This week, Tyffaine Akkouche explores the life and tragic murder of world-renowned fashion designer Gianni Versace, depicting the timeline of the ordeal and zeroing in on his brutal murderer, Andrew Cunanan.
The name Versace cannot be said without the imagery of lavish, sexual and sophisticated designs following it close behind. Created in 1978, the fashion brand still to this day and perhaps every day to follow will have its imprint on the industry. Gianni Versace – the man behind the now multi-billion dollar company was one of the most influential designers of his time.
Although his designs stirred much criticism within the media for being overtly sexual and promiscuous, it never made him falter on his way to the top. A fashion pioneer and revolutionary, Mr. Versace had very humble beginnings in the small Italian town of Reggio Calabria where he grew up watching his mother work at her sewing shop as a dress-maker. His passion sparked from there and became a fire so bright, it lives on even after his death.
One of the most notable impacts Mr. Versace had on the industry was the way he transformed it into the celebrity-centred, luxurious and extravagant show it is now. ”He was the first to realize the value of the celebrity in the front row, and the value of the supermodel, and put fashion on an international media platform,” Anna Wintour told the New York Times. He elevated his models to ‘supermodel’ status with the extremely large pay-checks and high coverage he provided. He had very close and loving relationships with many big celebrities such as model Naomi Campbell and singer Elton John who he often designed pieces for.
One of his biggest celebrity clients was Diana, Princess of Wales, who was often seen adorned in the most beautiful Versace dresses. On the November 1997 cover of Harper’s Bazaar’s ‘Diana: A Tribute to a Princess’ issue, she wore a magnificent italic baby blue embellished dress, oozing class and royalty with just a hint of sex appeal – something Mr. Versace excelled at.
It seemed that everywhere he passed, beauty and innovation followed. When a particular design or fabric didn’t work, he simply went around it – creating his own materials using neo-couture technology, such as ‘Oroton’. This is a very light-weight chain mail that moves like silk which he invented in 1982 and is still used in modern Versace designs. Donatella, the Vice President and head designer of the house, made a tribute to her brother on the 20th anniversary of his death at the 2017 September Milan fashion show by gathering some of the highest profile models he worked with in his life, such as Cindy Crawford and Claudia Schiffer, and dressed them in the iconic gold Oroton dresses.
Many say that at the time of his death, the Versace house was the most successful it had ever been. Mr. Versace seemed to have reached a peak in his career, success and money coming from every direction he poured creativity in. With 130 boutiques open world-wide and a business worth $807 million at the time of his death, the company was ever-expanding. They had menswear, womenswear, a line for children, perfume, house decor; all of which are still thriving and bringing in revenue.
Andrew Cunanan, 27 at the time of his self-inflicted death, was the man who mercilessly murdered Gianni Versace on the footsteps of his Miami beach home on July 15th 1997. Obsessed with the designer, jealous of his success and fame as a gay man, Cunanan thought the only way to match and get on the same level as his idol was by murdering him.
The murders were all violent, gruesome and inhumane – the recent Netflix drama ‘The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story’, produced by Ryan Murphy, tells the story based on investigative journalist Maureen Orth’s book. The show depicts Andrew Cunanan to be charming, manipulative, unstable and violent.
The nature of the relationship between Mr. Versace and his murderer remains unclear and always will be. They had allegedly met in a nightclub, introduced by a mutual friend in San Francisco years before where Mr. Versace had been designing costumes for the Opera ‘Capriccio’.
But Cunanan’s delusions of grandeur led him to brag about his close, romantic relationship with the designer. Of course, none of this was ever confirmed by any factual evidence, but rather was pinned down to his pathological lying and disconnect with reality. His close friends knew him for his constant lies that ranged from his father owning a pineapple plantation in the Philippines to meeting with the famous designer for dinner once a year.
