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Donatella Versace: I had my own problems for years... it took me this long to feel comfortable with the past

Twenty years after the assassination of her brother, Donatella Versace finally felt comfortable celebrating his legacy - through a spectacular September show that instantly went down in fashion history. But now, she tells Tim Blanks, she's looking to the future again

Friday September 22: a day that not only gives us the fashion moment of 2017, but also carries us back 26 years to 1991's peak fashion experience. Then, it was Gianni Versace launching the supermodel phenomenon on the world with Linda, Naomi, Christy and Cindy sashaying down his catwalk to George Michael's Freedom! '90. Now, it's Donatella Versace saluting her brother on the 20th anniversary of his death with a collection that revisits some of his most iconic styles and brings five of his original supergirls - Cindy and Naomi again, plus Claudia, Helena and Carla - back to the catwalk for a blockbuster finale, soundtracked by (what else?) Freedom! '90.

Donatella joins them as iPhones blaze and the audience dissolves in a cacophony of cheers. Blonde, black-clad and tiny against the towering runway goddesses in their gilded mesh dresses, even she seems overwhelmed by the is-this-really-happeningness of the moment. "I never expected the reaction," says Donatella a couple of months later, nestled in an art-lined salon in the Versace headquarters on Via Gesu in Milan. Still luminous with the memory, she insists the real action was backstage, where the new models, like Gigi Hadid - anointed the contemporary equivalents of those incredible creatures who graced fashion catwalks almost 30 years ago - were interacting with their icons.

"Gigi was crying," Donatella says. "I kept telling her, 'Don't!' She was spoiling the make-up." Kaia Gerber, the girl of the season, found the face of her mother, Cindy Crawford, reproduced on a graphic of Vogue covers that Donatella had recovered from the archives. That was possibly the most remarkable thing about the collection Donatella showed. She revived styles that were 25 - some even closer to 30 - years old without them looking remotely retro.

"If you don't embrace the culture of the moment, you don't understand anything," she says. What this new collection clarified was how much doing just that was always Donatella's role in her brother's business. Gianni was the classicist; Donatella was pop. She was her brother's Warhol, the reason why Marilyn Monroe and James Dean insinuated themselves into the iconography of the house. She had been to Warhol's Factory and, in fact, Andy had lunch at Via Gesu two weeks before he died.

"He asked me so many weird questions, about my sex life, for instance," she remembers. "He liked to make people uncomfortable. He was a provocateur." Warhol had already made portraits of Gianni. That day, he obsessively took Polaroids of Donatella for her close-up. Obviously, senseless death intervened. And maybe that was what put her in mind of Marilyn and Jimmy. Equally senseless demises. "And we gave them life again," she says now, looking back. It's two decades since Gianni was gunned down on the steps of his Miami mansion. "For so long I thought, 'Why did this happen to my brother, to this family?'" Donatella says. "I had my own problems for years. It took me this long to feel comfortable with the past. And then I wanted so badly to do it, to show a new generation what Gianni was about, how different he was from everybody else."

Donatella was always at his side, fielding his questions 24 hours a day, always travelling. She worries now that her children suffered. "I wish I'd been there for them. I'd say to Allegra (who is now 31), 'You're crazy, you look for a role model, look somewhere else!'"

One of the things she's found hardest to come to terms with is her former addiction (in 2004 she admitted herself to rehab due to cocaine use). Recovery has helped Donatella learn to accept herself, but that's not quite the same as learning to like herself. "I'm really frustrated by what I did," she admits. "I remember looking at myself and thinking, 'What a stupid, arrogant girl.' It was just my defence, but I'm not at peace with myself yet about that. For so many years I was afraid to look back, then I got better and I could reflect, but I still suffer. I feel guilt about the people I hurt."

If lingering guilt is the cross a recovered addict must bear for the rest of her life, it also offers a segue into Donatella's upcoming charge as co-chair of the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum's 2018 blockbuster exhibition, Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination. The Versace ethos always teased the good Catholic girl. It came naturally to Gianni and Donatella.

"In the south of Italy, everybody goes to church," she recalls. "I would do whatever I wanted and go to church to ask for forgiveness." She hasn't taken confession since she was a little girl. Even then, she wouldn't be upfront about what she was really up to. Discos with Gianni when she was 11 years old? Her formidable, strict mother would sit up all night long until her wayward children came home. Of course, the imagination the exhibition is focusing on is scarcely that of youthful transgressions.

