In 1992, Gianni Versace, the eclectic Italian fashion designer, purchased Casa Casuarina in South Beach, Miami, for $2.9 million. Constructed in 1930 and modelled after a residence built in Santo Domingo in 1510 by the son of Christopher Columbus, restoration of the house became Versace’s obsession. Five years later, on July 15, 1997, he was murdered on the front steps of the house he had so lovingly restored.
Born in Reggio Calabria on December 2, 1946, Versace learned the world of fashion through his mother, a dressmaker. He worked with her until, at 25, he moved to Milan, where he designed briefly for the Genny, Complice and Callaghan labels. Having found financial backing, in March 1978 he presented his first women’s collection at the Palazzo della Permanente in Milan. Later the same year, he opened his first boutique in Milan and presented his first men’s collection. In 1979, he entrusted his label’s image to American photographer Richard Avedon, the first in a series of famous photographers he used for his cutting-edge advertising campaigns. In 1982, he won the prestigious Occhio d’Oro as the best stylist for the 1982/83 autumn/winter women’s collection, which featured, for the first time, the metallic garments that became his trademark.
Versace’s sexy, audacious, colourful and brazen style was an instant success with the jet set, Hollywood celebrities and rock stars. To showcase his designs, he used models like Naomi Campbell, Claudia Schiffer and Kate Moss, in the process helping to create the phenomenon of the top model. Versace was inspired not only by Andy Warhol and modern abstract art but also by ancient Greek and Roman art. In fact, the Versace logo represents the head of Medusa, the creature of Greek mythology whose glorious hair was turned into snakes because she had offended the gods.
Throughout his career, he would achieve recognition and win many awards for his work. These included Commendatore della Repubblica Italiana (1986), the French Grande Medaille de Vermeil de la Ville de Paris (1986) the American Oscar for Fashion (1993).
Versace also used his immense talent for theatre and film, opera and ballet, designing costumes for, among others, La Scala’s production of Donizetti’s Don Pasquale in 1984, the film Judge Dredd, starring Sylvester Stallone and the TV series Miami Vice. For his contribution to the theatre, in 1987 he was presented the prestigious Maschera D’Argento.
The morning of his murder, Versace was returning home after buying the paper and enjoying a cappuccino along Ocean Drive. His killer, Andrew Cunanan, a 27-year old high-priced male prostitute whom Versace is believed to have once met socially, had murdered four other men in a cross-country killing spree. Nine days after one of the most extensive manhunts in American history, Cunanan was found dead on a houseboat not far from Versace’s home: he had killed himself with the same gun he had used to slay Versace.
By the time of his death, the Versace group had become an international empire which produced accessories, perfumes, makeup and home furnishings as well as clothes. To fill the void left by his murder, Santo Versace, his brother, and Jorge Saud were named the company’s new CEOs while his sister and muse, Donatella, stepped in as the new head of design. In his will, Gianni Versace left 50 percent of a business worth over 700 hundred million dollars to ‘his little princess,’ Allegra Versace, Donatella’s daughter, which she inherited on her 18th birthday in 2004. He also left his companion of 15 years, Antonio D’Amico, at that time a designer with the company, a lifelong, monthly bequest equivalent to $26,000 plus the right to live in any of his many houses in Italy and America.
After Versace’s body was cremated, his ashes were returned to the family’s estate near Lake Como. On July 24, 1997, a memorial service was held for him at the Cathedral in Milan. The long list of mourners included Princess Diana, Elton John, Sting, Carolyn Bessette Kennedy and Luciano Pavorotti.
On July 15, 2007, to mark the 10th anniversary of his death, a glittering, new ballet entitled Grazie Gianni con Amore (Thank you, Gianni, with love), written by the 80-year-old Belgian choreographer Maurice Bejart, for whom Versace had often designed costumes, was staged at La Scala. Its title sumed up an emotion shared by many.