Italian Designer Versace Shot To Death In Florida -- Couturier, 50, Was One Of Fashion World's Trendiest Arbiters

MIAMI BEACH, Fla. - Gianni Versace, whose flamboyant fashions adorned celebrities and socialites from Rome to Hollywood, was fatally shot in the head today at point-blank range outside his South Beach villa. He was 50.

The multimillionaire Italian designer was walking home from the nearby News Cafe, where he had picked up an Italian newspaper around 7 a.m., waiter Michael Kislingbury said.

He was pronounced dead at Jackson Memorial Hospital, spokeswoman Conchita Ruiz-Topinka said.

The FBI, which is assisting police in the investigation, said it was looking into the possibility that suspected serial killer Andrew Cunanan, one of the agency's most wanted fugitives, may be involved. He is wanted in four murders in Minnesota, Illinois and New Jersey.

Witnesses described the shooter as a white man in his mid-20s, about 5 feet 8, dressed in a white shirt and gray shorts and wearing a backpack. Cunanan is 27 and is slightly taller, 5 feet 10 1/2.

"We're looking into the possibility. I know our Miami office is working on that right now," the FBI's Kevin Ricket said in Minneapolis. "We're looking into anything that is even close."

Police said Versace's killer, acting alone and using a handgun, walked away after the shooting. There was no sign of robbery.

"I do know it is not a random act of violence," Police Chief Richard Barreto said. "I believe that he was targeted."

Cunanan, who has stayed one step ahead of investigators in a nationwide manhunt since May, is suspected of killing his former gay lover and three other men.

"This is a great loss to all of us," fellow designer Emanuel Ungaro said. "Throughout his career, especially in the past 10 years, Gianni Versace has left his mark on our times, with his vitality and joyful way of being."

Mr. Versace's three-story, Spanish-style home, the only private residence on the fashionable stretch of Ocean Drive, is surrounded by a high wall. His crest adorns the ornate entrances to his estate.

Hours after the shooting, hundreds of people had gathered across the street, popularly known as "Deco Drive."

Along with Giorgio Armani, Mr. Versace was considered Italy's leading ready-to-wear designer and a symbol of Italian fashion. Celebrities who have worn his designs include Courtney Love, Elton John, Demi Moore, Madonna, Rod Stewart, Jane Fonda, Prince, Julie Andrews, Kim Basinger, Jane Seymour, figure skater Oksana Baiul and Princess Diana, according to his company.

Diana said she was "devastated at the loss of a great and talented man," according to Buckingham Palace.

A native of Reggio Calabria in southern Italy, Mr. Versace began designing ready-to-wear for other firms in 1972 in Milan. He launched the Gianni Versace label with an autumn-winter collection in 1978.

Besides women's and men's wear, his lines include children's clothing, lingerie, beachwear, accessories and perfume. He also designed fabrics, linens and chinaware.

Mr. Versace - pronounced "ver SAH chay" - gained fame in the 1980s, staging his fashion shows with blaring rock music, glaring flood lights and mega screens reproducing what was going on on the runway.

At the debut of his winter collection in Milan this March, Mr. Versace toned down his style, taking his models off the runway and letting them walk close to the audience. Among the celebrity guests were Andie MacDowell, Elizabeth Hurley, Hugh Grant and Boy George. "I'm moving more into the reality of things," Mr. Versace said at the time. "It's time to step back and show clothes."

Mr. Versace's brother and business manager, Santo, is appealing a May conviction for bribing tax inspectors in a case that implicated several prominent fashion designers.