The iconic success story of designer Gianni Versace lives on today in extravagant clothing, fragrances, and home furnishings. But the disastrous twists and turns his life took shocked everyone who knew him.
The Birth of an Icon
Giovanni "Gianni" Versace was born on December 2nd, 1946, in Reggio di Calabria, Italy. He was raised by his loving parents, brought up in the world of design by his mother, Francesca, a dressmaking business owner.
After graduating High School, Gianni went on to work for his mother's business, which employed over a dozen seamstresses. He considered her workroom to be his playground. So, while most children his age were out playing, Gianni preferred to stay in and learn from his trailblazing mother.
Moving Up And Out
After gaining confidence in his ability to create, at age twenty-six, Gianni moved to Milan, a city in northern Italy, in 1972. There he began freelance designing for Italian brands such as Callaghan, Complice, and Genny. The next year, he became the designer of Byblos, a successful Genny youth line.
With some more experience under his belt, Versace opened his own boutique in 1978 in Milan's Via Della Spiga, where he employed his brother, Santo, and sister, Donatella. He launched his first ready-to-wear women's signature collection at the Palazzo della Permanente Art Museum of Milan a few years later.
From Mom's Shop To the Top
Gianni quickly soared to be one of the top fashion designers of the 1980s and '90s. He became known for his glamorous styles that produced dresses that would soon grow to be his industry trademark. At that time, Gianni created his own logo, with VERSACE written in a large, easy-to-read font.
He brought art to an industry that was considered by most as "Out of touch with street culture." The innovative designer brought new ideas to the catwalk, including materials like aluminum mesh and "neo-culture" laser technology to fuse leather and rubber. He was best known for his use of bold prints, vivid colors, and sexy cuts.
Some of Gianni's most imaginative creations were seen in his costume designs for ballets like Richard Strauss' Josephlegende and pop performers such as Elton John and Madonna. He continued performance wear throughout the following years. Despite all of this and more, Versace was still far from the peak of his career.
His work became so well known for his contributions in the world of theater, that in 1987 Versace was awarded the Maschera D'Argento prize. According to the V&A Museum, Gianni stated, "For me, the theatre is liberation," shown in his bold colors, drapery, and embellishment designs.
Creativity Didn't Stop at Clothes
Gianni continued adding to his fashion empire. He launched his first couture collection in 1989 and added two clothing lines, Versus and Instante, to his business in the '90s. The blooming designer gained confidence in his ability and traction on the runway. So, Versace took the plunge and dove into creating more than clothing.
While the first Versace fragrance, Gianni Versace for Women, debuted in 1981, he later expanded- creating men's and gender-neutral lines. Gianni was awarded the American Fashion Oscar in 1993. In the same year, he launched a series of furniture and home goods that inspired him to redesign his logo from his last name to Medusa's head.
He Designed for Legends
Versace designed for high-profile figures like Michael Jackson, Princess Diana, and Paul McCartney throughout his career. One of his most famous works was a black dress held together at the sides by gold safety pins. Actress Elizabeth Hurley wore that dress at a 1994 movie premiere and credited it for helping make her a star.
Journalist Anna Wintour told The New York Times, Versace "Was the first to realize the value of celebrity in the front row, the value of the supermodel, and put fashion on an international media platform." He was credited as one of the foremost designers who emphasized the power of bringing the fashion and music worlds together.
Sharing His Knowledge
The now-famous designer published numerous books in his lifetime including Rock and Royalty, The Art of Being You, and Men Without Ties. Fashion fanatics could ogle over reading stories of Gianni's diverse clientele who both wore his clothing and impacted his designs.
The books included photos of famous stars, members of the Royal family, and sketches from Versace's personal collection. Men Without Ties explained Versace's approach to masculine elegance and allowed fashionistas of all kinds to pick his brain. With all of this to boot, the visionary kept dreaming...BIG!
He Created His Dream Home
Versace bought his apartment-building-turned-three-story-mansion in 1992 for $2.95M. But that wasn't enough for Gianni, as he then purchased and tore down the next door hotel for $3.7M to make space for an extravagant pool, garden, and south wing of the home. It took three years and $32M to create his lavish vision of perfection.
Located on Ocean Drive, steps away from the Atlantic Ocean in Miami, Florida, the home was transformed from twenty-four apartments to a mansion with ten luxurious suites, eleven bathrooms, a library, and more. The eye-catcher even received a Historic Preservation Award in 1995 for the glimmering work completed.
