Murder of Gianni Versace Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

When designer Gianni Versace was murdered in front of his Miami Beach mansion, many in the general public as well as celebrities and those in the fashion world reacted emotionally to the senseless crime.

Summary of Event

Gianni Versace had reached the pinnacle of success as a couturier and lived a life that bordered on the fantastic. In contrast, Andrew Cunanan survived by deceit in a pathetic world of fantasy that he had invented. These opposite forces collided on July 15, 1997, when Cunanan shot Versace twice in the back of the head and left him to die on the steps of his palatial home Casa Casuarina in Miami, Florida. The killer escaped, setting off a massive manhunt, then committed suicide when cornered on July 23. Whether the two men had ever met before that violent morning remained a mystery. Some said they knew each other, but Versace’s friends and family denied it. Murders;Gianni Versace[Versace] Fashion designers;Gianni Versace[Versace] [kw]Murder of Gianni Versace (July 15, 1997) [kw]Versace, Murder of Gianni (July 15, 1997) Murders;Gianni Versace[Versace] Fashion designers;Gianni Versace[Versace] [g]North America;July 15, 1997: Murder of Gianni Versace[09770] [g]United States;July 15, 1997: Murder of Gianni Versace[09770] [c]Crime and scandal;July 15, 1997: Murder of Gianni Versace[09770] Versace, Gianni Cunanan, Andrew

When the news of Versace’s death flashed around the world, it was as though a king or a president, someone with great power and influence over the fate of millions, had been assassinated. In fact, the press employed such metaphors: One Italian newspaper called Versace a “prince,” and other reports referred to him as “king of couture,” “emperor of dreams,” and “fashion czar.” The events received widespread television coverage, with cameras repeatedly focusing on the bloodstained steps of what grim-faced reporters called a “palazzo,” where mourners gathered to pay respects and to leave flowers. One admirer dipped a Versace advertisement into the designer’s blood for a keepsake.

Images of the man crowned the “king of fashion” standing beside celebrities ranging from Elton John to Madonna to Princess Diana to Sylvester Stallone were recycled for print and television. Shoppers the world over snatched up merchandise with the Versace name on it. Ten minutes after the story of Versace’s murder broke, Christopher Mason Mason, Christopher completed negotiations for a contract with Little, Brown & Co. to write the designer’s biography. Many people had likely never heard of Versace before, and most had never donned one of his gowns or worn the underwear he designed, or slept on his sheets or dried off on his towels, but in the days after the murder he became a household name, a ubiquitous presence through death.

Being a celebrity has its downside, and immediately rumors spread. Reviving earlier, unsustained accusations that the Versace empire had connections with organized crime, those given to belief in conspiracy saw his death as a Mafia hit. After treatment for a rare ear cancer in 1996, Versace had not fully recovered his vitality, which led some to speculate he suffered from acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS). Others questioned the financial well-being of Versace’s billion-dollar company, which was expected to go public in 1998 after being placed on an austerity budget. That Versace had never hidden his homosexuality gave rise to suspicions about what role his personal relations had played in the murder.

Then the police discovered in a nearby parking garage a stolen pickup truck, which led to the assumed identity of the killer, Andrew Cunanan. The truck, which contained Cunanan’s passport and other personal items, was owned by William Reese, Reese, William who had been murdered on May 9 in Pennsville, New Jersey. As the story unfolded, a curious world learned that Cunanan was already wanted by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) for a string of murders, including those of two acquaintances, Jeffrey Trail Trail, Jeffrey on April 29 and David Madson Madson, David on May 3, both in Minnesota.

