Shots Across Ocean Drive
On the 20th anniversary of Gianni Versace’s murder on the steps of his South Beach mansion, we look back at Miami Beach’s renaissance.
On a hot, cloudless morning in the middle of July 1997, a world-famous fashion designer walked out of his residence on a routine errand of pleasure. He strolled three blocks south to purchase a handful of European publications at a café and newsstand, greeting strangers and admirers along the way. As he returned to his home, a stranger lifted a .40 caliber handgun and fired two shots into his head. He collapsed and died on the front steps of his house.
The news immediately reverberated as a shock wave around the world: Gianni Versace, 50, had been murdered outside his Mediterranean Revival palazzo on Ocean Drive, in the heart of South Beach, the hedonistic playground of the globe’s elite.
It was a finish worthy of the operas performed in La Scala—the legendary theater in Milan that’s a five-minute walk from the Versace fashion headquarters. And the plot, as it turned out, was just as fantastical.
Versace’s presence in Miami almost didn’t happen. He had visited in the late 80s and found it “tacky,” according to South Beach pioneer Louis Canales. His opinion changed on December 27, 1991, when the designer and his entourage stopped in Miami after a visit to Cuba to help relaunch the brand’s boutique in Bal Harbour. “It blew his mind,” Canales says. “Tout le monde in the fashion world from New York and Europe was present for the opening. In the holiday season, everybody would come to Miami. It was one of the worst-kept secrets of those in the know.”
Glenn Albin, editor in chief of Ocean Drive magazine from 1995 to 2008 explained that before Americans discovered South Beach, the international fashion crowd had already identified it as their newest Riviera. “First the Germans began shooting their catalogs here. That brought in the models, who were soon being cast alongside the locals.”
Fashion professionals had fallen in love with the city’s light and unique art deco landscape, then in a state of crumbling disrepair. The inexpensive rates combined with a sexy stew of cultures, an astonishingly good-looking population, and a free-living, free-loving lifestyle to create a magical moment under the sweltering subtropical sun.
“Ocean Drive was ‘Bruce Weber Boulevard,’” says Canales. “Within one square mile there were over 2,000 models of both sexes, all working and going out. These perfect specimens of humanity—all the men shirtless, all the women in bandeau tops and biking pants—going from go-see to go-see.”
Tara Solomon, the Miami Herald’s former “Queen of the Night” columnist and founder of the publicity firm Tara Ink reminisced about the early 1990s, “…when Gianni arrived in South Beach, the area was in the midst of redefining itself as a new global haute spot of glamour.” Designers such as Jean-Paul Gaultier, Claude Montana, and Thierry Mugler routinely mixed with supermodels Claudia Schiffer and Naomi Campbell and photographers Albert Watson and Herb Ritts on winter visits, though none set up occupancy. “Gianni’s decision to build a residence in Miami Beach was the ultimate stamp of credibility.”
The burgeoning LGBT scene was another attraction for Versace, says Albin. “There was a Cuban saying in those days—‘What the American hamburger has done for the Cuban boy.’ The local crowd did not go unnoticed by Versace, nor by the ensuing migration of tourists and new residents.”
In characteristic high style, Versace purchased the Amsterdam Palace, an apartment house on Ocean Drive between 11th and 12th streets, as well as the art deco Revere hotel to its south. The Amsterdam Palace, though by then decrepit, was built in 1930 as Casa Casuarina, a grand private villa in the Mediterranean Revival style, complete with an interior courtyard. (The name, which the designer re-adopted, came from a collection of stories by Somerset Maugham, The Casuarina Tree.) Versace spent millions restoring the house to its original splendor, and by knocking down the neighboring hotel (to the outcry of preservationists at the time), added a copious south wing and pool deck covered in thousands of inlaid mosaics. This opulent setting became the site of innumerable celebrity-saturated romps as well as the locus for his new Miami-inspired work.
Solomon says, “Gianni’s influence could be felt in every aspect of Miami Beach, from his boutiques and ad campaigns to the A-list private parties regularly held at Casa Casuarina, attended by the likes of Madonna, Jennifer Lopez, fashion writer Hal Rubenstein and, always, the most gorgeous male models.”
South Beach figured prominently in Versace’s designs and campaigns at the time, often using iconic locations and models plucked from the streets. In addition to his lavish coffee table book South Beach Stories, the designer devoted his Spring/Summer 1993 collection to all things Miami. “When Gianni came out with his Miami collection—full of South Beach imagery, from Cadillacs to palm trees—the fashion world rediscovered Miami,” says Solomon. “I remember all the muscle-clad club boys of the day wearing the $1,300 silk Versace Miami collection shirts, scissored off at the shoulder—to best show off their bulging biceps, of course.”