"More the artistic side," Donatella clarifies. "And there will be 50 items from the Vatican which have never been seen before."

She fudges the issue of whether she may have had something to do with the release of said treasures, but she seems to be a frequent visitor to the Vatican. Donatella has met the last three popes (Pope Francis, the current incumbent, is her favourite). And she embraces a finely honed Catholic sense of transgression. "You grow up well aware of the things you shouldn't do," she says. "And when you're able to do them, you do them. And nothing happens. But then you pay the price in a way." Donatella agrees that a sense of consequence is very important to the Versace story. "Even Gianni couldn't embrace everything he knew he shouldn't, because of a feeling of guilt, of being gay, of never being accepted in the south of Italy."

She suggests his clothes were a deliberate rejection of that mentality. But she herself believed in hell for a long time. "Not any more," she says dismissively. "Hell is life." For a while, her life probably was hell. She claims that every day after Gianni's death, her vision clouded by addiction, she was terrified she wouldn't make it. "When I stopped being anxious about that, I felt much better about myself." Now she says she'd prefer to live hell in the here and now than live in constant fear of some afterlife situation.

I think the apposite word is self-determination. It was something Donatella always radiated, even if it was, for many years, only a mask. It also makes her a logical candidate for the Fashion Icon Award she is about to receive from the British Fashion Council. Though the award itself is decided by public vote, it has a ring of 'lifetime achievement' about it, and that usually inclines its recipient towards thoughts of legacy. But self-deprecation is Donatella's default position, so it's a hard question for her to answer. "As a woman, I'm proud I'm still here, in this position," she eventually offers.

"I see what I do as a platform, for a real voice, because our little fashion world is too little. I think the community of fashion can do a lot more to encourage inclusivity, to help people accept each other."

The idea of 'benefit to the community' is embedded in the new store that Versace will open on London's Sloane Street next year, not just because it's 'green'-certified by LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design), but also through its commitment to the personal growth and emotional wellbeing of staff. After her last show, she told me that "the courage to dare" was Gianni's lesson to young designers. "That's very liberating when you have a CEO and Press and merchandising people telling you what to do all the time," says Donatella. "The only person who doesn't listen to that is Alessandro Michele at Gucci, and I love him for that. He's such a genius and so strong. He's disruptive," she adds with relish. No doubt identifying a kindred spirit, she says they talk often. The idea of liberation, of freedom from restrictions, self-imposed as much as anything else, has become the leitmotif of Donatella's life over the past few years.

"I've learned that if I believe in something, I should do it. Tell people what I want, not let myself be told something else by them." Once she only acted fearless. Now, it's the real thing, as she takes inspiration from the women around her. Some of them Donatella works with on a daily basis. Others, like Violet, the Portuguese DJ who has soundtracked Versace shows for several seasons, have introduced a different kind of activist sensibility into her life. "Strong women with strong ideas", she calls them. "The classic American or Italian males have always supported each other, but now it's the idea of women supporting each other that is directing the conversation. It's a woman's world."

Or it is at least a world where some powerful men are being held to account by women. And there is a sense that we're only at the beginning of that process of accountability. The fashion industry is certainly rife with rumours about the next heads to roll. "It's painful, but it's good at the same time if it changes the way of thinking," says Donatella. "Behaviour is important. If you damaged someone else's life, you should pay for it."

Maybe some version of a similarly compensatory impulse will help her make a final reckoning with her past. Her children are clearly a huge support. Come Christmas, she'll be at home with Allegra, Daniel (23) and their father, her ex-husband Paul Beck. It's always traditional.

"However far they've gone, the kids always want to be home with Mummy," says Donatella. She gets out the Nativity display, there will be Christmas trees, the classic fish dishes on the 24th, followed by midnight mass at the Duomo and turkey for lunch on the 25th. Not prepared by her, she adds hurriedly. She's never been able to cook. There's no chance of a Christmas getaway because she'll be showing her men's collection for next autumn in mid-January, and her women's in the last week of February.

And, in light of her sensational show in September, this one is going to be especially tough, Donatella acknowledges ruefully. She feels one of the reasons the recent show was such a success was its "take it or leave it" attitude. No compromise, no sacrifice. "And that's what I'm going to do next," she says fiercely. "But what am I going to take or leave this time? How am I going to do another show?" She dissolves into fits of laughter. "I just don't know yet."

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