Gianni Ver­sace’s lav­ish im­pact on Mi­ami’s South Beach


As Bruce We­ber

wran­gled a group of 30 mod­els on a South Beach ho­tel rooftop, pho­tograph­ing what would be­come one of the first Calvin Klein Ob­ses­sion cam­paigns, his as­sis­tant Doug Ord­way watched from the street be­low. “There were all these naked kids hang­ing out on this rooftop,” the photographer says of the 1986 shoot. “You would see one el­derly per­son no­tice what is go­ing on and go, ‘Oh my God!’”

Back then, so many of the Art Deco ho­tels in the Mi­ami com­mu­nity had been claimed by re­tirees who booked long-term stays that the av­er­age age in South Beach was 80. “I think ev­ery­one had for­got­ten about Mi­ami,” Ord­way says. “All the build­ings were de­crepit, there was too much crime. There was no fash­ion com­mu­nity. There were no up­scale ho­tels.”

This was be­fore Gianni Ver­sace found him­self on the beach-front boule­vard Ocean Drive in 1992. In town to visit his sis­ter Donatella, whose then-hus­band Paul Beck is from nearby Hol­ly­wood, Florida, and to at­tend the open­ing of a new 3800-square-foot Ver­sace bou­tique in Bal Har­bour, the de­signer had planned to con­tinue on to Cuba. When he dis­cov­ered South Beach, he can­celled his trip.

There was so much crime in South Beach at the time that Melissa Sar­dinia, who op­er­ated four Ver­sace bou­tiques in Mi­ami be­tween the late ’80s and 2003, re­calls step­ping over nee­dles when open­ing the South Beach Ver­sace Jeans Cou­ture bou­tique in the morn­ing. Still, Ver­sace an­nounced his ar­rival in South Beach with typ­i­cal ex­trav­a­gance. He pur­chased the 24-room apart­ment com­plex The Am­s­ter­dam Palace on Ocean Drive for $2.95 mil­lion, then bought the neigh­bour­ing Ho­tel Re­vere for $3.7 mil­lion, and plunged $32 mil­lion into ren­o­vat­ing the prop­er­ties into a lav­ish ocean­front man­sion that suited his taste for the bold.

The Ver­sace Ef­fect on the area was ob­vi­ous to peo­ple like Jerry Pow­ers, who launched Ocean Drive magazine in De­cem­ber 1992 with an ex­clu­sive in­ter­view with Gianni Ver­sace him­self. “We had about three mod­el­ling agen­cies on the beach,” the pub­lish­ing

mag­nate-turned-painter re­calls. “By the time he fin­ished his place, there were prob­a­bly about 20.”

As South Beach be­came a kind of gold rush for beau­ti­ful peo­ple, with enough fash­ion pho­tog­ra­phy in pro­duc­tion that mod­els would re­lo­cate to Mi­ami for the en­tire win­ter, the hote­liers fol­lowed. Ord­way, who shot many Ver­sace cam­paigns in South Beach in the ’90s, re­calls when The Raleigh Ho­tel was vir­tu­ally the only choice. “We would have the Ver­sace crew, the Ar­mani crew, and the Donna Karan crew all stand­ing in the lobby, ev­ery­one check­ing each other out,” he re­calls.

The De­lano Ho­tel’s buzzy re­design by French de­signer Philippe Starck in 1994 was piv­otal to the area’s fash­ion­abil­ity. Madonna, a fre­quent guest of Ver­sace’s who ul­ti­mately pur­chased her own Mi­ami man­sion, in­vested in the ho­tel’s restau­rant, The Blue Door, even throw­ing her 37th birth­day party in the in­ti­mate space. At the time, she was the face of Ver­sace, and so she cel­e­brated in a form-fit­ting pink Ver­sace cock­tail dress with Donatella her­self. In April 2017, the space was rein­tro­duced as the prop­erty’s new night­club, The Do­heny Room.

“There were makeup artists and mod­els, and you would walk down the street and say hello to ev­ery­one,” Ord­way re­calls. “It was a mix of that with the re­tire­ment com­mu­nity and the Cuban com­mu­nity. It was such an un­usual mix that it worked re­ally well.”

