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Donatella Versace: Fashion's Prima Donna

  • Story Highlights
  • Took over brother Gianni's fashion empire after his death in 1997
  • Has developed Versace to be a lifestyle brand, including furniture and hotels
  • Hollywood A-list, including Jennifer Lopez and Madonna, often faces of Versace
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(CNN) -- As recognizable as the brand itself, Donatella Versace is adamant about one thing in fashion: "Fashion is not frivolous," she told CNN.

Glamour, femininity and sensuality: The three watchwords of Donatella Versace's fashion empire.

Glamour, femininity and sensuality: The three watchwords of Donatella Versace's fashion empire.

It may not be frivolous, but in many respects it is a form of fantasy, something that Versace has developed as head of the Italian fashion house since taking over the reigns after the tragic death of her brother Gianni.

"We sell a lifestyle, so to own one piece of Versace is like to own a whole outfit of expensive things. That's why we do many different things," she told CNN.

With a range of lifestyle items from sunglasses to furniture and even hotels, the Versace brand developed since the 1980's when it was all about supermodels and a confident, almost decadent, glamour.

Not that the rich and beautiful have disappeared from the world of Versace. Fans and faces of Versace read as a catalogue of glossy, party A-listers, including Jennifer Lopez, Madonna, Halle Berry, Kate Moss and Demi Moore.

Gianni Versace was one of the first fashion designers to recognize the power of celebrity, and Donatella, working with her brother, had a strong hand in the advertising campaigns.

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With iconic photographer Richard Avedon taking the shots, his images and Donatella's direction helped create the bold image of Versace in the 1980s and early 1990's making it synonymous with toned and beautiful Hollywood stars.

It was Gianni who designed "that dress" that launched Elizabeth Hurley's career and Donatella's own safety pin moment came when Jennifer Lopez had the paparazzi and fashionistas goggling when she wore a plunging green Versace at the Grammys in 2000.

While she has taken the Versace company in her own direction, Gianni was a huge influence on her life, encouraging her to join him when he was setting up his burgeoning fashion business.

"Gianni was a very strong personality. We were two people who loved each other dearly. We were brother and sister. Very tight family. When Gianni became a big fashion star I was the only one who told him the truth," she said.

After he was shot dead outside his Miami home in 1997, Donatella had to cope with running the fashion empire and deal with her own grief.

"I didn't know if I would follow exactly Gianni's steps or find my own way and I was suffering from my brother's death. But in the meantime I had to be strong because everybody around me was looking at me for direction. But then I found my way and I started to believe in myself more and more, find my confidence and here I am," she told CNN.

The Versace image may be more toned down compared to 20 years ago, but for Donatella the three guiding words of Versace remain: "glamour, femininity and sensuality."

"I think fashion is to make people dream. Nobody thinks they are going to look exactly like the model on the runway, nobody wants people to think that, but it is here to make people to want to have something. I try the best I can to try and make people to want and desire things," she said.

China is one part of the world that Donatella is increasingly selling the dream, with the first Versace show in Beijing in early November signifying a new chapter in the Versace brand expansion.

"Chinese people view fashion in a different way from other people. They buy the whole style, the whole look together. In other countries they like the accessory or they like the clothes but they like one thing of the look. [In China] it's good because you can convey they message together," she told CNN.

Donatella's fashion tips:

CNN: What should a woman always have in her wardrobe?

Versace: A pair of black high heels.

CNN: What should a man always have in his wardrobe?

Versace: A pair of low-waist pants. It makes your upper body taller and your shoulders larger.

CNN: What is the most commonly made fashion mistake?

Versace: Too much make-up and clothes together. It's about one of those, not all.


CNN: What is the ugliest trend you've ever seen?

Versace: Flat shoes and lunch pants together.

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