In 1978, Gianni Versace had a vision for a new fashion line and opened his first boutique in Milan. By 1997, he had 130 high-end boutiques around the world — and was a global fashion titan worth $807 million.
Known for his colorfully vibrant designs, he transcended the fashion world with his strategic tactic of winning over A-list supporters and putting them in the forefront of his brand, like working with supermodels and having celebrities like Madonna and Elton John in the front row of his fashion shows.
Sitting on top of a high-stakes empire, which he ran with sister, Donatella, and brother, Santo, Versace needed a place where he could retreat and relax. And on a trip with Miami Beach’s South Beach in 1991, he found his haven.
“The mood is very, very easy,” he told the Miami Herald of the city in 1993, according to The New York Times. “That is special and I don't find the mood any place else in the world.”
Unfortunately, it was there, in his happy place where he didn’t have any worries in the world, that Versace was killed by a gunman on the steps of his Ocean Drive home.
On the morning of his murder, Versace took a morning stroll to his favorite newsstand
It was a morning like any other on July 15, 1997. Versace woke up in Casa Casuarina, a 10-room, three-story 1930s Mediterranean-style mansion located at 1116 Ocean Drive, a quieter part of the popular Miami Beach road.
And he was looking for a little downtime. After all, Versace just had a wildly successful showing in Paris of his Atelier Versace Fall 1997 Couture collection, with Naomi Campbell front and center. Plus the Italy-America Chamber of Commerce was about to honor him as its Citizen of the Year in November.
So he had come back to his Florida mansion to relax with his partner of 11 years, Antonio D’Amico. At around 8:30 a.m., Versace took a stroll — as he often did — to the News Cafe, located about 0.3 miles south at 800 Ocean Drive.
Simply clad in a white t-shirt, black shorts and sandals, Versace strolled down the street. It wasn’t unusual for the locals to see their world-famous neighbor out and about, enjoying their community. He often stopped by the cafe for magazines — and sometimes he’d splurge and get an orange juice.
On this particular morning, he spent about $15 on five magazines — Business Week, Entertainment Weekly, People, New Yorker and Vogue — and then headed back home, less than a 10-minute walk away.
A stranger shot Versace in broad daylight
Versace got home and started opening the gates into his oasis. He hadn’t been gone long. It was still before 9 a.m. and D’Amico was just inside, sipping coffee on the veranda near the entrance.
But before he could step inside, a stranger came out of nowhere, dressed in a grey T-shirt, black shorts and white hat, and carrying a backpack. And with a 0.40-caliber handgun, he shot two bullets into the back of the head of the global icon — in point-blank range.
Suddenly, it was as if time stood still in sunny Miami Beach.
Eyewitness Eddie Bianchi was at an in-line skating shop nearby and ran toward the direction of the shots. “We were right there watching and there's nothing you can do,” he told The New York Times. “His blood was coming out like crazy. He shook a little bit and stopped moving.”
Inside the gates, an ominous feeling immediately came over D’Amico. “I felt as if my blood had turned to ice,” he told the Observer, according to the Guardian. He and their butler jumped up. “The house had stained glass windows so we couldn’t see what had happened from inside, so we had to open the gate.”
“I saw Gianni lying on the steps, with blood around him,” D’Amico said. “At that point, everything went dark. I was pulled away, I didn’t see any more.”
His murder sent shockwaves around the globe
Versace was quickly transported to Jackson Memorial Hospital’s Ryder Trauma Center in Miami, seven miles away. But by 9:15 am, he was pronounced dead at the age of 50.
The shockwaves sent the world into a frenzy. The media descended on South Beach to cover the news of the unbelievable assassination. Onlookers crowded the entrance of the home, catching a glimpse of the four blood-stained coral steps before a county worker scrubbed them clean that afternoon. Later, the steps turned into a makeshift memorial, with flowers and cards left behind.
From the other side of the globe, other big names of the fashion world sent their condolences. “The news of Gianni Versace's death has left me in a state of shock," Giorgio Armani said, according to the Guardian. “My reaction is one of revolt against such an unnatural and violent death.”
