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Fashion in Hong Kong and China

Donatella Versace and CEO on brand’s new Hong Kong store, why ‘sexy’ is boring, and escaping Gianni’s shadow

After 20 years at the helm of the Italian fashion giant, Versace, in Hong Kong to open a flagship boutique, talks about how far the label has come and where she wants to take it next to engage younger fans

PUBLISHED : Friday, 07 April, 2017, 12:33pm
UPDATED : Friday, 07 April, 2017, 8:50pm

Donatella Versace may be petite but she knows how to dominate a room. The Italian designer and vice-president of the Versace brand is in Hong Kong with her new British CEO Jonathan Akeroyd, putting on the city’s first Versace show and officiating at the opening of an eye-catching new flagship boutique at 12 Queen’s Road Central.

“I’m so proud of this flagship – it’s the biggest one in Asia,” says the designer, who, fresh from a trip to Miami to film a Versace ad campaign with Bruce Weber, is warm, quick, and outspoken.

The luxury brand has been in the region way longer than most; Versace recalls how its founder, her brother Gianni, opened a store in Beijing “in 1986 when nobody was going to China ... He did it because he had a vision about China”.

Versace opens flagship boutique in the heart of Hong Kong

Today, the Hong Kong store is a serious investment in prime retail real estate at a difficult time for luxury brands. But, as Akeroyd says: “One of the best times to invest is during a recession – it shows that you are strong, confident … and more importantly we really want to engage with the local customer.”

I’m sitting between the duo in a private lounge at the Grand Hyatt. Versace adds, in rapid-fire, accented English: “Fashion has changed a lot, too, in the past five years … Chinese women are dressed much more elegantly now.”

Versace has about 100 stores in Asia, half of them in Greater China. With customers in China now the biggest buyers of Versace women’s ready-to-wear, another will open in Shanghai at Plaza 66. In 2014, the brand raised 210 million (HK$1.7 billion) by selling a 20 per cent share to The Blackstone Group.

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The dynamic between the cool, English reserve of Akeroyd and Versace’s Italian passion seems complementary. The partnership is new (Akeroyd joined in mid-2016), but they show plenty of mutual appreciation.

“The great thing about Jonathan is that he’s a CEO who can understand fashion,” Versace says with a laugh. “It’s first one I encounter in my life! He understands what’s cool and not cool and that’s been a big help for me.”

Their shared aim is to better communicate the luxury and modern aesthetic of the brand today, and shake off some of that ’90s Versace nostalgia. There may still be baroque gold motifs on Versace cushions and plates, but what the Medusa head stands for has moved way beyond tight, body con dressing, sex sirens and high-octane maximalism.

“I’m so bored with this word ‘sexy’,” the 61-year-old designer says, rolling her eyes. It was a word used to define the Versace look 30 years ago but which has since become a lazy synonym for the brand.

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“The Versace woman represents much more than that, like loyalty, courage and strength – this is why we wanted to do a show here, to show people that.”

The Hong Kong fashion set filled Shaw Studios for a glamorous men’s and women’s autumn-winter show last Friday. Male models strutted in tough-guy suiting, tartan and graphic prints with flashes of red and leather. Women wore power suits, with streamlined sportiness and sensually draped dresses in hi-vis colours and patterns. Messages of “equality, love, loyalty and courage” were written on outfits in support of women’s rights. Versace isn’t afraid of getting political. The last time we talked, five years ago in Milan, she was quick to criticise Silvio Berlusconi, then Italy’s prime minister. This time she says: “Well he’s gone, but now we have Trump!”

A Versace catwalk show always has a sense of Amazonian femininity, glamour and power. It’s something that’s proved popular with Versace’s celebrity fans, who include Lady Gaga, Jennifer Lopez and Madonna. “It’s a projection of strength,” says Versace. “Clothes are a good weapon for empowering women. If you wear a suit that fits you in a certain way, you move well inside it, you feel better.”

