Versace's Strange Murder

South Beach, the glitzy, sensual Miami neighborhood where Gianni Versace lived and where he died so suddenly last week, has its own way of doing things.

Versace's Strange Murder

South Beach, the glitzy, sensual Miami neighborhood where Gianni Versace lived and where he died so suddenly last week, has its own way of doing things. On the steps where the famed fashion designer was shot to death, mourners created an impromptu shrine of flowers and candles and scribbled messages, as they might do anywhere. What made this different was the parade of hard-bodied models, dropping by to pay their respects but not averse to flashing a smile and striking a pose for the photographers. And in the evening, and far into the night, the bars and clubs of Ocean Drive and Collins Avenue were as packed as ever. South Beach might have lost its most celebrated citizen, and a killer with four other victims behind him might still be on the loose. But even that, it seemed, could not slow the business of looking good and partying hard.

Versace would likely have wanted it that way. Even in a business that celebrates the ephemeral, he was the ultimate man of the moment, the master fantasist who fused rock, sexuality and outright vulgarity with high fashion. "I am not interested in the past," he once said, "except as the road to the future. I am never nostalgic. I want to understand my time." Versace's ability to express his time in silk and satin, leather and lace made him one of the giants of international design - and an extremely wealthy man. His worldwide fashion empire was doing $1.1 billion worth of business a year when he died at 50 outside his oceanfront mansion from two gunshot wounds to the head. The Versace label had become bigger than the man, making his associates and disciples confident that the empire would survive the loss of its founder. That was certainly Versace's own wish. "Sooner or later, I will be off the stage," he had reflected. "I would like the name to live on."

Versace's brutal murder ended one legend, but it created another one far more sinister. Within hours of his death, police were distributing posters bearing some of the many faces of the man they described as their only suspect: 27-year-old Andrew Phillip Cunanan. Hundreds of officers combed south Florida for Cunanan, the free-spending, high-living gay gigolo from San Diego, Calif. who was already wanted in the deaths of four other men since late April. A month before Versace died, the FBI added Cunanan to its Ten Most Wanted list - but he had eluded police. Last week, he slipped away again, and those who study multiple murderers issued a blunt warning: he will strike again. The fear was greatest in heavily homosexual communities like South Beach because three of the men police believe Cunanan killed - including Versace - were gay.

Apart from their sexuality, the two men had nothing in common. When their paths crossed early last Tuesday, if the police theory is correct, it was a short and exceptionally violent meeting. Versace had been in Miami for 4 1/2 days, taking a break with his companion of the past 14 years, Antonio D'Amico, after showing his latest line in Milan. At about 8:30 a.m., he came out of his Mediterranean-style villa alone, without the guards or entourage that accompany other celebrities who have homes nearby. Versace walked three blocks south on Ocean Drive to the News Cafe, a combination bar and newsstand that is a popular hangout for South Beach's signature crowd: the tanned and toned young people who flock to the district's flourishing businesses of fashion and film-making. He paid $15.07 for five magazines and strolled home. As he mounted the steps of his house, he was shot once in the back of the head; the killer shot him again in the face as he lay on the ground.

Eddie Bianchi, owner of an in-line skate shop nearby, raced to the house when he heard the shots. He found Versace lying in a pool of blood, the magazines scattered across the steps. "He was really badly wounded in the face," Bianchi recalled. Doctors could do nothing; they pronounced Versace brain-dead at a nearby hospital. Bianchi was badly shaken by the death of a man who was both a neighbor and an international star. "I didn't see Versace as a designer," he said. "I saw Versace as an artist."

The circumstances pointed to Cunanan. Versace was killed with .40-calibre handgun - the same type of weapon used to kill another of his alleged victims, William Madson, in East Rush Lake, Minn., on May 3. In a parking garage near the murder scene, police found a red pickup truck that had belonged to William Reese, who was shot to death on May 9 in Pennsville, N.J. - also, according to police, by Cunanan. Beside the truck, they found clothes matching those that witnesses said were worn by Versace's killer, as well as a backpack containing Cunanan's passport and a cheque bearing his name. On the face of it, it seemed that Cunanan was recklessly scattering clues and daring police to catch him. "This guy is taunting the police," said criminologist Jack Levin, a noted authority on multiple murderers at Northeastern University in Boston. "He thinks he's smarter than them. But he's becoming more reckless - and more dangerous."

