"This is a new Versus. it's for you guys…" said Donatella repeatedly on the Google+ Hangout to celebrate the launch of #newversus and J.W. Anderson's collaboration with Versus, where I a) lost my Hangout virginity and b) got lost in fascination of New York's rabbit warren Google offices. The "you guys" she was referring to was a mix of us bloggers on the Hangout, the smartphone wielding-generation who want instant gratification whether it's through an Instagram like or being able to shop for collections online, and a cross-discipline crowd, not restricted to hardcore fashion-heads. And I was lucky enough to be along for the ride in New York to witness how Versus would wade into this new territory of "you guys".
When brands say they're "doing digital", it often feels like they're merely ticking a box so that they fulfil expectations. Versace threw everything into this Versus launch with gusto. In the run-up, they had been avidly uploading sneak peeks, design inspiration, archive Versus imagery on their Instagram, Twitter and Facebook accounts. The newly designed Versus site was counting down the days to the launch to build momentum. Then there was the more official partnership with Google+ to enable Donatella to "Hangout" with bloggers and indadvertedly seduced me with the whole Hangout thing (brain is a-ticking as to how I can "hangout" more). The hangout wasn't exactly hitch-free but it's the imperfect and slightly haphazard nature of a Google Hangout, that makes it appealing when a glossy and normally intangible figure like Donatella is involved. There's a recklessness in this new strategy that taps into Donatella's own initial experiences of designing Versus back in the nineties. "I feel the same rebellious energy that i felt back then," she said after the Hangout. "It's different because I can talk to the audience - to learn from other people. It's great to have that dialogue." A reported 1.1 million eyeballs saw the Hangout where Donatella also enthusiastically let slip that Lady Gaga would be involved in the making of the music of the show. This then introduced me to the army of "Little Monsters" contingency on Twitter, where I was temporarily mired in an ongoing spiral of trying to inform them of Gaga-goings-on with regards to the show.
Speaking of which, I'm all about the no holds-barred thing so cue HASHTAG AWKWARD conversation. On the day I landed into New York, I was ushered into the New York Versace showroom, ready to interview Donatella and J.W. Anderson and lo and behold, Lady Gaga in Versace finery was there just errr… hanging out and just as she was leaving...
...important PR honcho asks me "Have you guys met?" I say… "Oh no, I don't believe we've met!" in a faux-posh hoity-toity manner. Have no idea what possessed me to say that. Gaga says "No I don't think so either…." Tinkles of embarrassed laughter. She saves the day by saying "I like your shoes. They're furry!" Finally I can get out of my flustered state and say something useful. "Oh, thanks! They're actually Jonathan's!" looking down at my bearded J.W. Anderson shoes from his first season of doing womenswear. Ground. Swallow. Please. I have the convo recorded on my dictophone for the time machine that I'll be burying in the garden.
Once we finally got the interview started though, what was striking was the working relationship and mutual appreciation between Donatella and Jonathan. "There were things I didn't understand the first time I saw his work," said Donatella. "I was so intrigued - 'Why don't I understand this right away?' When there's a fixation like that, there must be something right about it." It's not quite chalk and cheese but certainly, Jonathan's own directional collections, which pushes the eye towards something that's gone askew, doesn't necesarily always sit perfectly with the va-va-glamour of what Donatella does at Versace.
But it's in the archives of Versus where Jonathan, really extracted the original spirit of Versus from the nineties and made it relevant AGAIN for today. One look at J.W. Anderson's Instagram and you knew he has been digging deep into the Versus archives to rekindle a spirit, where the Versus guys and girls looked like they were having a laugh, not giving a fuck and just looked like they were incidentally wearing Versus with a happy-go-lucky irreverence. The resulting clothes and campaign imagery were energetic and there was always something a bit "messy" or "off" about them - something Jonathan knows a thing or two about from his own collections. And so Jonathan has revived that boy/girl gender dynamic of Versus, with his own taken on unisex wear - a category of clothing that can often go horribly wrong. Here, guys and girls can both take on the Versus patent trouser or a knitted crop top with gold buttons at the shoulders. They can both take on the satchel bags adorned with oversized safety pins (which traversed around on a pedicab type bike at the event). Boys were crowned with tilted tiaras - they can be princesses or princes - whichever they prefer. You can crow "But what boy would wear that…?" all you like, but to dare to put the clothes out there first and then see who takes the bait is far more interesting than holding back from what was clearly instinctive to a designer like Jonathan.
What was surprising was how the Versus language somehow fused with Jonathan's own aesthetic so seamlessly. You saw touches of the asymmetry in the passage of hot coloured knits in his own namesake collection, but the way they were cut on the body looked sexier and well… more in keeping with Versus style. The cut-out black dresses that slinked their way around the body with drop down straps showed enough flesh but rejected a super tight body-con fit. An oversized blazer with a band of vinyl across the middle was signature Jonathan but that gold button gives it the Versace stamp of approval. The energy was Versus through and through and the vibes of those archive campaigns came to life again in the collection. A Versus core collection designed by an in-house team and launched concurrently at the the event, also reflect something of Versus' iconography. Overrun with gold chain and medallion prints, giant safety pins and op-art madness, this will be the more accessible offering in Versus' arsenal.
The way the New York launch event was conceived also tied in with the direct language of the collection. "In today's world, we move so fast and get bored," said Jonathan. "This is a 'happening'. The looks are done in the same way. There's no holding back. It's to the point. It's to get to the DNA of what Versus codes are. It's important that we say "This is it!" And so over 1,000 people were invited to a transformed Lexington Armoury, gaffered up with Versus tape and stacked with TV screens to transmit a trio of live performances by Angel Haze, Dead Sara and Grimes, interspersed with the showing of J.W. Anderson x Versus split in three parts. The new core Versus collection was worn by the performance artists to compliment the main show. That idea of revealing all to the internet-world-at-large was reflected in the show setup as inside a giant glass box in the middle, we saw Donatella and Jonathan prepping the models in a backstage mise-en-scene, before they were sent out on to the catwalks at either side of the box. A reflection on our goldfish bowl society perhaps. The event didn't play by the standard fash-un guestlist rules either, as Donatella specifically requested a more varied crowd, consisting of people from the art and music worlds and club kids in New York. It was a mixed up motley crew that would actually give it their all on the vast dance floor as opposed to standing meekly on the sides with a glass of champers.
The journey doesn't stop at the launch party as the point of this out-of-season presentation style of Versus is to launch collections as an event concurrently with e-commerce. The website design is really quite enticing and it definitely sends Versus up the solo-brand e-commerce site top of the charts for me. Currently, the core collection heavy with chain and belt bling prints, black and white op-art and yes, that ever pervasive safety pin is available to buy with prices lower than what Versus has been in the past. J.W. Anderson's collection will apparently be launching in 3 days or so with price points TBC.
Whilst J.W. Anderson's collection was initially reported to be a one-off, it seems like the rapport between Donatella and Jonathan is so good that ongoing collaboration could be imminent. Donatella doesn't seem to want to put a time stamp on it either. "I'm going to do what I feel is right. At this moment, it feels so right." It's this emphasis on what's going on "right now" that has Versus on course for a full-on reboot.