December 1, 2016
1994: Gianni Versace with his niece Allegra in Miami.
Gianni Versace: The Miami Years
He was our Sun King, a modern-day emperor who dazzled us with a singular vision that was as forward-thinking as it was unabashedly opulent and unapologetically romantic—tinged with what is always the endgame of romance: sex. From the moment Gianni Versace arrived in South Beach in 1992, he enraptured us, and the feeling was mutual. He had been on his way to Cuba when he stopped in Miami to visit his younger sister, Donatella, who was shooting an ad campaign with Bruce Weber, and became enamored with the dilapidated Art Deco neighborhood. As Donatella told The New York Times in 2001, she and Gianni were walking along Ocean Drive during that visit when he stopped in front of a house and announced that he wanted to buy it. That was Casa Casuarina, built in 1930 as an homage to a palace in the Dominican Republic. Versace purchased the property and the adjacent lot for $2.9 million, then spent more than $30 million transforming it into his stately pleasure dome, a glorious 10-bedroom palazzo with frescoed ceilings and a 54-foot pool inlaid with 24k gold. Likely the latter detail was no mere whim, as Versace ushered in the gilded age of South Beach; because Gianni was there, Elton John, Madonna, Sylvester Stallone, and so many others wanted to be there as well. Versace collaborated with Weber on a 1993 coffee-table book, South Beach Stories, then sent rococo prints splashed with the Art Deco District’s signature pastels down his Milan runway, causing Miami’s scintillating allure to truly go global.
“I want to be a designer for my time,” Versace once said. And it is both poetic and tragic that, for one brief, shining moment, he got his wish. Chances are if you lived in Miami in 1997, you remember exactly where you were on July 15 when you heard Gianni Versace had been murdered. It wasn’t solely the shock and horror of the crime—that a fame-seeking sociopath had assassinated him on the steps of his beloved Casa Casuarina. We also mourned the loss of Versace’s passion and his talent. Without Gianni, South Beach glamour has never quite been the same.
Beauty Begets a Boom
Kamikaze photos: That’s what I remember most, and most fondly, about producing fashion shoots in South Beach during the late ’80s and early ’90s. Nobody possessed permits—one rarely asked permission. Your crew swooped dervish-like into some shabby-chic environment in the Art Deco District, you got your shot, and exited just as quickly. Models changed in dingy public bathrooms without complaint—a budget for a location van was unheard of—and almost always you got lucky with a cool owner or manager of some outdoor café on Ocean Drive, who after a quick conversation and a handshake would lend the space to be used as a backdrop free of charge. While your Amazonian model preened and posed, just outside the photographer’s view sat a cadre of senior citizens, lined up in folding lawn chairs along the porches of long-forgotten Art Deco buildings. In these years before it became the epicenter of South Florida nightlife, this sleepy, decaying hamlet was known as “God’s waiting room.”
One could argue that fashion truly transformed South Beach. It was a confluence of circumstances—photographers discovering the neighborhood mixed with the weakening of the American dollar against European currencies, and the collective gleam in the eye of developers who looked upon rundown buildings and saw historic, glittering potential. The photographic triumvirate of Bruce Weber, Helmut Newton, and Patrick Demarchelier would be doing some of their most recognized work in Miami in the late ’80s and ’90s, capturing now-iconic images such as Weber’s Obsession campaign for Calvin Klein, the message of a heady scent rooted in the writhing of glistening bodies under azure skies and a blazing Miami sun. Fashion and Miami were forever changed.
There was a bit of sport at the time to witnessing the ongoing battle between two local modeling titans, Irene Marie and Michelle Pommier. Miami Beach-born former model and agent Irene Marie moved her burgeoning Fort Lauderdale offices to Ocean Drive in 1989, purchasing and renovating the Sun Ray Apartments building in the earliest days of the South Beach land rush. Fort Lauderdale-born Niki Taylor skyrocketed to mainstream attention after signing with Marie at the age of 14; she would later appear on the cover of Vogue, and several times on the cover of Ocean Drive. Michelle Pommier, meanwhile, had scored her own coup when a 13-year-old brunette beauty with razor-like cheekbones walked into her agency in 1982; her name was Christy Turlington. Beyond the A-listers, a bustling and bona fide industry had sprung up of catalogs and ad campaigns, edgy editorials and art for the sake of art, the latter seemingly wrapped in the commerce of a Valentino gown, as was the case with a series of captivating images featuring Turlington and photographed by Newton in 1995.
Over the years, there have been other moments that have solidified Miami Beach’s reputation as a fashion destination. The last and best, without question, occurred in 2008: That May, Karl Lagerfeld presented his 2009 Cruise collection for Chanel at the Raleigh; and in November, the Fontainebleau celebrated its billion-dollar refurbishment with festivities that were capped with the Victoria’s Secret fashion show, taped and then televised. Though in very separate ways, these high-wattage fashion events once again positioned Miami on a global stage.
We may never again achieve the dizzying heights of the mid-’90s, but designers will forever be influenced by the allure of Miami Beach’s golden sands and colorful lifestyle. And while the dollar may be a tad stronger against a Euro that shows more than a few cracks in its façade, and our Art Deco buildings have become highly coveted properties protected by historic preservation, it’s still easy to spot at least one fashion shoot happening on a brilliant January day. Though it’s an adventure of a different kind to plan one. Just make sure you get a permit.
PHOTOGRAPHY BY bruce weber/trunkarchive (versace)