It was obvious before a single model had stepped onto the catwalk that Donatella Versace’s couture fashion show would be extravagant. After all, the runway was a 30-metre long glass case housing 25,000 freshly cut orchids. At the end, the flowers crept up the wall and crescendoed into a giant Medusa head.
Speaking before the show, Versace said she was going “out of her comfort zone” with the collection, presented in Paris on Sunday, leaving aside the tough, uncomplicated sexiness the house is famous for (see Liz Hurley in that safety-pinned dress) for a softer, more vulnerable vision of femininity. In practice, she still delivered jewel-encrusted fabulousness, albeit in a more muted palette than usual.
Dresses were dove grey, light turquoise and baby pink and made from layers of exquisite material like threaded georgette, cobwebby lace and frayed chiffon. There was a touch of Maid Marian to some of the looks – like pea-green trousers with corset tops studded with Swarovski crystals – and an overall medieval feeling, seen in bell sleeves made of sheer fabrics that looked like angels’ wings.
Really, this supposedly ethereal creature was a warrior waif: all the models wore seven-inch platform shoes or knee high boots, and the chain mail dresses and corseted gown felt pure Lady Macbeth, or Game of Thrones’ Cersei.
Though overlaid with soft waves of fabric, shape was still accentuated with boned corsets which were often transparent and covered with jewels. “For me a corset represents the toughness of a woman,” said Versace.
Regardless of wider trends in fashion, Donatella Versace just cannot help but show off a woman’s body. Versace has never been a brand to pay heed to the stylist’s maxim that a good outfit should show legs or cleavage, but not both, and dresses were slashed to the naval, were backless or featured transparent sections around the ribs so that the whole torso was on show. Models’ headpieces were faux flower garlands fashioned from crystals. This was what the Flower Fairies might look like if they had grown up and become regulars at Studio 54.
Featuring a roll call of the biggest models of the moment – Joan Smalls, Kendall Jenner and Karlie Kloss to name but a few – this was a show of chiffon-clad strength from Versace.
The label has announced that it is preparing for an IPO, and the venue for the show was apt: the Palais Brongniart, a formidable neoclassical building with carved frescoes on its vaulted ceilings, which used to house the Parisian stock exchange. Couture represents the pinnacle of a designer’s technical ability – each of these gowns took between 300 and 600 hours to make and will easily command a five-figure price tag – and allows brands to dazzle the public with their innovation and creativity. As well as being bought by the super-rich, many of the gowns become marketing tools, worn by A-listers on the red carpet.
In 2014 Versace’s net profit surged by 27%, to €26.3m, despite a testing climate for the luxury industry, with sales down at larger rivals including Gucci and Prada. “Unlike other players, we still have large shares of the market to win,” said chief executive Gian Giacomo Ferraris. Growth has been financed by the sale of a 20% stake of the company to Blackstone Group, last year, which raised €210m to be ploughed into store openings. Forty new units opened in 2014; 30 are planned for 2015.
Much of Versace’s success stems from simply giving well-heeled customers what they want – not clothes to be over-analysed, but slinky gowns with sex appeal.