On Culture

Robin Givhan: Donatella Versace, Finding Inspiration in American Politics

By Robin Givhan
Sunday, May 10, 2009

Designer Donatella Versace does not look like a political activist. She is more commonly seen wearing something tight and sparkly, rather than C-SPAN pinstripes or anarchist bandannas. And a few days before the White House Correspondents' Association dinner, where she will be a guest of Vanity Fair magazine, she is in her New York hotel suite wearing form-fitting black trousers and a sleeveless, one-shoulder black top. Even in the midafternoon, she is a glamourpuss with flaxen hair and mile-long eyelashes. She had no plans to ratchet down the razzle-dazzle on account of Washington's conservative reputation.

But do not assume her dinner-table talk is limited to frocks and stilettos. She can parry with any lobbyist or wonk on subjects from the impact of Barack Obama's handshake with Venezuela's Hugo Chávez to his overtures to Cuba's Raúl Castro. Her dining companions, of course, need a significant amount of willpower to keep their eyes from straying to the magnificent jewels on her finger.

"I follow politics. It's part of my life. I think if you're involved in the modern world -- if you're a modern person -- you need to know what's going on in the world," she says. "My business is worldwide. I know German politics. I know French politics."

And she is enamored of the current state of American politics, which has abruptly gone glamorous.

Almost a year ago, when Versace presented her menswear collection in Milan, she mentioned that she'd been inspired by Barack Obama, who was then a presidential candidate. In a flurry of media-mania, literalists were soon inspecting the runway for signs of Obama-isms. A model in a suit with an open-collar shirt? Surely it's an ode to Obama!

She offers a point of clarification. "His way of thinking inspired me," Versace says. "I wasn't talking about his body in his clothes. In that moment, he was the most inspiring man. He was looking forward, looking ahead, not back."

But if one insists on getting down to the nitty-gritty of fashion, Versace says that what distinguishes Obama for her is not what he wears, but how he moves. "He's very elegant," she says. "It's about his attitude. He knows how to walk; his attitude is really cool."

Do not be fooled by the cougar caricature of Versace on "Saturday Night Live." Don't believe the stereotype of the fashion bubblehead. One can wear a form-fitting gown of emerald pailletes -- as Versace did at a recent New York City fashion gala -- and still be serious about world affairs. Let it be known that during her university years, Versace was a bit of a rabble-rouser. Not quite a hippie, but a protester. "I was very involved in politics and sit-ins," she says. "Students were fighting for things, and I think young people need to fight for their future."

Both her son and daughter are American because their father, Paul Beck, is an American citizen. She saw them getting enthusiastic about Obama's candidacy. Versace loved the way Obama reached out through the Internet. "He's not really American," she says. "He's international."

"He found a new way to talk to young people through the Internet to distract them from stupid things like drugs. For him to go through the Internet to energize young people was so wonderful. He made young people relevant."

And if anyone at the correspondents' dinner should feel a need to talk shop, Versace will happily oblige, as she firmly believes that folks should be obsessing about the new White House style. "Look at the last eight years; nobody cared what the first lady wore," Versace says. "Nobody looked at Mrs. Bush. She was a very nice lady, but she was safe. Their politics wasn't safe."

But Michelle Obama has panache, Versace says, noting the first lady's penchant for high-drama eyelashes and her decision to wear a black, tiered Azzedine Alaia dress in France. "She looked fierce," Versace says. "They're a couple who knows how to dare. I'm sure she has people around her telling her it's too much. She looked great in Alaia."

Versace believes that glamour belongs in the highest reaches of power. Recent Versace advertisements have depicted women in sexy suits ruling a boardroom or running a household. When Versace took over the creative duties at the fashion company, after her brother Gianni was killed in 1997, she made a concerted effort to keep the label's sexy sensibility but to express it from a woman's point of view rather than through the voyeuristic gaze of a man.

Over the last decade, the Versace aesthetic has evolved into one that values restraint but celebrates everything that it means to be female, from showing off curves in an evening gown, to looking powerful and feminine in a suit, to being sexually confident in a revealing cocktail dress.

Glamour is always good, Versace says, but it's particularly compelling in a first lady because it allows young girls to recognize that part of themselves in someone of great stature. It lets them say, "Look at her, she's one of us!" They can see that their girlish delights can coexist with pomp, power and an impressive résumé.

Versace has only one question for the first lady. "I want to know her size. I want to send her clothes," says the designer.

"But I'm a bit shy."

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