For Versace, the road to South Beach began in 1991, when he stopped with D'Amico in Miami on his way to Cuba. He asked a cab driver to give him a tour, adding only: "Please don't take me to any boring place. Take me where the action is, where the artists, the young people, are." The driver immediately drove to South Beach and let them off at the News Cafe. What Versace found entranced him: an island of casual hedonism separated by causeways across sparkling Biscayne Bay from the violence and ethnic tensions of Miami proper. The southern stretch of Miami Beach, known as South Beach, was already the hot new refuge for movie stars escaping Hollywood, aspiring models of both sexes hoping to be discovered, and a gay community that found a relaxed and accepting atmosphere. All fuelled the frenetic all-night party scene in clubs with names like Liquid and Glam Slam. Versace, fresh off the plane from old, grey Milan, looked - and he liked. "Magic people, magic surroundings," he said later.

By the time Versace arrived, Miami Beach was well into a revival that had started in the mid-1980s. The area had a moment of glamor in the '60s, when TV stars like Jackie Gleason celebrated it as the "fun and sun capital of the world." By the '70s, it was tattered and fading; elderly retirees from the northeast set the style with black socks and Sansabelt slacks. Drug dealers and Cuban criminal refugees came to sour the scene. The '80s saw a turnaround. Preservationists fought to restore the area's famed Art Deco hotels and apartment buildings; Miami Vice (which, coincidentally, featured some of Versace's designs) popularized its pastel image. Then, fashion editors and film-makers discovered it - and remade it once more.

Versace, by that time, was well-established as one of the kings of the fashion world. More than anyone else, he created the phenomenon of the supermodel - stars in their own right such as Claudia Schiffer, Naomi Campbell and Canadian Linda Evangelista. He unabashedly traded on the allure of celebrity to sell his wares, ensuring that international icons like Madonna and Diana, Princess of Wales, were draped in Versace and in the front row when he showed his new lines. "He was one of the first to marry the idea of fashion and celebrity," said Bonnie Fuller, the Toronto-born editor of Cosmopolitan magazine. "He really understood how celebrities sell fashion - how they make other women lust for it."

With such success came vast amounts of money. Versace already had grand homes in Milan and on Lake Como in northern Italy. But he wanted a piece of South Beach, and he found it on Ocean Drive in a mansion called Casa Casuarina that had been turned into a hotel. He bought it for $4 million, a sum he airily dismissed as "not expensive at all," the price of an apartment in Milan. For good measure, he bought the building next door for $5.1 million and levelled it to make room for a terrace, swimming pool and two-storey guest house. Then he lavished millions more - estimates run as high as $48 million - on turning Casa Casuarina into a refuge for himself and his sister and business partner, Donatella, and her family.

The 13,000-square-foot building, an imitation 16th-century Venetian palazzo, was transformed in true Versace style - a riot of murals, mosaics and decadent touches. The ceiling of one salon is patterned after a leopard-skin Versace scarf. On the walls of the dining-room are Byzantine mosaics of pebbles. The walls are hung with Picassos, Modiglianis and old masters. Toronto artist Charles Pachter, a part-time resident of South Beach, says Versace's "homo-rococo" mansion "became like a centrepiece of the new Miami Beach. It stood out because it was the work of a supreme narcissist. It had nothing to do with the surrounding Art Deco architecture. It was Versace's grande folie." From the rooftop observatory, Versace could look out over the gay beach across Ocean Drive, a three-block display of oiled and muscled flesh. "There are a lot of hustlers and a lot of pretty boys there," says Pachter, who began to paint the scene soon after he arrived in 1993.

