Donatella talks Versace in Oxford

Designer, style icon and onetime ELLE guest editor Donatella Versace headed to Oxford’s storied Union on Wednesday afternoon to discuss a topic far from the debating society’s typical fare: fashion.

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Versace, accompanied by daughter Allegra and friends and supporters including Rupert Everett, Christopher Kane, Erdem Moralioglu and Louise Wilson, made her entrance to cheers and applause, looking every inch the remarkable embodiment of the globally celebrated brand that bears her family name.

When journalist Tim Blanks asked Versace whether she feels her iconic image is armour she hides behind, she told us she is well aware that her appearance is often perceived as intimidating. ‘It is difficult to live through pain in public. I’ve used my style to hide my emotion. It was useful to me.’

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‘People compare fashion to art, they want to intellectualise it,’ she said ‘but the purpose of clothes is to make people feel special, to help them achieve goals. Clothes can be a kind of weapon. You can get a lot of personal strength from fashion.’

Versace has certainly found her strength. She has brought about a new and exciting era for the brand, with a celebrated collaboration with H&M, a return to Haute Couture and the appointment of British designer Kane—whom she said reminded her of a young Gianni—as co-creative director at Versus. The CEO recently suggested that the brand might consider launching an IPO to fund the next stages of its expansion.

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She admires the British people because ‘they approach style in a very liberated way. They take a piece of designer clothing and adapt it to their personality. They’re not afraid.’ Something she says is also true of herself: ‘I am always an optimist. I’m open to anything, I like to be challenged.’

Versace had the audience laughing with her as she confessed her love of reality TV (‘I’d love to do a show.’), her meeting with Elizabeth Taylor (‘I realised why everyone wanted to marry her.’), and her desire to dress the Queen (‘in black, and maybe a little leather. A little rock ‘n’ roll. She can handle anything.’).

The designer told us the success of the brand is down to having ‘a very distinctive identity, we believe in what we do and we’ve never changed that. My job is to make sure the Versace aesthetic stays the same but evolves as much as possible.’

As for that evolution, Versace believes ‘the future of fashion is about change and moving forward. In the future everything’s going to be online. You need to think about how to communicate your message.’

See ELLE's coverage of the Cambridge Union debate and Versace's Autumn/Winter 2012 show.

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