Murder of the King of Glitz

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The Independent Online
Italian fashion designer Gianni Versace, the "king of glitz" whose flamboyant styles are worn by the world's wealthiest and most glamorous stars, was shot dead on the steps of his oceanfront Miami Beach mansion yesterday morning by a young gunman firing at point-blank range.

Despite its reputation for violence, Miami went into a state of shock on hearing that Versace, 50, had been gunned down amid passing roller- bladers and sun-worshippers in the city's renowned Ocean Drive art deco distict.

Witnesses described the gunman as a white man, in his mid-20s, dressed in a white shirt and grey shorts and having a backpack, who walked away after shooting the designer twice in the back of the head.

Raising the theory that the world-renowned couturier could have been a victim of organised crime or that the shooting was drug-related, Miami Police Chief Richard Barreto said: "I believe that he was targeted... This was not a random act of violence."

News of Versace's death shocked the fashion world, as the story spread from Miami to New York to Milan, Paris and London. Nobody could quite believe that the man who only last Sunday unveiled his autumn-winter couture collection would no longer be doing fittings for his jet-set clients, would not be dressing Madonna or Elton John ever again.

That collection, held before the world's press and buyers as well as Hollywood celebrities Demi Moore, Gabriel Byrne, and Leonardo DiCaprio, was the end of an era that began with his first ready-to-wear collection in Milan in 1978. He was the king of frock `n' roll, the one designer who could outglitz them all - and give anyone wearing one of his dresses star appeal, no matter who they were.

"Giorgio did it," joked fashion insiders, referring to the long-running rivalry between Versace and Armani. Armani meanwhile, issued a statement that the news had left him in shock: "Gianni was young and talented, and he worked so hard. He had overcome a very serious disease with strength and dignity, embracing life with energy and a tremendous desire to accomplish things. Gianni Versace, together with a handful of names, symbolises Italian fashion all over the world. My reaction is one of revolt against such an unnatural and violent death, and one of profound grief."

Six years ago, Versace bought a rundown Mediterranean-style hotel, squeezed between the pastel-coloured art deco hotels on Ocean Drive, and renovated it using Spanish and Italian techniques. Its 75-foot frontage faces on to 11th Street, a block from the popular Clevelander bar, and its observatory tower faces the grassy park, palm trees, jogging path and beach where the designer loved to walk.

Yesterday, thousands of curious locals and tourists gathered in the park, gazing across at the bloodstains and a blue tarpaulin marking the spot where the designer, son of a seamstress from Reggio Calabria in southern Italy, fell.

Witnesses said Versace, his grey hair cut short and thinning, walked as usual from the beach's 24-hour News Cafe after having breakfast and buying Italian newspapers. But one cafe waitress told reporters she thought he had been acting strangely, by passing the cafe on the other side of the street before coming in.

He later walked the four blocks to his home at 1116 Ocean Drive, past the renowned Mango's Tropical Cuban cafe and the Clevelander, and was opening the black wrought-iron gates of his home shortly before 9am when the gunman shot him twice in the back of the head.

The designer was said to be dead by the time he was taken to Jackson Memorial Hospital. From behind a cordon, reporters could see his blood staining the half-dozen steps and a stretch of the Ocean Drive pavement.

The gunman apparently fled north and may have changed his clothes in a car park on 13th Street, two blocks from the house.

Friends said Versace lived in the house most of the year, when not attending fashion shows, along with two male friends called Antonio and Paul, and, occasionally, his sister Donatella. Several members of Miami Beach's gay community were among the crowds that gathered behind a police cordon yesterday. One was briefly detained after trying to break through the cordon to toss flowers close to the spot of his death.

"He was a gentle man. I'm only trying to express my feelings for him," the young man said later.

One report said Versace had had an appointment with a personal fitness trainer at his home yesterday morning.

Friends at Miami Beach's glossy fahion magazine Ocean Drive described yesterday how Versace's arrival six years ago had boosted not only the fashion industry but Miami Beach's entire image. He was part of a movement to the resort by stars including Madonna and Sylvester Stallone.

"He was the most giving man. When we launched our first edition, he almost took over. He got us Claudia Schiffer, in a black Versace gown, for the first cover," said Ocean Drive editor Jason Binn.

Alex Penelas, mayor of Metro-Dade County (the greater Miami area), said: "Versace embodied the energy and vibrance of South Beach. To a large extent, it was Versace's presence here that brought this community fame and fortune, that placed us on the cutting edge of fashion and entertaintment circles throughout the world. For all of that, we are eternally grateful."

Versace's life

1946 Born the son of a tailor in Reggio Calabria, southern Italy.

1972 Went into business with his brother and sister.

1978 Launched his label.

1982 Named best fashion designer for his 1982/83 autumn/winter collection. The first of many awards.

1984 Launched his fragrance Versace l'Homme.

1990 Opened his second boutique in New York and his 11th in the United States.

1991 Launched fragance Versus.

1992 Opened a five-storey store in Bond Street, London.

1994 Elizabeth Hurley is launched on the road to fame when she appears in that dress.

1997 Announced plans to float his company.