Over the years, the guest list at Casa Casuarina has been similarly exotic: rock stars befriended by Versace, such as Sting and Elton John, and celebrities who spend part of the year in South Beach, including Madonna, Gloria Estefan and Sylvester Stallone. Unlike other superstars, though, Versace did not hide away behind gates and walls. His mansion is the only private home on Ocean Drive, and the designer often strolled the streets and beaches alone. His style may have been ostentatious and he may have chosen raucous South Beach as his American base, but Versace led a remarkably decorous home life. "I am not a rock star," he once said. "I am a quiet person - simple, natural." He and D'Amico preferred to spend most evenings at home, or ventured out to sit quietly in a café. Versace seemed to have found his place. "I am at peace with myself," he told another interviewer.

Across the continent, however, Andrew Cunanan's life was rapidly heading towards crisis. He grew up in a middle-class neighborhood of San Diego, the youngest of four children of Modesto and MaryAnn Cunanan. He attended a prestigious private school, the Bishop's School, in the swank suburb of La Jolla. He was openly gay and once took an older man as his date to a school dance. His classmates prophetically voted him "Least likely to be forgotten" when he graduated in 1987.

The next year, his father, a U.S. navy veteran turned stockbroker, was accused of embezzlement and fled to his native Philippines. Cunanan dropped out of university and moved to San Francisco, where he frequented the clubs and bars of the gay Castro district. Acquaintances recalled him last week as boastful and brash. At times, he said he came from a wealthy Filipino family; at other times, he spoke of working on movie deals in Hollywood or travelling to Europe. Sometimes he changed his name, calling himself Andrew DaSilva. By any name, he had plenty of money - and plenty of hangers-on willing to accept the drinks and meals he freely paid for.

According to police, though, Cunanan's only legitimate job was a brief stint as a drugstore clerk. The source of his ample billfold lay in another, more secret life. His mother described him to the Chicago Sun-Times as "a high-class homosexual prostitute." That description, though, may be misleading. What Cunanan did do with apparent success was frequent private parties among San Diego's gay elite to seek out wealthy, older men who were not public about their sexual orientation. He was young and stylish, but also sophisticated and well-read - and had little problem attaching himself to men with large chequebooks and a need for discreet companionship. Nicole Ramirez Murray, columnist for the Gay and Lesbian Times in San Diego, knew Cunanan at the time and says the hooker label is wrong. "Prostitutes go from john to john," Murray said last week. "He was more of an 'American Gigolo.' "

Cunanan's relationships lasted for months, sometimes as long as a year. Murray said his last liaison ended early this year - and with it, his source of income. Acquaintances said Cunanan changed around that time. He moved tens of thousands of dollars in and out of his bank accounts. He began to put on weight and stopped grooming himself as carefully as before. "He was letting himself go," said Murray. "Maybe he was realizing it was the end of the road for his lifestyle, so what was next?"

On April 24, Cunanan threw a farewell dinner for himself at a San Diego restaurant called California Cuisine. He told friends he was moving to San Francisco, but first planned a side trip to the Midwest to take care of some business. In fact, he flew to Minneapolis and, according to police, went to see 27-year-old David Trail, a former lover. On April 29, Trail's body was found wrapped in a rug in the apartment of Madson, a 33-year-old architect who had also been one of Cunanan's lovers. Trail had been bludgeoned to death with a hammer. Four days later, on May 3, Madson's body was found washed up on the shore of East Rush Lake, an hour north of Minneapolis. He had been shot in the head with a .40-calibre pistol. The three men, police say, had been seen dining together shortly before Trail's death.

Cunanan allegedly stole Trail's Jeep Cherokee and drove it to Chicago. There, on May 4, again according to police, he claimed his third victim: 72-year-old real estate developer Lee Miglin. Miglin's body was found in his garage; his throat had been cut with the blade of a pruning saw, and his head was wrapped like a mummy's in masking tape with only a hole for the nose. Police have found no definite link between Cunanan and Miglin; one newspaper reported that Cunanan was a friend of Miglin's son, an actor, but the family denies that. Cunanan traded Trail's Jeep for Miglin's Lexus, and drove to Pennsville, N.J., where police say he killed Reese, a 45-year-old cemetery caretaker. The only apparent motive in that murder: Cunanan wanted to replace the stolen Lexus with Reese's red Chevrolet pickup. From there, he headed south - to Miami and his alleged rendezvous with Gianni Versace.