24-Karat Gold Tiles
Every detail of the mansion from the outside in was designed to Versace's liking. The pool's mosaics were constructed from one hundred million 24-karat gold tiles that were made and imported from Italy. A marble floor spanned the home and his bathroom featured a $10,000 marble toilet with a seat covered in 24-karat gold.
The home included a sparkling pebble mosaic grotto in the dining room, mirrors from a Venetian palazzo in the drawing-room, commissioned murals on the walls and ceilings, and statues around the pool from a French chateau. If that wasn't enough, stained glass was placed in half of the windows. Talk about a deep wallet!
Original Versace Filled the Mansion
The fifty-four-foot-long pool was created with inspiration from a scarf in Gianni's Marine Vanuras collection. It featured a massive Medusa mosaic, crafted in Versace's hometown, Reggie Calabria, Italy. It was then deconstructed and shipped to Miami Beach in pieces where it was tediously reassembled to the designer's liking.
Much of the furniture inside was upholstered in original Versace designs. Why not be surrounded by self-made beauty? His snake-adorned Medusa head logo was placed throughout the property. Aside from the poolside mosaic garden, it appeared on gates, railings, and even shower drains!
Lovestruck by Medusa
Versace was greatly influenced by Greek mythology. The brand’s logo represents Medusa, a mythical creature whose gaze would turn anyone into stone. Instead of hair, she had living venomous snakes. When he revamped his logo, Gianni feminized her appearance, featuring full lips and beautiful hair rather than snakes.
It is said that Medusa could make you hopelessly and forever fall in love with her. Gianni hoped this would ring true for Versace as well, and sure enough, it did! This led the designer to release a collection of outfits in 1989 made of silk with leopard skin and Medusa head prints.
Created With Guests in Mind
"Each room is a different one of Gianni's dreams," Donatella told The New York Times. Versace designated certain rooms for visiting family members and friends, with space specifically created for his brother Santo, and sister Donatella. Each room was tailored perfectly to their personalities. Hopefully he didn't play favorites!
Gianni's room AKA the Villa Suite had seven closets and a double king bed that required custom sheets. In case you were thinking of treating yourself to an extravagant vacation, you can rent the Villa Suite for $1,199 a night! If that's out of budget, Donatella's room AKA the Venus Suite is rentable starting at $749 per night.
In-Home Restaurant, Gianni's
If guests of the home felt hungry, they didn't go to the kitchen fridge, they went to Gianni's. The in-home restaurant offered a "Delicious blend of Italian and Mediterranean food and wine selections” such as “Gnocchi di granchio, with blue crab, shallots, truffles, and Wagyu filet mignon," according to Town & Country.
Believe it or not, reservations were required at Gianni's when Versace hosted gatherings. If guests didn't have a reservation, they were invited to have drinks in the bar area while they waited for a table to become available. The suave designer opened his home to the world but kept one thing secret.
Fans Knew Almost Everything
Between 1994 and 1995, Gianni retreated from public life after being diagnosed with a rare form of inoperable ear cancer. In a 2006 interview with New York Magazine, broken-hearted Donatella said, "Gianni was sure he was going to die. He was sick with cancer in his ear. It was impossible to do a surgery because of the position."
When news spread of being seen in South Beach looking "weak and emaciated," Versace chose to spend the majority of those two years "hiding away" from the spotlight in his Via Gesú apartment "because his ear was so big," Donatella shared with New York Magazine.
A Not-So-Secret Longtime Partner
Gianni met his longtime partner, model Antonio D'Amico, in 1982 at La Scala, an opera house in Italy, reported People. After six years of living in Milan, the couple moved to Miami. According to The New York Times, they spent eleven years as companions and worked alongside each other to create the Versace Sport and Istante lines.
D'Amico was by Versace's side twenty-four hours a day. The two spent time traveling between the designer's homes in Milan, Lake Como, New York, and Miami Beach throughout the years. Antonio described Gianni as "One of the most creative people in the fashion world, but as a person, he was the sweetest man in the world."
More Than Business Partners
During their private romance, the public eye-witnessed Antonio work with Gianni as a designer for Versace Sport and Istante. On the outside, it seemed that the two were close business partners, but those that knew Versace and D’Amico closely understood their loving relationship differently.
