Versace is a house prone to intense bouts of nostalgia. 2 years ago, the house released a runway collection marking the 20th anniversary of Gianni Versace’s death – followed by a reappearance of the supers on the catwalk finale. More recently, in the Spring/Summer 2020 collection, it revisited Jennifer Lopez’s iconic (it’s worth the superlative) jungle dress as a sort of collaboration with Google. It’s prone to reminding itself of past glories. That was all done away with at its very powerful and effective Fall/Winter 2019 collection.
There is little doubt, in this collection, that this is now Donatella Versace’s house. What I mean is that Donatella showed a real confidence in her design choices – a confidence that at its best combines the hedonistic sexuality of the house codes with her own smarts and instincts as a woman. That’s important to Versace because it is a house that represents the female sex and the power that entails. Admittedly a very singular version of femininity, but a valid one nonetheless. It needs little explanation or description: the Platonic ideal of Versace is a woman who is unflinchingly confident in her own skin and able to exploit and wield her sexuality to her advantage. It’s an old-fashioned idea of feminism, but it bears reminding that even today women’s bodies are policed so heavily that this sort of individual ownership is a powerful ideal.
Though that’s my underlying takeaway, the fashion on the catwalk was much more straightforward – a good thing. Donatella described a desire to “show that side of a woman that isn’t afraid to step out of her comfort zone”. That came through the brashness of the collection, in stunning colour, pattern, and textural combinations. I’m referring to the palette of slime greens and yellows, less delicate chartreuses and more highlighter brights. That meant the hot pink lace trimmings on slip silk dresses, which reappeared as lace tights throughout. It also meant burnished oranges on silks and jacquards, leather with aged patinas, neon blues, shiny crocodile, and blinding yellow furs. What was so refreshing was the reckless abandon with which it was mixed and worn together.
It sounds, in theory, like a hot mess. But it works for a brand like Versace because you expect your tastes to be challenged, for bad taste to reign supreme with conviction enough to sway you. You expect the women to be made so unattainably beautiful that you pause to think: hang on, hot pink lace makes perfect sense with a lime green slip. The collection was thrilling because it had a risk of failing, a point wherein the good-bad taste could easily slide into plain bad taste. Here, it didn’t.
Where the collection did falter, however, was in the looks that attempted to inject some hint of streetwear or everyday urban wearability. I question the point of a look with a white beanie, printed t-shirt (even if it is an archival reissue of a Richard Avedon photograph of Donatella Versace for a fragrance campaign), and houndstooth coat. The same can be said of Kaia Gerber’s look, with a glossy crocodile hat, a houndstooth parka, and flat boots. It doesn’t further the idea or development of a fashion image for the brand, and it might simply not be worth the time to do to simply hit marketing marks.
I felt apprehensive too, about, the opening look – a trench coat spliced with a quilted lining, half of it in the house Baroque print. It looked awkward, and felt like a bad start to what was a far more electrifying and exciting collection. Daywear is valid, but why bother when it offers only a tepid and half-formed version of what the house stands for? It lacked a real connection to the rest of the collection, and it didn’t seem to speak the same language of female physicality and beauty.
Versace also seemed to approach accessories far more intelligently this season. The latest bag design, the Virtus, is structured and features a large Barocco ‘V’ on the buckle. Shoes drew easily from the house motifs: Medusa heads, Barocco details, safety pins. Most convincingly, a new design with an elongated and pointed metal sole, almost as if those heeled sandals were bladed and dangerous.
Besides the awkward spots of houndstooth and caps, Versace’s Fall/Winter 2019 really felt like a thrilling exercise in female power through sexuality. It’s become trite to desire sexiness – although, mark my words it’s on its way back – but that is the very solid bedrock that this house is built on. And it works, when both designer and brand are keenly aware of the kind of woman they’re designing for, and the kind of imagery they’re making with their clothes. If Donatella Versace can sharpen her vision and cut out the needlessness of being relatable via sneakers and sweatshirts, the brand stands a real chance at being at the front of the pack again when sexiness comes back in style.