The links, according to police, are clear. What is missing is an obvious motive for Cunanan's cross-country killing spree. Psychologists and criminologists offered their long-distance speculation. Inevitably, given his sexual orientation, some suggested that Cunanan might have discovered he had contracted AIDS. Others said he might have been dumped by a lover - and be out to revenge himself against wealthy gay men of the kind who had supported him. "My guess is he has experienced a catastrophic loss," said Levin, the Northeastern University criminologist, "and he's aiming his vengeance at the gay community."

Also missing was any clear link between Cunanan and Versace. Maureen Orth, a writer for Vanity Fair magazine, had been researching an article on Cunanan for six weeks. Orth quoted a friend of Cunanan who says he witnessed an encounter between the two men backstage at the San Francisco Opera. By that account, Versace recognized Cunanan and exclaimed: "I remember you. Lago di Como, no? (Lake Como, right?)" Versace's family flatly denied that story - leaving open perhaps the biggest question of all: why did Cunanan target the designer?

Versace left behind a billion-dollar global business empire that, by most accounts, is flourishing. There are 130 Versace shops around the world - including outlets in Vancouver, Montreal and Toronto (top-priced dress last week: $11,600) - as well as a chain of 50 stores selling the less expensive Versus line (up to $900). Versace SpA, which also sells linen, perfume and other accessories bearing the Versace label, is an entirely private affair. Gianni owned 45 per cent. His brother, Santo, 52, is CEO and owns 35 per cent. The other 20 per cent is owned by Donatella Versace, the designer's 42-year-old sister and closest working partner. While he was relatively quiet, she lives up to the Versace image of partying through the night, and in recent years has taken on a more important role in the company.

When Gianni fell ill in 1993 with a rare form of inner-ear cancer, she took the lead. Her brother successfully fought the disease, but both have acknowledged that there was a rivalry between them as she launched the Versus brand and her own fragrance, Blonde. Still, their relationship was close, and intense. Casa Casuarina contained a large apartment for Donatella, her husband Paul Beck, and their two children. Beck began as a model for Versace in Milan, and there were persistent rumors that before he was Donatella's husband, he was Gianni's lover. In a recent issue of Vanity Fair, Beck tackled that head-on for the first time. "I would say, if anybody, Gianni's my best friend," he said. "But it's never been more than that."

The company has had its share of recent controversy. The Versaces successfully sued a British newspaper, The Independent on Sunday, over a 1994 article that linked their empire to Mafia money-laundering; the newspaper apologized and paid damages. Santo Versace was caught up in Italy's recent corruption trials. He, along with several other fashion executives, was accused of paying bribes to avoid taxes. In May, he received a suspended sentence of 14 months in jail. But the company continues to grow: pretax profits in 1996 were up 10 per cent, at $135 million, and Gianni had been planning to take the company public next year. That will likely be delayed, but analysts agree that as long as Donatella and Santo maintain control, Gianni's wish that the Versace name live on should be fulfilled. "Personally, I would invest in them," said Emanuele Pedrotti, a Milan-based consultant to the fashion industry. "They are growing rapidly and are highly profitable." Other design houses - such as Chanel and Gucci - have survived the deaths of their founders, the name proving magnetic enough to ensure continued sales.

In the end, though, last week saw the death of a man, not a label. And amid the predictable professions of shock from celebrities - or more usually, their spokesmen - others offered more personal testimonials. Julia Enfield, fashion editor of the Eyetalian, a Toronto-based arts and culture magazine, worked closely with Versace in Milan for two years in the early 1980s as an in-house model. When she was about to marry in 1983, she recalled last week, Versace told her to pick any dress from his collection that she wanted. "He was very expressive with his face because he had these beautiful dark eyes and a wonderful smile," she said. "His eyes just lit up when I told him I was getting married. He said, 'Just go to my showroom and choose something you like.' I thought that was so sweet and generous." It was, Enfield thought, indicative of the gentle man behind the glitzy fashion machine.

