Designer Versace shot dead

Gianni Versace — arguably youngish Hollywood’s favorite couture designer and a designing staple of premieres and Oscar parties for years — was shot to death just steps from the front door of his South Miami Beach home Tuesday morning. He was 50.

The Calabria, Italy-born designer, one of the most recognizable and successful princes of the fashion demimonde, was killed by two shots delivered to the back of his head at point-blank range.

The FBI and Miami Beach police announced late Tuesday that Versace, who was openly gay, very likely was the fifth target of homophobic serial killer suspect Andrew Cunanan, based on eyewitness accounts and material evidence found at and near the crime scene in Miami Beach. Details were sketchy, but police sources were saying Versace may have been stalked by Cunanan for two weeks or more before being murdered.

Mini king

Versace — who perfected the miniskirt, designed in bold, nearly vulgar riots of color and was seldom afraid to take risks virtually no other designer would consider — was made famous and continued to be lionized by younger, more audacious celebrities the world over, especially in London and Hollywood, his two stylistic fiefdoms.

He was especially identified with two colorful Brits: Diana, the Princess of Wales, and pop superstar Elton John. Both were in deep shock on hearing the news of Versace’s death. “I am devastated by the loss of a great and talented man,” the princess said from her vacation spot on the French Riviera.

John, who had his wild performance gear custom-made by Versace and his Milan-based craftsmen, and who was a close personal friend of the designer, said he was “devastated” by the news. “I … have lost one of my closest friends, whom I loved so much, and whom I had been so looking forward to seeing again on holiday very soon,” he said in a statement. “We were so close that it’s like a large part of my life has died with him. … I’m in deep shock at the news, it really hasn’t sunk in yet. The world has lost a wonderful creative genius, and I have lost a very dear friend.”

Model-actress Elizabeth Hurley, who can thank Versace for virtually launching her career when she wore a slashed, safety-pinned black evening dress to the “Four Weddings and a Funeral” premiere in London in 1994, added that Versace “was a dear friend of mine, and I am going to miss him horribly.”

And Courtney Love, whom Versace virtually transformed from a scroungy grunge priestess to a very model of cool Hollywood repose, said she “adored” Versace. “I felt he really was a genius,” Love said. “I credit him with helping me make a transition in my life without ever compromising who or what I am.”

Other celebrities who swore by Versace included Madonna, Prince, Will Smith, Leonardo DiCaprio, Demi Moore, Jane Fonda, Kim Basinger, Julie Andrews and Jane Seymour.

Versace’s couture line was the high-ticket clothing of choice for an entire generation of European royalty as well: Britain’s Diana, Monaco’s Princess Caroline, Dutch princesses, Luxembourgian duchesses and any number of disenfranchised (but still enormously wealthy) European nobility.

Added British Regency-punk designer Vivienne Westwood: “He was obviously one of the most talented and rightly famous designers of the past few years.”

Versace was returning home from the News Cafe on South Beach’s Ocean Drive after buying an Italian newspaper when he was gunned down outside the gates of his Mediterranean-style mansion Tuesday morning. There was no sign of robbery.

“I do know it is not a random act of violence,” Miami police chief Richard Barreto said. “I believe that he was targeted.”

Police said the fashion designer was shot by white man in his mid-20s, dressed in a white or gray shirt and dark shorts and carrying a backpack.

Officers later cordoned off a five-story municipal parking garage near the shooting scene after a witness saw a man fitting the description of the suspect.

WTVJ-TV Miami reported that police found clothing under a red Chevrolet pickup in the parking garage, and that the truck’s vehicle identification number matched that of the vehicle Cunanan was last reported driving. Police believed the clothes belonged to the suspect.

Similar weapons

The station also quoted unnamed police sources as saying Versace was killed with a .40-caliber handgun, the same caliber weapon used in the murders Cunanan is suspected of committing.

Police believe Cunanan stole the red pickup after his last suspected slaying, that of a cemetery caretaker in New Jersey. Cunanan also is charged in the May slaying of a Minneapolis architect who once had been his lover, and is the prime suspect in the killings of another former boyfriend in the Minneapolis area and a Chicago businessman.

Hours after the slaying, a puddle of blood remained on the steps of Versace’s three-story home. Hundreds of people gathered across the street, popularly known as “Deco Drive.”

Martin Weinstein said he heard gunshots and ran down the street. “When I arrived I saw a guy lying on the step in a pool of blood, at first I didn’t realize who it was,” he said. “But then I realized it was Versace.”

Versace’s mansion is the only private home on the fashionable stretch of Ocean Drive. The estate, created from two aging Art Deco hotels, faces the Atlantic Ocean. It is surrounded by a high wall, and his Renaissance-style crest adorns the ornate entrances to the estate.

Versace entertained stars often, but also liked to take leisurely walks along South Beach, often alone.

Maria Contessa, owner of Zoo XIV, a small clothing boutique near Versace”s home, said the designer frequented the store to “buy clothes for himself, for his friends and particularly for his boyfriend.”

A native of Reggio Calabria in southern Italy, Versace began designing ready-to-wear for other firms in 1972 in Milan. He launched the Gianni Versace label in 1978.

Versace gained fame in the 1980s, staging his fashion shows with blaring rock music, glaring floodlights and megascreens reproducing what was going on on the runway.

His first big hit was the use of clingy, chain-mail material. In the next decade, he was largely responsible for the rebirth in Italy of the miniskirt — making it so short that some called it the “Band-Aid.” He was a major force in creating the black-leather look and the glittery sequined jackets so loved by pop singers.

With reports from Reuters and the Associated Press

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