Italian fashion designer Gianni Versace at his show in Paris in 1996.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

In Chicago, on May 4, Cunanan murdered a wealthy seventy-two-year-old real estate developer, Lee Miglin, Miglin, Lee whom he apparently had not known beforehand. He stole his victim’s Lexus, which was found in New Jersey near the dead Reese, a cemetery caretaker and another apparent stranger to Cunanan. Deserting the Lexus and setting off in Reese’s pickup, Cunanan, according to the FBI, spent a few days in New York City’s Greenwich Village before heading south in the pickup, stealing license plates in South Carolina along the way. In Miami Beach, he moved into an inexpensive hotel, the Normandy, on May 12, and spent the days unnoticed until he visited Casa Casuarina with gun in hand. From the time he shot Versace until he committed suicide, Cunanan hid on a houseboat, where the police found him on July 23.

Ironically, in the days following the revelations about Cunanan, the media and public found him more intriguing than Versace himself, who had been buried quietly in Italy. Versace’s life represented the classic success story: a boy from a middle-class family and a South Italy dressmaking shop rising to international fame. In contrast, Cunanan’s life spelled failure. Described by his estranged mother as “a high-classed male prostitute,” he did not even deserve that dubious title. He had reinvented himself at will, sometimes claiming to be the heir to a plantation fortune, always the sophisticate, the wealthy, eccentric party boy, the flagrant homosexual—an orientation he had proudly displayed even in high school. In truth, he came from a dysfunctional family, lived off older homosexual men, and, when this source of income failed, sold drugs.

Contradictory stories about Cunanan’s life surfaced from friends and enemies. Some stressed his charm, whereas others revealed his darker side. A theory that he had AIDS and had set out on a mission of revenge against the homosexual community proved to be false once an autopsy was conducted.

Other issues arose. Law-enforcement agencies met with criticism from representatives of the gay and lesbian community, who said that officials had been lax in searching for Cunanan as long as he was murdering average gay men, but when he killed a celebrity they mobilized. The same critics took the press to task for its emphasis on Cunanan’s sexuality. All the while, the general public relished the media’s revelations about the exclusive and wealthy international gay community. During this period, one gay columnist pointedly observed that only a tiny segment of gays and lesbians lived such dashing lives; the rest were hardworking, ordinary, and often dull.

Significance

When considering a creative form as ephemeral as design, it is difficult to determine the impact of Versace’s death on the fashion industry and the commerce that profits from it. Major couture magazines such as Vogue and Elle brought out their fall, 1997, issues, several hundred pages in length, to introduce the new lines and to reveal what colors, cuts, lengths, and fabrics would be absolutely right for the months ahead. Tucked away amid page after page of glossy advertisements, some featuring Versace designs completed before his death, were tributes to the fallen “fashion czar.” The writers knew him as a friend and praised him as much for his personal vitality and charm as for his contribution to the industry.

Beyond the tributes, these magazines affirmed that life goes on in the realms of high fashion. Versace’s fascination with and dependence on popular culture, which he is credited with wedding to the fashion industry more so than any other designer, might have been his downfall as well. The adjective “popular” reflects what is generally accepted at the time, but along with changing times the icons of popular culture shift and vanish, sometimes forever, at other times to be revived. Versace was said to be proudest of his costume designs for the theater, and perhaps that work will be his most lasting.

Many speculated about the future of Versace’s empire at the time of his death. Always a family affair, the business was shared by Gianni’s brother Santo and his sister Donatella. Santo, a trained accountant and the company’s chief executive officer, handled the business side efficiently, while Donatella, who was especially close to Gianni, served as vice president. Donatella emerged as a capable designer in her own right, and during her brother’s illness and afterward she played a fuller role in the fashion matters of the business. Her American-born husband, Paul Beck, managed the company’s advertising. Even Donatella’s two young children, whom Gianni adored and considered his heirs, appeared in company advertising.

The general opinion about the business’s future was that it would not be the same without the founder’s rare genius but that it would remain solid. After all, world sales of Versace products and those manufactured under the Versace brand by licensed companies were expected to exceed $1 billion in 1997. The merchandise ranged from evening gowns to bath towels, each with the company’s Medusa-head logo. Although most Versace products were sold at established, prestigious stores, the Versaces had also opened more than three hundred of their own elegant boutiques around the world.