Chic, Elite and Naughty

It is a sad irony that Gianni Versace was gunned down in front of his house on Ocean Drive, the main drag of Miami's South Beach that has become a mecca for the hangers-on, bit players and stars of the fashion world. The campy Art Deco strip is a spirited mix of flash and cash, history and hedonism, and between its extremes of the chic and the vulgar, there is no better environment for Versace's designs.

After starting his own label in 1978, Versace grabbed the limelight with his now-legendary chain-mail dress. It gave clear signals to the direction his work would take - the technical proficiency, the innovative use of unusual fabrications and the deification of the female form. But his work was most clearly defined by an in-your-face celebration of sexual fantasy: leather bondage straps from which elegant evening gowns hung, naughty-punk schoolgirls safety-pinned into kilts and candy-colored baby-doll dresses, all with the requisite high heels.

For this he was lionized and criticized. As the man who helped spawn the supermodel phenomenon of the early '90s after he sent a chorus line of glamazons down the runway arm in arm, Versace ushered in an era of unbridled glitz. That created a backlash from which fashion is still reeling. He didn't even pretend to dress the working woman unless she was in the business of becoming Mrs. Sylvester Stallone or nabbing a cosmetics contract. He upped the ante for glamor, sexiness and physical perfection to almost burlesque proportions, which was great for the paparazzi but a standard real women found difficult to meet.

But this excess, plus his love of gold hardware and Greco-roman motifs - he emblazoned his trademark Medusa heads on everything from sunglasses to jeans to plates - was right for a moment when too much was never enough. While Giorgio Armani retreated behind a discreet wall of good taste and Karl Lagerfeld distanced himself with his hand-held fans and intellectualism, Versace was the most populist of the three European superpowers. The one thing that the much-maligned 1995 film Showgirls got right was the fact that a Versace dress was the pot of gold at the end of stripper Nomi's rainbow. The appeal of his sensibility was elitist pricing and quality combined with a taste level egalitarian enough to filter down. And while "Armani dressed the wife and Versace dressed the mistress," as Holt Renfrew's Ian Hylton puts it, in his later collections the designer moved with the times beyond his rock 'em, shock 'em leanings to a more genteel take on femininity that a client like Diana, the Princess of Wales, could buy into.

Versace provided much of the footage that turned fashion into the global spectator sport it is today. His shows were not so much runway presentations as scenes, whose heat was generated by famous bodies in close proximity. Only he could have orchestrated an event where some of the best breasts in showbiz - Mira Sorvino, Elizabeth Hurley and Salma Hayek - were positioned front-row wearing various permutations of the same red gown constructed with his signature support. Elton John, Madonna, Jon Bon Jovi and The Artist (formerly known as Prince) were just some of the glittering friendships that Versace savvily cultivated into marketing bonanzas.

Celebrity, including his own, was the currency that fuelled Versace's billion-dollar empire. He captivated the public imagination with his palatial homes and opulent lifestyle, for which he made no excuses. And this was what his esthetic was about. One knew that disgraced Olympic sprinter Ben Johnson was over his mea culpa phase when he was spotted in a trendy Toronto bar playing pool in a distinctly patterned shirt that could only be a Versace.

It is another sad irony that Versace's most recent fragrance was christened The Dreamer and that the allure of the American Dream fuelled his ambitions. The fresh energy of the new world, so like that of his best runway shows, propelled his creativity and drew him to South Beach. While the Versace family has lost a loving brother and uncle and the world has lost a great talent, the world of fashion - which, unlike rock, had never suffered the violent death of an icon - has now fully lost its innocence. The show's over, at least for this season.

Maclean's July 28, 1997