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Designs on an empire

The name is Versace. The style is Donatella's.

February 09, 2007|Mimi Avins | Times Staff Writer

DONATELLA VERSACE blew into town with her entourage last weekend and set up camp in a smoking-allowed bungalow at the Beverly Hills Hotel. The Pink Palace's high-profile clientele being what it is, it's unlikely that she is the only regular guest who can claim a "Saturday Night Live" doppelganger.

Yet when Donatella, as everyone calls her, is in residence, the glamour quotient rises, even at a legendarily fashionable place. Her celebrity friends turn up, for one thing -- the likes of Jennifer Lopez, Rupert Everett and Cindy Crawford. And since the centerpiece of her current visit is celebrating a Rodeo Drive Walk of Style award given to her and her late brother, Gianni, on an otherwise quiet Monday afternoon, the hotel lobby is taken over by a crowd of chisled young models. A few giraffe-girls with Slavic accents drape themselves over the furniture -- they will hover in the background of one of Donatella's television interviews wearing killer Versace gowns. But most of the beauties gathered for the casting session, which Donatella herself will conduct, are male.

After she finishes taping a segment for the "Today" show (leaning on silk pillows from the Versace Home Collection), she will choose four of the assembled hunks to provide atmosphere at a Walk of Style black-tie bash for 500 scheduled for Thursday evening in a temporary tent at the Beverly Hills Civic Center. Earlier Monday, she'd quietly communed with an actress who had the Academy Awards on her mind and cruised the stores on Robertson Boulevard. "The young Hollywood girls are very inspiring to look at," she says. "I like to see what they're wearing."

Back in her bungalow, where scented candles and floral arrangements mask the smell of tobacco, Donatella sits for an interview, surrounded by public relations personnel who were imported from New York and headquarters in Milan, Italy. The hair and makeup artists who have accompanied her are poised to provide touch-ups as needed. Much of her conversation lacks spontaneity. She has a message she wants to convey, and she's probably delivered it before, many times, in fact. But she does laugh now and then, suggesting that she's prepared to have a little fun, even when talking to a journalist.

The next day, she toured the spruced-up and expanded Versace boutique in the 2 Rodeo Drive complex. At the store, "Access Hollywood" got its 15 minutes, and an L.A. Times photographer was given his due. Then she changed into a glittery black sci-fi bustier and narrow trousers for a taping of Jimmy Kimmel's ABC late-night show. The outfit had the perfect Versace blend of beauty and bombast. Framed by curtains of long, blond, fairy-princess hair, Donatella chuckled and schmoozed with Kimmel in her soft, heavily accented voice, seeming more like a shy girl happy to be at the party than the head of a $352-million corporation.

Nearly three years ago, she went into rehab to deal with a drug problem that she had struggled with for years. Clean and sober, she says, "I'm much more focused. I have a clearer vision. Of course, when you look inside yourself and decide to make changes in your lifestyle, everything around you is affected. I'm much more serene. I'm much more confident, and I like myself much more."

Although none of the chores on Donatella's busy schedule would appear particularly arduous to the average ditch-digger, the pace she typically maintains is hectic enough that the real Donatella sometimes longs to trade places with "SNL's" version of herself as portrayed by Maya Rudolph. Last Saturday night, the faux Donatella starred in a sketch about a Versace Super Bowl Party. "I was laughing hysterically," Versace says. "I wish my life was like that, that all I had to do was give parties. She has parties, and that's it. She doesn't work."

In addition to serving as creative director of Versace since her brother Gianni's murder nearly 10 years ago, Donatella symbolizes the brand. Her look is distinctive and consistent -- the hair, the prize-fighter's nose, perpetual honey-hued tan, high-gloss nude lips, buff little biceps and the thighs of a sixth-grader. She was surprised that a trail of people followed her when she toured the Forbidden City in Beijing.

"It's difficult to get used to people who don't know you scrutinizing you, seeing if you have the right hair, the right makeup," she says. "It's uncomfortable, but it's also my job. Part of my job is to be a public person. Before, a designer used to be just a designer. Now, to represent the company is my job as well."

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