If anyone knew how to stage a spectacle, it was Gianni Versace. The fashion designer could dress a concert-bound Elton John, the cast of ”Miami Vice,” and ballerinas with equal ease. His empire produced everything from haute couture to housewares. Celebrities like Princess Diana, Sting, and Sean ”Puffy” Combs flocked to his runway shows. But in the early morning hours of July 15, 1997, far from the media circus, Versace couldn’t have imagined that he would be making headlines of a different kind. Returning to his Ocean Drive palazzo after his daily stroll to the nearby News Cafe, he was approached by a man in his mid-20s. Seconds later, the 50-year-old ”King of Frock & Roll” lay bleeding to death from two gunshot wounds to the head. The style titan who put Miami’s decaying South Beach back on the map had come a long way from his Italian hometown of Reggio di Calabria.
Born the son of an appliance salesman and a seamstress, he was sketching evening gowns by the fifth grade. Since launching his first collection in 1978, he cultivated his own distinctive mix of royal opulence and streetwalker sexuality. In private, he was a homebody who cherished the company of family, friends, and his longtime companion, Antonio D’Amico, at his Milan, Manhattan, and Miami residences. ”He was a truly life-enhancing person, and an exceptionally generous host,” remembers Hamish Bowles, Vogue’s European editor-at-large. ”Although he lived with great flamboyance, he was never, ever, in an ivory tower. He didn’t believe in uptight good taste, but instead in exuberant self-expression.”
By the time Versace’s ashes were laid to rest, the FBI was in hot pursuit of its chief suspect, Andrew Cunanan, 27, already on its Ten Most Wanted list for the brutal slayings of four other men. Voted ”most likely to be remembered” by high school classmates, the openly gay San Diego native had a penchant for pricey cars, multiple identities, drugs, sadomasochistic porn, and wealthy older lovers. On July 23, the fugitive found himself trapped in an abandoned houseboat under police siege. Cunanan’s solution was simple: suicide. To this day, Cunanan’s motives remain a mystery, with rumors of previous links to Versace never proven.
Under the creative aegis of sister Donatella, the house that Gianni built retains its power to seduce and shock (remember Jennifer Lopez’s navel-gazing dress at last year’s Grammys?). The designer had, in fact, begun to lay the groundwork for just such a transfer of power in the mid-’90s, when he battled (and beat) a form of ear cancer. ”I’d like to live forever,” he told The New Yorker. ”If there’s anything I’m afraid of, it’s missing what will happen tomorrow.” Sadly, his fears came true.