On a broader scale, the time was exactly right for such indulgence with Miami fashion’s new fascination. “At a moment when the world craved excess, there was Versace, offering up an abundance of Italian patterns in a dizzying mix that felt luxurious in and of itself,” says fashion expert and writer Laurie Brookins, whose work has appeared in the Hollywood Reporter, Ocean Drive, Town & Country and Robb Report, among many others. “From the moment he arrived, Gianni Versace embraced the glamour, the colors and sunlight of Miami. We referred to him as our Sun King, and much in the same way that Louis XIV had an impact on Versailles and European design at large, Versace was the modern-day iteration of that ideal. He was the epitome of luxury in the 90s, and Miami’s influence on him—on how he took the baroque imagery and infused it with color and sunlight—cannot be overstated.”Canales says, “Versace’s presence in South Beach validated what was already happening. The whole town was A-list and celebrities felt free to be themselves without the paparazzi stalking them. But when the national media started covering it, the floodgates opened for every single con man and parasite. I remember sitting at News Café and being amazed hearing hustlers hustle other hustlers.”
By the mid 90s, Casa Casuarina and Versace’s life there—once a fairly private getaway—had been breathlessly publicized throughout the world. One person keenly aware of all that went on in the world of fame and fashion was a 20-something grifter in San Diego. Born into a middle-class California family, Andrew Cunanan developed an early penchant for telling bold falsehoods to those he wished to impress. These tales of grandeur—bolstered by a keen intelligence, a glib tongue, and hours spent devouring the pages of fashion and society publications—gave him entrée in San Francisco’s gay community, where he moved to work as a prostitute and sometime drug dealer while currying favor with those he admired for their financial and social prominence. He first met Versace there in 1990 when the designer came to town to create the costumes for the San Francisco Opera.
Cunanan began to fall apart in the spring of 1997. After spending several years with a sugar daddy back in San Diego, he took off to visit two former friends in Minneapolis. By the end of his time there both were dead, killed in a gruesome fashion by a man who seemed to have lost touch with reality. In May, he motored in a stolen vehicle down to Chicago, where he tortured and murdered 72-year-old businessman Lee Miglin, a pillar of the city’s real estate community. There was speculation that they may have known each other in some way—there was no sign of forced entry into Miglin’s Gold Coast home, where the crime occurred.
Soon Miglin’s Lexus was found abandoned in New Jersey at the site of a Civil War cemetery; missing was the red Chevy truck of the caretaker, who was found shot to death. From there, Cunanan drove to Miami. He spent two months in town, living at a squalid hotel on Collins Avenue in North Beach, pawning items around the corner, and visiting bars and clubs in bustling South Beach, one a mere two blocks from Versace’s home.
On July 14, 1997, Gianni Versace went with friends to see the film Contact at a cinema in Bay Harbor. The next morning, he walked to the News Café, and upon returning home was shot by Cunanan on the front steps of Casa Casuarina.
The news spread quickly. “It was horrid, completely devastating,” Solomon says. “I immediately heard from my editors at the Miami Herald, asking me to go to the office and file a story. How I got through it, I don’t even know. I was almost numb. There was a lull over South Beach for weeks, as if we were all in a mutual state of shock.”
Compounding the grief and horror was anxiety over the killer’s motive and whereabouts. He had escaped on foot, leaving the red truck in a nearby garage due to police presence. The international media descended on South Beach, filing live reports from the beach across from Versace’s house.
Eight days later, Cunanan was discovered by a caretaker on the houseboat of an absent owner on Indian Creek in Mid Beach. He had apparently killed himself with a gun he had used on his victims. The motive was ascribed to his fascination with Versace as an international celebrity and a bizarre dream of global notoriety.
Twenty years later, Cunanan has receded into the mist of history, remembered only for his vile deeds. But the legacy of his most famous victim remains bright. Though his sister, Donatella, took over their fashion empire and continues to steer it with success, the overarching vision of Gianni Versace continues to guide the house.
“His designs often reveled in the ideas of too much color, too much pattern, too much in general. This was the ideal in the 1990s of fashion. But the romanticism at the height of the Versace-in-Miami era is a moment we can continue to appreciate,” Brookins says. “He taught us that it’s okay to appreciate an abundance of ideas, as though a massive bouquet of flowers was placed in your hands. You accept this huge bouquet while drinking in a profusion of colors and scents—yet it’s all beautiful, and it all works together perfectly. That’s the legacy of Gianni Versace.”
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