Modesto Cunanan, the serial killer’s father, was reportedly an abusive man and after embezzling over $100,000 from the stock broking company he worked for, he abandoned his family to escape imprisonment. He moved back home to the Philippines, and after his son’s death joined a survivalist cult which searches for lost Japanese gold. He continually denied the crimes of his son and even refused to believe he was gay.
Mr. Cunanan left a note before fleeing his home in 1997 reading, “My son was an altar boy. He is not a serial killer or homosexual”. It is known that he idolised his son and treated him like a prince – Andrew’s sister, Elena, told Diana Sawyer in 1997: “My dad gave him a sports car. He had the master bedroom. He had his own bath and everything”. Growing up Andrew was constantly being told he was special, and when his life didn’t live up to those expectations, he turned to dark methods to make sure the world would know his name.
Mr. Versace was the fifth and last murder on Cunanan’s rampage. It started on April 27th 1997 with his first victim, Jeffrey Trail (28 years old), who Cunanan pummeled in the head with a hammer approximately 27 times. He left the ex-U.S. Navy officer rolled up in a rug in David Madson’s apartment, who was believed to have been held hostage by Cunanan for two days – up until they drove to a deserted area outside of Minneapolis where Madson was shot three times. Andrew Cunanan was utterly in love with Madson, disturbingly so, as the rejection he felt when the love wasn’t reciprocated is believed to be the triggering event that led to the massacre of the five men.
Cunanan’s former roommate Erik Greenman told ABC News: “David was Andrew’s life. He said many, many times that he would give up everything to move out to Minneapolis for David”. However, it didn’t seem like Cunanan had much to give up anyway – lazy and entitled, the only career path he ever truly explored was being a gigolo to elderly, rich men. This is how he met his third victim, 72-year-old Lee Miglin, a successful real estate developer who was known for living the American dream. He was found in his basement where he had been stabbed with a screwdriver 20 times, had his throat slit and had his hands, feet and entire head wrapped with duct tape. Chillingly, it was reported Cunanan had made himself a sandwich and had possibly slept over before stealing Miglin’s car. This third murder managed to get Cunanan on the FBI’s 10 most wanted list, and as he fled yet another crime without capture the police knew they were dealing with an extremely dangerous individual. They were tracking his every movement using the phone that was inside Miglin’s car. However, once this information reached the press, Cunanan quickly realised and ripped the phone out of the vehicle.
Five days later in Pensville, New Jersey, Andrew Cunanan found his fourth victim in the form of 45-year-old caretaker, William Reece, who he shot with Jeffrey Trail’s gun. The motive in this case was to steal Reece’s red pickup truck which he used to reach his final destination – Miami beach, where his final and most famous victim resided. There he continued to evade capture for a further two months using the oldest and most infuriating trick in the book – hiding in plain sight.
The Normandy Plaza Hotel is where Cunanan stayed and also met 43-yearold Ronnie Holston, a retired florist who was also staying at the hotel. He spoke to Maureen Orth exclusively who reported in her book that Holston helped Cunanan get sex work – “I set him up with a few old men, old rich guys around here. They would use my room.”
On the 15th July, after murdering Mr. Versace with two gunshot wounds, even after being pursued by a witness, Cunanan successfully fled the scene. The red truck was found in a nearby parking garage with a few of the shooter’s belongings such as clothes and passport. It took the police eight days to find the murderer, but by that time Andrew Cunanan had already taken his own life, having shot himself in the head on July 23rd 1997. His body was found in a luxury houseboat, which mysteriously sunk in December later that same year.
The true motives behind Cunanan’s killing spree can never truly be known. Psychologists and experts can only speculate what was going on in the dark mind of this murderer. There were some early signs to the destruction he would later cause: his year-book quote, reading ‘Après mois le déluge’ which translates literally to ‘after me, the flood’ but is more accurately interpreted as ‘after me comes disaster’.
And that is exactly what happened. Andrew Cunanan left the world in a worse state he found it – robbing the victims’ families of a brother, friend, uncle, father, husband – and the world of an incomparably talented designer that can never be forgotten and lives on in the success of the Versace House.
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