

I live as I please.

How about your work?

My work is very important for me. If I did not feel I was leading from the front I would quit right away.

What is your family background?

Mine is a middle-class family from Calabria. My mother was of Dutch origin and was a seamstress, while the Versaces were land owners. I spent the first twenty years’ of my life in Calabria, after that I came to Milan. These days I divide my time between Milan, Miami and Lake Como.

How did your explosive success come about?

It comes from where I want to be, from what I want to accomplish. I understand people and I have a good business sense. And then we work together as a family: my sister and my brother are both very good indeed.

What’s your opinion of the 80’s?

They were marvellous. I have never been a socialist as they would have liked you to believe and precious few of my clients had any problems with the authorities.

And how do you think the 90’s are and will be?

Perhaps a bit difficult in Italy, but easier abroad. I think that with us you will see the need to work harder, for higher quality, with fewer distractions and more focus.

What is your life like?

My life is completely down-to-earth, I only go out when it is necessary for my work. The rest of the time I stay at home and read lots of newspapers and loads of books. A good chunk of the stuff one sees on CNN TV disgusts me.

What clothes do you wear yourself?

When I was 43 I hated jeans. Now it’s as if I only ever wear jeans, and I always wear them in black or very dark blue. But what matters is how we are in ourselves, not the clothes we wear.

Who are the men who you consider to be elegant?

Oscar Wilde and Jean Cocteau and André Malraux. In a certain sense one can even say that Moravia had his own sense of style. But the intellectuals of today are less involved with fashion.

Who are the cleverest people you have met?

I would say Richard Avedon, who is an extraordinarily cultured man. I also think Guy Béjart is a great choreographer and he has read everything, even Arabic literature.

And among women?                       

I like women who work. I am thinking of Tina Brown, the editor of the New Yorker, and of my sister Donatella. Of course, through my work I live surrounded by the beauty of women like Claudia Schiffer, who is very much an ingenue, Linda Evangelista and Kate Moss.

When do you think about work?

By now it is part of my life-cycle. I cannot distinguish myself from my work. It is always there, as necessary to me as drinking water. It’s something completely natural. I have never forced myself to try to do anything in my entire life. For example, I wake up, I sit down at a table and I wait to see what idea comes to me. I never see my clients, unless I would enjoy doing so. I always sell a high quality product and I eat alone or with whoever I want to.

Do you consider yourself lucky?

Yes, although for me it comes to the same thing that I am my own person and I like myself.

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Do you have a good relationship with your colleagues?

With some of them. I think of Issey Myake, of Yōji Yamamoto and of Karl Lagerfeld, who I consider my teacher.

What’s going on in fashion today?

Power to the people in the United States. Otherwise, lots of very snob items at extremely high prices, like the traditional Chanel or Hermes.

And the avant-garde?

Even they are, for the most part, quite traditional.

Who do you like to see most from among all your clients?

Lady Di or Alba Parietti. But I am not a snob in that sense, I am the same person for them all.

The above is taken from Alain Elkann Interviews, published by Assouline (196A Piccadilly, St. James’s, London W1J 9EY)

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