Fashion experts as well as those outside the field who discussed the Versace murder tended to address two issues: the reasons so many people reacted to the designer’s death as though Versace were a major world figure and the contribution that Versace made to society. Pundits explained endlessly that the age of celebrity, personality, and superstars, prompted in large part by mass-media coverage, keeps people from Indiana to Indonesia informed on the daily lives of the so-called rich and famous. Sometimes the reporting is intrusive, unfair, untrue, insensitive, and vulgar, but it nevertheless finds an audience, made up apparently of people chafing at their own limitations and wanting, at least vicariously, to know those who seemingly live fulfilled dreams. Some must imagine themselves wearing one-of-a-kind gowns and attending theatrical openings, charity balls, fashion shows like the ones Versace staged—the famed “frock and rock” concerts, and all such chic gatherings.

Even Versace’s open homosexuality and appreciation of handsome young men added to the mystique. After all, his work was layered with sexuality in its multiple forms and yearnings. Versace understood the longings of ordinary folk and, at least in the public’s eye, constructed his private life to border on the fantastic. At the same time, he managed to attach his personal glamour to the merchandise he was selling, so that the designer and the designed became one and the same.

Versace knew that sex intrigues and fascinates—and he understood that sex sells. In a New Yorker article titled “The Emperor of Dreams,” based on interviews with Versace and published shortly after his death, Andrea Lee quoted the curator of the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Richard Martin, who summed up the way Versace brought together what Lee called “the raw energy of street culture and the sumptuous tradition of high fashion”:

The street was in a sense plundered by fashion in the second half of the twentieth century, but there is one isolated figure standing on the street corner, and that, of course, is the prostitute. That’s the person Versace made fashion. He looked at prostitute style and made it high style in the eighties. I think of him as the great post-Freudian designer—one who had no guilt whatsoever. He created things about sensuality and sexuality. It was all unabashed.

What Versace gave to the world and what it lost through his death cannot be defined in concrete terms. He left no memorable works of art behind, but for a while he helped people set inhibitions aside, embrace life to its fullest, and appreciate elegance—if only in their imaginations. Versace was not just “the emperor of dreams” but also the merchant of dreams. A grim world can always use such a merchant to sell glamour. Murders;Gianni Versace[Versace] Fashion designers;Gianni Versace[Versace]

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">“Facing Death.” Newsweek, July 28, 1997, 20-30. Provides a brief biography of Cunanan, who is called “a great and gaudy pretender,” charts his murderous cross-country spree, and theorizes on what motivated him. A sideline sketch within the main text, “Glamour After Dark” by Richard Alleman, examines the South Beach elite homosexual scene, what he calls the “A-gays”—a group that Cunanan aspired, but failed, to join.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lee, Andrea. “The Emperor of Dreams.” The New Yorker, July 28, 1997, 42-53. Article based on a series of interviews with Versace conducted in various parts of the world was adjusted to reflect his death two weeks before it was published. Offers an insightful look into Versace’s personality as well as his work and provides extensive information on the his company/family operation.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Martin, Richard. Gianni Versace. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1998. Richly illustrated catalog published in conjunction with an exhibition of the designer’s work at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. Includes historical and analytic discussion of Versace’s place in fashion.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Orth, Maureen. Vulgar Favors: Andrew Cunanan, Gianni Versace, and the Largest Failed Manhunt in U.S. History. New York: Dell, 1999. Focuses on Versace’s killer and his life leading up to the crime. Sheds light on how the designer’s celebrity status influenced the investigation of his murder.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wintour, Anna. “Gianni Versace: A Remembrance.” Vogue, September, 1997, 628-629. Editor of Vogue recalls her friendship with the designer and explains how he turned fashion into entertainment. Provides another look at Versace, both personal and professional, from the viewpoint of a friend and colleague.

Punk’s Antifashion Style First Appears

Madonna Revolutionizes Popular Fashion

Assassination of John Lennon

Princess Diana Dies in a Car Crash

Categories: History Content