By Jim DeFede

Follow CBSMIAMI.COM: Facebook | Twitter

MIAMI BEACH (CBSMiami) — With the twentieth anniversary of Gianni Versace’s murder, those who remember Versace recall the impact the designer had on South Beach when he bought a home there in 1992.

READ MORE: COVID In Florida: 6,906 New Cases, 50 Deaths Reported On Saturday

“When Versace arrived on Miami Beach the wattage just went way, way up,” said Tara Solomon, the nightlife columnist for the Miami Herald at the time. “He was very hungry for the energy Miami Beach provided. He loved the beautiful environment, he loved all the pretty boys and the pretty girls. I mean Miami Beach was a fashion designers dream and he made it so to.”

The Versace Murder: A South Beach Story Pt. 1

Luis Canales, a promoter dubbed the King of South Beach, agrees.

“It’s sensual, tropical, hyper sexual energy,” he said. “Two thousand models right out of central casting populating the beach within that one square mile. South Beach served as the perfect backdrop for Versace and his brand. Versace was not only a master at his craft but he was also a genius at self-promotion. His effect on South Beach was the same as Brigitte Bardot in Saint Tropez 50 years ago. He made the destination a globally recognized brand.”

It also cannot be understated Versace’s place in the gay community.

“He was an icon of gay life,” noted Tom Austin, who was a writer for Miami New Times and Ocean Drive magazine. “There were very few gay [celebrities] like Elton John, Versace – these huge gay icons that symbolize having it all and being gay, openly gay and having big houses and fabulous parties. He lived large and there was all that media attention around him so you could tap into that.”

In a 1994 interview with Charlie Rose, Versace explained why he liked living here.

“Miami’s cool,” he said. “Miami’s a place where you can be yourself without running, you know, in Milano you have to run every day. Miami’s cool. Simple, beautiful, the weather is fantastic, you don’t have, really, to run anyplace. I wake up and I work. I’m very serene there.”

READ MORE: Miami Dolphins Host 11th Annual Dolphins Challenge To Raise Funds For Cancer Research

That serenity was destroyed on July 15, 1997, when Andrew Cunanan walked up behind Versace on the steps in front of the fashion designer’s South Beach mansion and shot him twice in the back of the head.

“When Versace was shot I was in my car running errands,” Solomon recalled. “The Herald called and they said, `Okay we’ve got some news, Versace has been shot.’ And I went numb. And it was one of those very sobering moments you remember where you were not unlike when Kennedy was shot. We loved Versace. He loved us and he was on some levels our patron saint and I think when Versace was killed there was obviously a loss of innocence.”

Sitting at Books & Books Café on Lincoln Road, Israel Sands, who was Versace’s florist, and Canales reflected recently on the Beach today.

“South Beach always reinvents itself,” Canales said. “It’s a party destination. It’s a party town. So the parties continued. The life continued. It’s very materialistic. It’s very ostentatious and…”

“Superficial,” Sands interrupted.

“Superficial,” Canales agreed, and then added, “It’s always been that way and that’s part of the energy and the charm. The vulgarity of Miami is so strong and so wonderful and that’s what creates the magic of the Magic City.”

Today, the models are gone, rents in South Beach have skyrocketed and the Versace Mansion was sold and is now a tourist hub. Couples take selfies on the steps where Versace was murdered. Walking tours, bike tours, and bus tours all include it among their stops.

Next year, a miniseries on Cunanan and Versace’s murder will air on FX – they spent months on Miami Beach shooting – including at the mansion.

“I could not have imagined it would become a parody of itself that it has,” Austin said with a laugh. “There is a restaurant now called Gianni’s at the mansion, which you can’t even make up the levels of bad taste on that.”

MORE NEWS: Florida House To Take Up Transgender Athlete Ban

To learn more, tune in to CBS4 for a special – “The Versace Murder: A South Beach Story” – on Sunday, July 16th at 11:30 a.m. 

Jim DeFede