The murder of Versace

By Coco Brown

Twenty years ago a shadow fell over the vibrant and bohemian landscape of South Beach, Florida. A place that was recognised as the natural habitat of models and actors, of musicians and artists; somewhere where the flamboyant danced on the rooftops and the outrageous came out at night. Unsurprisingly it was also home to one who strove for individuality and whose work promoted sexuality and confidence in their finest forms. And yet, the beach became a death bed for Gianni Versace; a God murdered in his own temple.

On the morning of July 15, 1997, Giovanni Maria Versace, the 50-year-old Italian founder of the international fashion empire, was up by 6 a.m. Having made calls to Milan, he casually headed out to pick up a morning coffee, the latest Vogue and a copy of The New Yorker; a simple task that was most often carried out by his assistant. Only three blocks away from home, the glorious Casa Casuarina, Versace walked back through the familiar streets and eventually up the great marble steps before the gate. It was then that the steps were infiltrated by an unwanted visitor sporting a baseball cap and backpack. Two shots were fired. Versace crumpled. Andrew Cunanan walked calmly away.

The murder scene. Gianni Versace was shot twice on the steps of his Miami home.

The death of Versace remains, to this day, a case which baffles and appals. Ironically, a man who rejected the art of being aloof, but rather celebrated shamelessness became rooted in the epicentre of one of the greatest mysteries in fashion history. The authorities may have the facts - who did it, how they did it etc – but the most fundamental question remains: why?

On December 2, 1946, Gianni Versace was born in Reggio Calabria, the son of salesman and the village seamstress. From a young age, he expressed a growing interest in his mother’s work, assisting her in the workshop as frequently as possible to help complete dresses for the local women. At the age of 26, he moved to Milan to pursue work in fashion design and by 1973 he was earning six figures a year as a designer. His first signature collection for women was shown on 28th March 28 1978, at the Permanente, a contemporary art museum, and his first fashion show followed in September of the same year. His unique clothing employed vivid colours and bold prints with provocative cuts, that, while refreshing, had great scope for both praise and criticism. Professing to not believe in ‘good taste’, his collections rivalled the classy and far more simplistic pieces from his contemporaries, such as Georgio Armani: ‘Armani dresses the wife, Versace dresses the mistress.’ 

A visionary, Versace can also be credited as a wonderful marketer. The first to advertise his clothes on popular celebrities and the first to welcome such VIP’s  to the front rows of his shows, Anna Wintour commented in a Dateline interview  that Versace truly ‘understood the importance of getting his name and his image out there on a global level.’ Furthermore, he is considered responsible for the phenomenon of the supermodel, making stars out of Linda Evangelista, Christy Turlington, and his personal favourite, Naomi Campbell.

Was it this that provoked his murderer? Was it his innovative style that offended Andrew Cunanan or the celebrity society he lived in? Was he jealous? Was he obsessed? Maureen Orth in her book 'Vulgar Favors: Andrew Cunanan, Gianni Versace, and the Largest Failed Manhunt in U.S. History,' claims that Versace and Cunanan were in fact acquaintances and quite probably lovers. This would support the theory that the victims of the openly gay Andrew Cunanan were part of a plot for revenge on the man who passed the HIV virus onto him. However, the Versace family denounce this claim and Orth’s book as ‘full of gossip and speculation’ while Cunanan was confirmed to be clear of the virus.

Andrew Cunanan, 27, described by his own mother as a ‘high classhomosexual prostitute,’ was already on America’s most wanted, suspected of four previous murders. By the time of Versace’s death he had been in hiding in Miami for two months. Cunanan was not a character typically destined for a life of crime; born into a middle-class family in San Diego, he had been given a comfortable life and an elevated education. However, he was not an ordinary criminal. With an extraordinary IQ of 147 and a tendency to lie profusely and lash out, his volatile nature made him liable to addictions, such as drugs or sadomasochistic pornography, at an early age; more easily comparable to Hannibal Lector that the stereotypical serial killer. By 1997, his failed and bitter relationships with men began to affect him dangerously and in April of that year he left for Minneapolis to ‘take care of some business.’ His ‘business’ required the presence of two men, Jeff Trail, a Gulf War veteran, and David Madson, a former flame, who were found beaten and shot respectively after Cunanan left the state.

Andrew Cunanan

 Soon after, the body of Lee Miglin, 72, was found bound with multiple stab wounds and signs of torture in his home, in Chicago. Miglin’s family remain concrete in their statement that Lee never met his assailant, although this is up for speculation. Cunanan’s psychopathic nature was now out of control and he reportedly went into Miglin’s kitchen to make himself a ham sandwich before stealing his car and heading for New Jersey where he shot dead a caretaker in cold blood in order to further steal his truck. On July 23, 1997, only eight days after Versace was killed, Andrew Cunanan’s body was found in a houseboat off Miami Beach. He’d shot himself in the head with murder weapon used to kill three of his victims, one of which being Versace. His motive went with him, to the grave.










 News report on the murder of Gianni Versace.


While the police attempted to make sense of the killing, the Versace siblings, Donatello and Santo, flew over from Milan. They claimed Gianni’s body and returned to Italy, where, on 22ndJuly 1997, Versace was given a grand funeral at the Duomo, Milan’s 14th Century cathedral. A colossal affair, with more than 2,000 people, many wearing Versace, present to pay their respects, guests included Naomi Campbell, Karl Lagerfeld and Princess Diana. The ceremony concluded with Elton John and Sting’s emotional rendition of ‘The Lord is My Shepherd’ in tribute to their friend, the man who died alongside unanswered questions: ‘I don't know that we are ever going to know the answers," Miami Beach Police Chief Richard Barreto.

Princess Diana and Elton John mourning the loss of their friend.




‘American Crime Story: The Assassination of Gianni Versace,’ starts on BBC Two on Wednesday 28th Feb at 9pm.