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.

A view of the Versace Mansion’s courtyard.

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.

The Doheny Room in the Delano Hotel.

“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.”

Melissa Sardinia and Gianni Versace.

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.

A photo from South Beach Stories by photographer Doug Ordway.

“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.”

a ’90s Gianni Versace ad photographed by Ordway.

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.”

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