“The shock of this tragedy devastates me,” Valentino Garavani — best known as just Valentino — said, according to CNN. “I can't believe he's not still with us.” Designer Gianfranco Ferre said, “There are no words to describe how I feel right now. What happened is absurd, unexplainable, terrible... I feel only infinite pain.”
While the fashion industry tried to make sense of the untimely death, the FBI was soon involved too. After all, this wasn’t the perpetrator’s first victim.
Versace was Andrew Cunanan’s fifth victim
Described as “gay gigolo down on his luck” by Vanity Fair, 27-year-old Andrew Cunanan was a Filipino Italian American raised in San Diego. Reportedly a high I.Q. genius who could rattle off detailed facts, thanks to a seemingly photographic memory, he lusted after the high life, often pursuing older wealthy men. With a penchant for reveling in half-truths, Cunan’s charms helped him weasel into the lifestyles of the rich, while leaving behind a trail of uncertainties.
One of the biggest questions marks left behind was whether Versace and Cunanan knew one another. Some sources claim that Cunanan met Versace in San Francisco years before the 1997 shooting, but the Versace family has been adamant that the two had never met.
But one thing’s for certain. Cunanan was on a rampage in the spring of 1997, with four murders between April 27 and May 9. The first was his supposed best friend Jeffrey Trail, 28, followed by his crush, David Madson, 33, in Minnesota. He then moved on to Chicago 75-year-old real estate businessman Lee Miglin. While some accounts claim Miglin was a client of Cunanan’s, the Miglin family says the patriarch most definitely hadn’t met his killer before that night.
Those three murders were called by criminologists as the work of a “pathological, sadistic sexual offender,” according to Vanity Fair, but his fourth victim, 45-year-old New Jerseyan William Reese, was thought to be simply killed for his red Chevrolet 1995 pickup truck.
The deadly spree had landed Cunanan a spot as one of the F.B.I.’s most wanted fugitives — not only were his killings sudden and sporadic, but they were gruesomely vicious.
Cunanan seemed to be waiting for Versace to return to Miami
While a couple of months had gone by, Cunanan had apparently been living in Miami since May 12 at Normandy Plaza, four miles away from the Versace mansion. He lived a sort of double life, dressing up and going out to enjoy the nightlife and then mostly just eating pizza. He’d also been seen buying books and pornographic magazines, according to Vanity Fair.
For the last five years, Versace spent about half his time at his Miami Beach home. And on Thursday, July 10, he returned. Two days later, Cunanan checked out of the Normandy Plaza — and on that Tuesday, he attacked.
Since he shot in such close range, eyewitnesses saw him running — and the clothes he was wearing were found by the red truck in a parking garage. Finally, on July 23, a police team honed in on a Miami area houseboat where he had been hiding out. There had been evidence he was trying to get a fake passport to leave the country. As the authorities approached, he shot himself dead.
Versace’s death left a hole in the fashion world
Without a suicide note, no explanation for why Cunanan killed Versace — or how long he targeted him — was ever revealed.
About 2,000 mourners attended Versace’s funeral at Milan’s Gothic Roman Catholic church on July 22 — among them, high-profile names he worked with, including Campbell, Armani, John and Madonna. Princess Diana, in one of the last times she was seen before her August 31 death the following month, sat next to John.
To keep his legacy going, the family focused on his fashion empire. After all, he had left Donatella a 20 percent stake and Santo a 30 percent stake and Donatella’s daughter Allegra the remaining 50 percent — though she was only 11 at the time.
Less than three months after his death, the Versace Milan fashion week show went on as it would have, on October 10, 1997. But instead of his rivals sizing up the collection, they all showed up in support. Armani, Donna Karan, Miuccia Prada and Karl Lagerfeld sat in the audience, alongside celebrities like Cher, Boy George and Demi Moore.
While the company was sold to Michael Kors for $2.1 billion in 2018, Donatella continues to oversee the brand. She’s worked to put her own stamp on the label but knows none of it would be possible without her dear brother.
“My brother was the king and my whole world had crashed around me,” she told the Guardian. “Now, I feel like the death of my brother made me strong. But for a long time it was a trauma…. I had to be strong for the company. But most of all I had to be strong for the family.”