Fashion king lured by the `beach gods'

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When Gianni Versace first saw Miami's South Beach art deco district, he was entranced by the light, the colours, the life and, according to friends, the perfectly-sculpted bodies of the "beach gods" who adorn its pavements, many of them gay.

"It was love at first sight," the designer recently told a local television interviewer. "It's like the world should be today." But friends said Versace had a longtime lover - his personal trainer Antonio d'Amico - and did not frequent the seafront strip's gay bars or nightclubs and did not pick up gays.

It was d'Amico who came out of the front door of the oceanfront Versace mansion on Tuesday to find him fatally wounded on the steps, his head bleeding on to the pavement, his black sandals and magazines scattered around him.

Versace first saw the art deco district 15 years ago when asked to design outfits for Don Johnson in the Miami Vice television series.

He was the man who put Johnson's Sonny Crockett character in black T- shirts, linen jackets and baggy trousers the designer often wore himself and one that helped turn world fashion attention to Miami.

"This place is great for fashion. It's fun to see the clash of cultures, the chic with the shock, the very sophisticated with the very unsure," he said in the interview. "No one is hyper here. It's not like New York or Milan."

The chic were shocked by his killing in the heart of South Beach, where past shootings were usually faked for Miami Vice. Stunned residents have always seen the beachfront area as an oasis of fun and revelry - and widespread homosexuality - in a city where violence used to stalk only the ghettos.

On his last walk from the News Cafe, a 24-hour bar and restaurant on Ocean Drive, he would have dodged roller-bladers as he passed by the glass- fronted South Beach gym where stars such as Madonna have been seen working out above the popular Clevelander bar, mecca of the art deco strip.

Along the way he would have passed the product of such gyms, young men with rippling muscles, wearing only shorts, who use the 10-block Ocean Drive boulevard as a fashion ramp to show off their physiques.

While in the oceanfront mansion he renovated, and at whose gates he was gunned down on Tuesday, he preferred to throw lavish parties for such celebrities as Madonna, Sylvester Stallone Sting, Gloria Estefan or the supermodels he helped to make famous. D'Amico always lived with him. Also often there, according to friends, was Paul Beck, American husband of Versace's sister Donatella.

Versace was said to be uncomfortable in such gay-popular bars as The Palace, a few yards from his home. He preferred to hold his own parties at home, the mansion built to look like Diego Colombus's 16th-century castle in Santo Domingo, but decorated inside a-la-Versace with leopard skin ceilings, mosaics and priceless Picassos and Modiglianis.

He liked to eat pizza in the Bang restaurant with its owner, Massimo Lucarini. "I was originally going to buy his house to make a restaurant," Mr Lucarini said yesterday. "But he loved it right away and asked me to change my plans. I thought it was better for Miami to have Versace than another restaurant, so I said `yes'."