FRANCESCA VERSACE

What’s in a name . . .

by Edan Corkill

It’s 20 minutes before her fashion show is due to start at the Italian Cultural Institute in Tokyo and Francesca Versace is giving a very slight, nervous bite to her lower lip.

“There’s something I wanted to tell you,” she says. “Yesterday, when we met, I think I talked too much about my family.”

For the daughter of Santo Versace, the businessman who founded the Versace label in 1978 with his more famous younger brother, Gianni, and who has continued to operate it with his younger sister Donatella since Gianni’s murder 10 years ago, being asked to talk about the family is a daily, if not entirely welcome, occurrence.

“I just want to prove myself,” the 25-year-old had said a day earlier during our interview in an Italian restaurant in Tokyo’s trendy Daikanyama district.

Now, as the Italian Cultural Institute begins to echo with the clatter of high heels and the clink of beer bottles, I assure her that it is her career, rather than those of her family members, that interests me most. She gives a relieved smile, pats me on the arm and turns away. The fashion show is about to begin and she is looking radiant — all blue eyes and shining gold locks above a playful but elegant short black dress.

Tonight, Tokyo’s fashionistas are in for a treat: a rerun of Versace’s acclaimed nine-outfit graduation collection from London’s Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design last year — thanks to Italian beermaker Peroni Nastro Azzurro, who are putting on the show to promote their brew.

The London-based Daily Telegraph’s Hilary Alexander summed up the original show, declaring approvingly, “Francesca Versace, the newest member of the fashion clan, proudly unveiled her considerable design credentials.”

The positive reviews obviously meant a lot to Versace. During our interview in Daikanyama she said it was “one of the happiest moments of my life” when she read them.

No doubt relief had been part of that euphoria. “When I started at Saint Martins I really wasn’t enjoying it. . . . I wasn’t really putting all my energy in it,” she said.

Fierce rivalry was perhaps part of the problem. The students “really competed with their schoolmates,” she said of the eight English, five Italians, four Chinese, three French, two Japanese and two Spaniards who made up her class at England’s leading fashion school.

Versace struggled to explain how she overcame the problem: “I just started to develop this enthusiasm for fashion,” she said. “I found my way in the last year . . . (Then) I really had fun doing what I was doing.”

The fun is about to begin at the Cultural Institute too, as spotlights illuminate the runway, and the pop-music soundtrack kicks in.

A succession of tall, skinny European models stride forth, their short frilly frocks, cute cut-off jump suits and origami-folded quilted vests in bright orange, blue and yellow animate the glowing catwalk like marbles in a fluorescent tube.

The editor of one influential Japanese high-fashion magazine leans over to me.

“These frilly pieces you’d normally expect to be done in silk; these are cashmere, and that is impressive,” she says. Others are impressed too, their eyes locked on the models as they giraffe-walk along the runway twice.

I tell the magazine editor what Versace said the day before: that using new technologies and new fabrics will be one of the defining characteristics of her generation.

“I think the future of fashion is in the textures, the fabrics,” the young designer declared.

She also revealed that new fabrics and simple shapes would play a role in her next project, a small collaborative collection with a Singaporean outfit titled “Francesca V for alldressedup.” It will be launched in Paris in early October and will involve “simple shapes (and be) comfortable, like when you feel comfortable in your own clothes.”

It seems Versace likes to feel comfortable. In her spare time — when she’s not “working like mad” on her designs, or for Milano Young, the children’s charity she’s involved in — she takes herself off to health spas in northern France or Capri. And then there’s always the family house — a 19th-century villa originally purchased by Gianni — on Lake Como, where Francesca has enjoyed regular family get-togethers since she was a child.

She has “wonderful memories” of her childhood. Hanging out backstage as her uncle introduced her to the world the concept of the supermodel in the early 1990s, she admitted she was “obsessed with Claudia Schiffer!”

“(Claudia) was speaking German and I could speak German too.” (Santo sent her to a German preschool, believing that if she could master German she could learn any language.)

“I used to cut out pictures of her and stick them in my diary,” Versace said. “I’d tell school friends that I knew stories about Claudia, but I was just repeating what I’d read in magazines.”

About Gianni, Francesca didn’t say a lot, but what she did say was imbued with reverence.

” ‘Stop with the clothes, let’s go and buy books,’ he’d say. He was such an adorable uncle. He was full of enthusiasm for art and culture and he was really trying to transmit that to (us).”

Francesca said that, as a designer, Gianni’s biggest influence on her so far has been the “way he introduced music and art into fashion. You know, [he] started to [use art prints on fabrics during his] Warhol period and so on. It is nice to see [artists' and musicians'] involvement in fashion and I would like to do the same.”

As for aunt Donatella and cousin Allegra (Donatella’s daughter, who, although still a student, has made headlines for having inherited Gianni’s 50 percent share in the company — Donatella has 20 percent, Santo 30 percent), all she offered was that she “loves” the design work Donatella is doing for the label now, and that she is “very close” to her cousin.

So if Francesca would like to collaborate with musicians, which ones does she like? Certainly not The Eagles, whose “New Kid in Town,” though oddly appropriate, got a laugh when it started up at the Daikanyama restaurant. “Oh, Scissor Sisters,” she said. “They’re funky, fun, great, sexy.”

They also suit her own taste for mix-and-match fashion — something she shares with many young Tokyoites, particularly those in Harajuku.

“Every five minutes we have to stop because I take pictures for inspiration!” she said.

Back at the fashion show and it’s a remixed version of Kiss’ “I Was Made for Lovin’ You” that is livening up proceedings. Versace appears briefly after her models withdraw, answering the appreciative applause with a smile and a bow.

Versace is keen to get work experience with other labels before she eventually joins the family stable. While small outfits like alldressedup are keen to have her, some of the big fashion houses “are not so keen on taking me because of my last name.”

“They think I’m a spy or whatever,” she said, head tilted and shoulders locked in a shrug.

Just a minute earlier I’d asked if she didn’t find her name burdensome. No, she had said. “I am what I am.”