In “American Crime Story’s” second season, creator Ryan Murphy explored the social significance of the murder of legendary fashion designer Gianni Versace (Édgar Ramírez) by spree-killer Andrew Cunanan (Darren Criss) outside his Miami mansion in 1997. In particular, Murphy contrasts the high and low worlds of Versace and Cunanan in Miami, the difficulty of coming out of the closet in the ’90s, and the culture’s underlying homophobia.
Visually, it was a tour-de-force for production designer Judy Becker (“Feud: Bette and Joan”) and costume designer Lou Eyrich (a three-time Emmy winner for “American Horror Story”). And Miami’s South Beach became the visual epicenter. “It’s about the clash between the high Versace world and the low Cunanan world,” Becker said. “But then within Cunanan’s world there were the contrasts of being taken care of by sugar daddies and being on his own.”
The clothes, too, reflected the difference between Versace, who transformed fashion into a glam party world, and Cunanan, who aspired to be a part of that fantasy. “Versace liked to be stylish but comfortable, and Andrew was a chameleon: He dressed the part to fit into the older gentleman’s world,” said Eyrich.
Miami: Black and Gold Meets Pink
The Versace mansion (Casa Casuarina) has since become a boutique hotel, but, fortunately, the production was allowed access. The opening of the first episode (“The Man Who Would Be Vogue”) was completely shot in the Versace mansion, including the interior, the pool area, and the first courtyard. The interior design was intricate and extravagant, with two rooms made out of seashells. Since much of the original furniture was sold, the art department commissioned Italian upholsterers to recreate the original, Versace-designed, furniture fabric, accentuating black and gold.
“His ambition and authenticity were important to Ryan,” Becker said. “Versace was rich and successful so the sets showed the success, taste, and his personality. He was very flamboyant, but we didn’t go crazy with the palette. We used a lot of tone on tone, whereas Andrew’s sugar daddies lived in monochromatic homes, and when he was alone, Andrew lived in a world of beige.”
In the second episode (“Manhunt”), Becker built two important sets in LA for the Miami locations: the interior of the grungy Normandy Plaza Hotel, where Andrew stayed, and a more upscale hotel, where he worked as a prostitute. Both emphasized different shades of pink, at Ryan’s request. “It’s a color you see in Miami,” she said. “It’s indicative of the sunsets, and it represents the pink triangle that gay men had to wear in concentration camps.
“The Normandy had cracking on the walls and it represented a place where Andrew had no power and was alone and poor. Ryan kept telling me to add more cracks. It really showed the decay. The other hotel had pink neon and the Memphis look [with bold colors], and was a place where Andrew held power.”
High and Low Fashion Statements
Without the cooperation of the Versace fashion house, costume designers Eyrich and Allison Leach were left to their own creative devices, so they turned to online resellers to purchase authentic Versace pieces while making garments for the principal actors. Two Versace standouts included the pink robe that he wore in the beginning, and the iconic black leather bondage dress worn by his sister, Donatella (Penélope Cruz ).
In fact, Eyrich’s favorite outfit for Versace was a leather shirt and pants that she recreated from one of his research books. “It really showed the beauty of his work,” she said. But the bondage dress was a difficult construction challenge. “Trying to figure out how he draped that had all of us in the department full of awe and respect for Versace and his meticulous hand,” she added
However, when it came to Cunanan, there was obviously a lot more artistic license in dressing the 27-year-old hustler, who relied on relationships with wealthy older men to achieve the appearance of success and affluence. Eyrich and Leach mainly used descriptions from Maureen Orth’s book, “Vulgar Favors,” from which the FX series was adapted.
But when Cunanan fled to Miami, desperate and embittered, he planned the murder of Versace with few resources. “He has very little clothes left after his killing spree and he’s using drugs and losing weight,” said Eyrich. “We back track and tell his story, dressing him very sporty and conservative or preppy to fit in.”
“It was more about not letting him stand out,” added Eyrich. “Dressing him up in a linen sport coat with the perfect jeans and a loafer for when he’s at the height of the high life, to finding a place when he’s destitute and his clothes are all too big on him.”