While the pair were together for fifteen years, D'Amico worked for the parent company of Versace, Versace S.P.A. Utilizing the company as a public distraction for what occurred behind closed doors, Gianni encouraged Antonio to release his first solo line at a fashion show in 1999, but the blissfulness would soon dim...
A Day They'll Never Forget
The morning of July 15th, 1997 in South Beach, Florida was a tragic day in the Versace family. Just before 9:00 am, Gianni went out to buy magazines detailing recent fashion shows in Paris while Antonio was getting ready to go play tennis. The moment Gianni left, D’Amico allegedly heard two gunshots from outside the villa.
He dashed outside to find Gianni lying face down on the front steps. In an interview with People, Antonio recalled the moment he found Gianni, saying that he "Tried to scream, but no sound came out of [his] mouth.” While being pulled to his feet by the butler, D'Amico looked up and caught a glimpse of a man as he fled the scene.
Versace Was Rushed To Hospital
Witnesses described the killer as "A white man in his 20's dressed in a light gray or white shirt, dark shorts and a white cap," according to Miami Beach police reports. Versace was quickly transported to the Ryder Trauma Center at Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami. Unfortunately, by 9:15 am he passed away at the age of fifty.
Doctors regrettably shared that Gianni had been shot twice in the back of the head. An autopsy was administered as news of the tragedy spread, leaving the international fashion world absolutely stunned. But his family, of course, took it the hardest...
The Family Was Shaken
Siblings Donatella and Santo were in Italy rehearsing for Women Under the Stars, a series of fashion shows, when they got word of the loss of their beloved brother, Gianni. They released a statement thanking "All those who wish to respect, in silence, their grief.'' Several funerals were held for the world-renowned designer.
The day after he passed, a private memorial service was held in Miami by Gianni’s family. Then, a second memorial service, attended by approximately two thousand people, was held in Milan. Some of the mourners included Versace's favorite model, Naomi Campbell, Elton John, and Princess Diana.
Everyone Came To Say Goodbye
New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art hosted a funeral that was attended by Ralph Lauren, Anna Wintour, Calvin Klien, and Marc Jacobs, who all came to say goodbye to Gianni and give condolences to the family. The memorial included loving performances by the late Versace’s good friends, Whitney Houston and Jon Bon Jovi.
Ten years later, a ballet performance was held in the cathedral at Milan’s La Scala opera house as a tribute to the deeply missed designer. According to ABC News, it was "A shock event because this was somebody who was on the pinnacle," friends of Versace struggled to move on without him as the FBI and police sprung into action.
The FBI's Investigation
The FBI and Miami police launched an investigation distributing two thousand posters with Cunanan's picture, leading to reported sightings from all over the country. D’Amico told People, “They couldn’t find a single reason why someone would want to kill him, because he was such a normal guy. He was a very normal, shy person."
Miami FBI special agent Paul Philip said, “We can't say whether there was a relationship or random act.” The investigation found that Versace and Cunanan had actually met in 1990 at Colossus, a San Francisco nightclub. The serial killer deeply internalized the occurrence, frequently dropping Versace's name in his social circles.
Who Was Andrew Cunanan?
The spooked community began to wonder who Cunanan really was. Born the youngest of four children in National City, California on August 31st, 1969, his parents immediately knew he was different from his siblings. Andrew attended The Bishop's School, where most of his classmates came from much wealthier families than his.
To fit in at school, Cunanan allegedly lied about his life and changed his appearance throughout the years, leading many to believe he showed signs of antisocial personality disorder. Andrew struggled with his sexuality in High School and was voted "Least Likely to be Forgotten," which certainly remained true years later.
He Was A Troubled Teen Who Never Fit in
Cunanan majored in American History at UC San Diego in 1987. Two years later, he dropped out and moved to San Francisco. After his father disappeared to escape embezzlement charges, Andrew's mother found out her son was dating men when he became a nightlife regular at local associated bars in the Castro District at the age of nineteen.
Andrew lusted after the high life, befriending wealthy older men while spending time in the Castro District. Then, his life was bankrolled by Norman Blachford. Blachford gave him $2,000 per month, a fancy car, and vacations to New York and Europe. Norman eventually cut Cunanan off in 1996, careening him into a downward spiral.
