A gunman ripped apart the fashion world with the murder of the designer

Just nine days before he was brutally murdered on the steps of his South Beach villa, designer Gianni Versace had been happily whipping up the sort of magical Hollywood-meets-haute couture concoction at which he, more than any other designer, excelled.

To show off his newest creations in Paris, the 50-year-old Versace had jammed the Ritz Hotel with voluptuous supermodels, sexually supercharged clothes, and a lineup of stars that made his front row far and away the most eye-popping of the French shows. Demi Moore, Leonardo DiCaprio, Kate Capshaw… they were all there to applaud his glittering new collection. It was textbook Versace, topped off by good old-fashioned partying. ”Everyone went down to the Ritz club and boogied until dawn,” says French Vogue‘s Joan Juliet Buck. ”Gianni not only made glamorous clothes for the famous to party in, he gave the parties, too.”

Which is why the July 15 shooting of the popular designer, who befriended as many stars as he dressed, has elicited such an enormous outpouring of shock and grief, particularly in the fashion and entertainment worlds. Within hours of the slaying, the doorsteps of Versace boutiques in Paris, Miami Beach, and Los Angeles were strewn with flowers. Peers such as Giorgio Armani praised his vision and exuberance. And celebrities by the legion mourned.

”We were so close that it’s like a large part of my life has died,” said Elton John, who last year performed with Jon Bon Jovi at the opening of the designer’s new Manhattan store. Princess Diana, whose Versace gowns were not among those for sale at Christie’s auction, was said to be devastated. And Lisa Marie Presley, who appeared in Versace ads, said, ”Gianni was a wonderful friend whose warmth and generosity I’ll miss terribly.”

Closer to home, Ingrid Casares, owner of the Miami club Liquid, had spoken to the designer the day before he died. ”There hasn’t been anything like this since John Lennon,” she told EW.

Versace, whose life was a heady mix of genius craftsmanship, celebrity ringmastering, and sumptuous consumption, began his final day simply. Having started a vacation with companion Antonio D’Amico, codesigner of Versace Sport, he had dropped by South Beach’s News Cafe to pick up some papers and magazines. Returning home, police say, he was shot twice by a white man in his mid-20s. They have cited Andrew Phillip Cunanan, 27, already on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted list for the deaths of four men, as a possible suspect. Cunanan moves in gay circles, though investigators said they didn’t know of a link between him and Versace.

It’s likely Versace’s estimated $900 million business empire will be taken over by his sister and muse, Donatella, 42, who took a prominent role in the company during Versace’s recent bout with cancer. What remains unclear is who will carry on Versace’s role in Hollywood.

If Armani and Calvin Klein conquered Tinseltown with restrained elegance, Versace screamed cash, trash, and flash. His celeb connection began in the mid-’80s, when his rock-inspired clothes made him a favorite of John, Sting, Prince, and George Michael. Then in the ’90s, Versace kicked into high gear, landing Madonna for his ads in what was widely considered a coup. His designs drew from eclectic elements like punk and S&M and became such showstoppers that one black dress, barely held together with safety pins, is credited with putting then little-known Elizabeth Hurley on the map in 1994. ”He was never for the skinny, androgynous trend,” says Sam Shahid, art director for many of the ad campaigns. ”The women were beautiful, sexy, and hot; the guys were the same.”