The brand celebrates its 40th anniversary next year; so how does Versace keep things fresh? One way has been to engage with young talent. Christopher Kane and Antony Vaccharello have collaborated with her on the contemporary Versus line – sweetening the label for younger fans and helping to bring in fresh energy and ideas.

“It’s essential to engage with young voices, and have a conversation with people who have a different way,” says Versace.

The label has also been quick to engage with today’s influential ‘It’ models. Gianni Versace took some of the credit for the ’90s celebrity supermodel phenomenon, with Naomi Campbell, Linda Evangelista, Christy Turlington and Cindy Crawford; today’s Versace muses are Gigi and Bella Hadid and Kendall Jenner.

I spent 20 years trying to find my own voice and I think I did
Donatella Versace

“They’re the real celebrities now, with millions and millions of followers. They’re the queens of social media, sometimes even more than an artist or rock star,” says Versace.

This swift embrace of a contemporary zeitgeist is just a small part of Versace’s vision.

“I spent 20 years trying to find my own voice and I think I did. In fashion you never achieve everything. The industry is always somehow changing, and now it’s changing so fast. When my brother died, there was no internet, no social media. It’s been a total revolution.”

Gianni Versace built Versace into an US$800 million empire in less than 10 years and the world was shocked when he was shot dead in 1997 on his own doorstep at his Miami house by serial killer Andrew Cunanan. His sister took over the business, and for years afterwards was dogged by comparisons to Gianni. She has since pushed the label forward, capturing a new generation of fans who love the power and sensuality of Versace but are too young to remember Gianni’s era.

Both Versace and Akeroyd realise that some people still have outdated notions of the brand, and they want to convey what is beyond the bling – a sense of Italian craftsmanship and luxuriousness – to an international audience. That’s why they brought the couture line, Atelier Versace, to Hong Kong, allowing clients to order looks and examine the exquisite workmanship. Instead of Paris couture shows, this is their new strategy – Hong Kong is first and New York will be next.

The dream, the Versace lifestyle, has perhaps become more approachable today
Donatella Versace

“It’s all about clarity,” Akeroyd says. “We have a lot of lines, Atelier Versace, Versace, Versus, both men’s and women’s fashion as well as lifestyle lines. Especially in Asia, where the client is a younger, trendier with more brand awareness, it’s our job to engage with the new luxury customer. Now we need to translate what’s in the shows into our stores. It’s about perception; a lot of people genuinely don’t know how much the brand has evolved.”

Communicating this in the digital world will be different. Social media has made luxury more approachable, says Versace. Plus, the loosening up of fashion rules means that everything from a sweatshirt to a cocktail dress can be considered luxurious now.

“The dream, the Versace lifestyle, has perhaps become more approachable today. Before it was really something magical that was hard to be part of. Now it’s a bit more democratic,” she says.

That also applies to the brand’s lifestyle lines, homewares (from cushions to candelabras), perfume and hotels: the third Palazzo Versace opens in Macau next year, adding to those in Australia’s Gold Coast and Dubai.

Versace jokes that she travels so much she’s probably most inspired on a plane. Seeing “different people around the world, the way they dress, move and the way they are” energises her creative spirit. Music and live concerts have the same inspiring effect.

“To relax, I sometimes read books, but relaxing is hmmm,” she trails off. “I actually just like to keep moving, keep looking forward. People look into the past and say that’s fantastic. For me, I was there with Gianni years ago, but I don’t want to be there any more. I want something different, new and fresh; that’s why I keep having guest designers.”

There’s speculation that soon Versace might be entrusting the label to another designer – such as Riccardo Tisci (who recently left Givenchy after 12 years). Versace won’t confirm Tisci is coming on board, but he and Versace have been close friends for years, and most agree that the fit seems superb.

“I want to be the first,” she says when I ask about what she wants for the future of Versace, “I want it to stand as the best luxury brand. I know it’s a grand thing to say,” she adds, with a smile and a shrug, “but I think it’s not impossible.”