Cunanan's Twisted Spree
Without Norman, Andrew became uneasy. Criminal profiler Candice DeLong told ABC News, "Andrew's self-worth was tied to the finer things in life. Being accepted in high society and by wealthy people was what he expected. If he didn't get them, he was lost." It was during this time that the twenty-seven-year-old took the life of his first victim.
Unfortunately, many murders followed throughout three months in 1997. The effects of Andrew’s killing spree rippled through the lives of Jeffrey Trail, David Madson, Lee Miglin, and William Reese. This landed Cunanan the 449th seat on the FBI’s ten most wanted fugitives list. He was found dead eight days after Versace's murder.
"Could I Have Saved Him?"
Twenty-one years later in an interview with People, fifty-nine-year-old D’amico, still frustrated that Cunanan’s motive for killing Versace was never made clear, said: “I would often ask myself in the aftermath whether things would have been different had I been there [...] Could I have protected him? Could I have saved him?”
In the same interview with People, D’Amico said he fell into a “black pit,” suffering from a severe depression that lasted for nearly a decade. “When Gianni died, I was cut in two,” he shared. After years of mourning, Antonio sought happiness without Versace. “I never forgot. But I took my life in my hands and I started over.”
He Threw Himself Into His Work
Antonio revealed that throwing himself into his work was the only thing that helped him cope with the loss of his beloved. He went on to have his own fashion line in 1999, being supported by his and Gianni's close friend, Elton John, using what he claimed were his own savings and not any funds he received from his late partner.
D'Amico has since lived a mostly private life since Gianni's death, moving to the Italian countryside in Milan with his partner of thirteen years, Alberto Santinelli. Antonio told The Guardian, "Sincerely, after two decades, I will always be connected to Gianni as a person I loved for more than fifteen years."
Donatella vs. Antonio
Gianni created a will when he battled ear cancer. In the will, his homes were left to Antonio, with a monthly allowance of $57,000. Donatella never kept it secret that she and Antonio had difficulties. She recalled to The New York Times, "I respected [Antonio] as the boyfriend of my brother, but I never liked him as a person."
The feud continued as Donatella then attempted to write Antonio out of Gianni's will. The homes turned out to belong to Versace, not Gianni himself, but after a lengthy legal dispute, Antonio managed to get part of the pension and a right to live in the homes.
"I Thought of Her as a Monster"
Bad blood flowed between Antonio and Donatella. He claimed that her behavior led him to leave all of his and Gianni's former homes just to get away from her. "When Donatella first came into my life I tried to treat her like family, but towards the end, I thought of her as a monster," D'Amico told The Sun on Sunday.
Antonio blamed substance abuse for Donatella becoming "difficult" and a "diva." He told People: "I don't know why she hated me so much. I rarely argued with her as I would always try to avoid her. Maybe she was jealous of me because I had power from being so close to Gianni and he would listen to me more than her."
Versace Lives On
Donatella became Versace's Vice President and Artistic Director, shortly after deciding to remove Gianni's name from the company, which Antonio saw as a "Complete lack of respect", reported People. Santo shortly became the CEO before being slated to be President. In his place, Jonathan Akeroyd became the CEO in 2016.
The Versace mansion went on the market in 1997, bouncing through hands in 2000, 2012, and finally, 2013 when it was auctioned to The Victor Hotels Group for $41.5M. The hotel's manager told the Associated Press, "We preserved what Versace created here and augmented it with modern touches for the convenience of our hotel guests."
An $807 Million Empire
In less than ten years, Gianni Versace built an $807 million empire. The mastermind surely left his mark on the world, leaving behind a legacy of a massively successful clothing company, sixty-seven fragrances, and even collaborated with fellow designers, automobile manufactures, and residential developers throughout the world.
The fashion world continued to mourn the loss of the icon throughout the decades, relying on Donatella and Santo to keep Versace alive. Partnerships with well-known companies and designers continue to this day, however, since Gianni's 1997 murder, things were never the same.
An American Crime Story
In 2018, Emmy-winning producer, Ryan Murphy, recreated the history of Versace's life in American Crime Story: The Assassination of Gianni Versace, authentically filmed in the Versace mansion. Murphy described the experience to The New York Post as "One of the most emotional, profound and moving experiences” of his career.
Prior to the series premiere in 2018, the Versace family released an official statement: “Since Versace did not authorize the book on which it is partly based, this TV series should only be considered as a work of fiction.” The series wasn't the only thing left in memorial, as the Versace brand continues to produce masterpieces.