By Jay Cheshes, Photography by Doug Ordway
Just after Christmas in 1991, Italian designer Gianni Versace, en route to Cuba on vacation, stopped in Miami to attend the opening of his new 3,800-square-foot Bal Harbour Shops boutique. The new store described as a “space-age palazzo” in the Miami Herald, would be his Milan fashion house’s most over-the-top American outpost, with mirrored columns, plush velvet curtains, and imposing Greco-Roman style ebony chairs. The black marble floors were inlaid with iridescent glass tiles that formed tropical plants, coral reefs, and other decorative patterns. Versace’s newly introduced Medusa-head medallion logos were everywhere.
Versace was the toast of the town at the opening party, surrounded by models and fashion editors, along with his sister, Donatella, and actress Sandra Bernhard, among other high-profile well-wishers. Afterwards, as legend has it, he asked a cab driver to take him somewhere “fancy and fun.” They wound up on South Beach, which was just beginning to emerge from decades of neglect, parked in front of an imposing stone building on Ocean Drive with a bronze statue of Aphrodite in front.
Versace was smitten.
Thirty-two years after the designer first glimpsed what would become his Miami pied-à-terre, Versace’s fashion legacy remains inextricably intertwined with the city whose exuberant, pastel-hued, tropical lifestyle he helped propel. As he laid down roots in South Beach in the 1990s, Versace added jet fuel to the fashion transformation already underway, as modeling agencies began sprouting like mushrooms. The Art Deco buildings along the beach became the backdrop for every hot new campaign—as well as inspired some of the imagery captured by lensman Doug Ordway and featured in the book “South Beach Stories,” published in 1993 by Gianni and Donatella Versace. Here, Ordway, a longtime Versace collaborator, takes us behind the scenes of some of his most memorable images. For more from the Versace archive, follow Ordway @versaceunseen.
“After working as Bruce Weber’s assistant for three and a half years, I relocated to Milan in 1989 to start my own photographic career,” says Ordway. “I spent six months there doing ‘model tests,’ but didn’t have much luck getting clients. Milan was about to close for August holidays, and I was questioning if I would return come September. At just the right moment, a make-up artist friend came to town to work on the Versace show, and asked me to stop in. I instantly clicked with everyone at Versace, and they invited me to come the next day and take some photos for the launch of their new line, Versus. They loved the photos and hired me the following September, as well as for many seasons afterwards, to shoot backstage at their main fashion shows. Gianni was so happy with the images from one of the men’s shows that he decided to use the photos for his advertising campaign.”
“I was thrilled when Gianni decided to send me to South Beach, with huge suitcases filled with leather and printed silks,” Ordway recalls. “He and I looked through his library of books for inspiration, and then he sent me alone, as a young photographer, to see what I could do. The first images I created were the groups of men together. This was the beginning of what would become the book, ‘South Beach Stories.’”
“I was a bit of a ‘wildcard’ as Versace was known to work with the best of the best photographers,” says Ordway. “I continued for years as Gianni’s wildcard, always shooting backstage imagery, as well as a variety of the main campaigns.”
Doug Ordway has been shooting for the Versace family, including in close collaboration with Donatella Versace, since the 1990s. He recently launched a website dedicated to a largely unpublished archive of images. To learn more, visit VersaceUnseen.com and follow on Instagram @versaceunseen.