“Gianni said, the right peo­ple are here—peo­ple who are ahead,” re­calls Sar­dinia, who now op­er­ates the by-ap­point­ment-only ate­lier Abiti Vin­tage, which spe­cial­izes in vin­tage Ver­sace. Ver­sace would sur­vey this emerg­ing king­dom from a nook in his pri­vate bath­room over­look­ing Ocean Drive, draw­ing in­spi­ra­tion from the newly fab­u­lous fash­ion mecca. “You could def­i­nitely see the change in how colour­ful his work be­came,” says Rose­mary Pringle, chair of the fash­ion pro­gram at Mi­ami’s pres­ti­gious De­sign and Ar­chi­tec­ture Se­nior High School (DASH). “I think that was di­rectly re­lated to the scene in Mi­ami, the sun­shine, the trop­i­cal feel­ing, the colour of the ho­tels.”

In 1992, Gianni ded­i­cated a col­lec­tion to South Beach, fol­lowed in 1993 by the cof­fee-ta­ble book South Beach Sto­ries. Pho­tog­ra­phy shot pri­mar­ily by Ord­way shows Kate Moss roller-skat­ing in a poppy-red jump­suit down the South Beach board­walk, and a mob of male mod­els in brightly printed silk blouses

as­sem­bled at The Book­ing Ta­ble, the café be­low the Irene Marie mod­el­ling agency at 8th and Ocean.

“If you wanted to sit a model at a café ta­ble, they were like, great! No prob­lem!” Ord­way says. “But then they all saw dol­lar fig­ures. So if you wanted to sit at a cor­ner café and put a model there, they were like, okay, $1,500. Ev­ery­one was like, we are not go­ing to deal with this any­more.”

The era could not have come to a more de­fin­i­tive close than when Ver­sace was shot on July 15th, 1997, as he was re­turn­ing from his morn­ing walk to the nearby News Café—the events of which will be dra­ma­tized in Amer­i­can Crime Story: The As­sas­si­na­tion of Gianni

Ver­sace on FX in early 2018. “It kind of de­stroyed what was go­ing on,” Ord­way says. “Just to have some­thing so aw­ful like that hap­pen.”

The villa Ver­sace built re­mains a draw for peo­ple around the world who feel a kin­ship with the brand, which will cel­e­brate its 40th an­niver­sary in 2018. “The peo­ple, es­pe­cially our re­peat vis­i­tors, are Ver­sace afi­ciona­dos,” says Chauncey Copeland, man­ager of Vic­tor Ho­tels, which op­er­ates Ver­sace’s home to­day as the bou­tique ho­tel The Villa Casa Ca­sua­r­ina. While the prop­erty is strictly re­served for guests, the cu­ri­ous can step in for a drink at the in­ti­mate, wood-pan­elled Onyx Bar, Ver­sace’s for­mer kitchen, or make a reser­va­tion at the Ital­ian-Mediter­ranean restau­rant Gianni’s.

At Ver­sace’s Spring/Sum­mer 2018 show in Mi­lan last Septem­ber, Donatella Ver­sace threw open the gates to the Ver­sace archives for the first time since tak­ing con­trol of the com­pany, re­pro­duc­ing prints and pieces from Gianni’s 1991 through 1995 col­lec­tions—many of which were de­signed dur­ing his time in South Beach. Su­per­mod­els Naomi Camp­bell, He­lena Chris­tensen, Cindy Craw­ford, Carla Bruni, and Clau­dia Schif­fer marched arm-in-arm down the cat­walk to Ge­orge Michael’s “Free­dom! ’90,” a salute not only to the late de­signer but to the era it­self.

“It was wild. It was ex­cit­ing. It was drain­ing,” says Ord­way of his own Ver­sace years in South Beach. “That pe­riod just in gen­eral in fash­ion is some­thing that will never be re­peated. I’m re­ally happy that I was part of that pe­riod, be­cause that was the pe­riod to do it.”

Clock­wise from far left: Villa Casa Ca­sua­r­ina’s pool; a view of the ho­tel’s court­yard; the Do­heny Room in the De­lano Ho­tel; A photo from South Beach Sto­ries by photographer Doug Ord­way; Melissa Sar­dinia and Gianni Ver­sace; a ‘90s Gianni Ver­sace ad...

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