Photo: Designer Gianni Versace at home. (Photo by David Lees/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images).
On the morning of Tuesday, July 15, 1997, Gianni Versace, the adored Italian fashion designer, was returning home after taking a walk down Ocean Drive in Miami Beach to pick up his morning papers. It was a task he usually had an assistant do, but he had been in high spirits after a week of haute couture fashion shows in Rome for the biannual Alta Moda Alta Rome.
Just as he as unlocking the wrought iron gates outside Villa Casa Casuarina, his Mediterranean Revival style mansion, a young white man approached Versace and shot him twice in the back of the head at point blank range. The killer fled the scene in a vehicle that looked like a taxi and dumped his clothes in a nearby garage.
Police arrived quickly to the scene but it was too late. Versace, just 50 years old, was dead.
Theories immediately began to fly: it was the work of the Mafia, a contract killer, or a maniac. Police would quickly learn that the last theory was true: it was the work of hustler turned spree-killer Andrew Cunanan, 27, who used the same gun to kill himself on a boat eight days later.
Cunanan’s motive for killed five people, including the vicious murder of Chicago tycoon Lee Miglin, 72, during a three-month period, was never discovered. His killing of Miglin landed him on the FBI’s most-wanted list; yet despite this status he was hiding in plain sight in Miami Beach before killing Versace.
The Assassination of Gianni Versace is the subject of the third season of American Crime Story, with the first photos by Alexei Hay released late last month in Entertainment Weekly. Starring Edgar Ramirez as Gianni Versace, Ricky Martin as Versace’s longtime partner Antonio D’Amico, Penelope Cruz as Donatella Versace, and Darren Criss as Andrew Cunanan, the new series, which will air in early spring 2018, will bring this horrific chapter of American history back to life.
Immortalized in fashion and pop culture history for bringing the vibrant colors and patterns of the Mediterranean to runways, Versace was the first top Italian designer to confirm that he was gay.
Born in 1946 in Reggio Calabria, Italy, Versace learned dressmaking from his mother, making his first dress at age 9. He began his career working with Genny, the celebrated Italian house that rose to prominence in the late 1960s with a line of pleated oblique skirts. In 1973, Genny introduced Byblos, it’s youthful line, and set Versace in charge of design. With the success of Byblos, Versace launched Complice for Genny in 1977, introducing a more experimental line to the classic house.
A year later, Versace launched his signature line. Understanding the importance of marketing, he began collaborating with photographers including Richard Avedon, Helmut Newton, and Herb Ritts, and working with top models such as Naomi Campbell, Cindy Crawford, Linda Evangelista, and Christy Turlington during the height of the supermodel era.
Whether designing for men or women, Versace made sexy chic. “You dress elegant women. You dress sophisticated women. I dress sluts,” he notoriously said.
With his head of silver hair, his deeply tanned skin, his warm sparkling eyes and his bright smile, Versace was beloved wherever he went. To wear Versace was to understand the man who wanted people to be fully alive, to take joy in the moment, and be seen from across the room.
When Versace was killed, he was riding the top of the wave, fully embraced by people from all walks of life, from Princess Diana to the Notorious B.I.G. His death was a tremendous loss, not only for fashion but for all realms of art. Who knows what he could have achieved if he were still with us.
Miss Rosen is a journalist covering art, photography, culture, and books. Her byline has appeared in L’Uomo Vogue, Vogue Online, The Undefeated, Dazed Digital, Aperture Online, and Feature Shoot. Follow her on Twitter @Miss_Rosen.