Shanon Materio would be the first to say she’s never cared about fashion.
She shrugs her shoulders.
When she and her husband, Phil, who own McMow Art Glass in Lake Worth, were asked in 1992 to restore a stained-glass window for an old Miami Beach mansion, the owner’s name meant nothing to her.
She knew it started with a “V,” because they inscribed the letter on the repaired window as a gift to the owner.
The “V” stood for Versace, Gianni Versace, creator of an Italian fashion dynasty and the artistic genius who was restoring a South Beach villa while reshaping SoBe into a global glamour destination.
“The best thing that happened to me was not knowing who he was,” says Materio, now a West Palm Beach city commissioner. “I would have been so intimidated.”
Though she does regret giving away the couture clothes he gave her.
“I didn’t know what they were,” she says, ruefully.
A few years later, she not only knew who Versace was, but considered the designer a mentor after she, Phil and their staff, along with dozens of other artisans, helped to transform the rundown 1930 mansion into an opulent palazzo of silk and velvet, frescoes, mosaics and stained glass.
“He made me such a better artist,” said Materio. “You learned not to say ‘I don’t know how to do that,’ you just figured it out.”
As the story goes, Versace was headed for Havana in 1990 when he stopped in Miami, where he was entranced by the glamorous decay of Miami Beach and, especially, the crumbling Old World bones of the Ocean Drive mansion known as the Amsterdam Palace apartments.
He paid $2.9 million for the building, then bought an adjacent hotel for $3.7 million, which he razed for a guest wing and pool, paving the pool bottom with thousands of mosaics, some coated with 14-karat gold.
Versace restored the building’s original name, Casa Casuarina, after the Australian casuarina pines that covered much of South Florida before they were labeled a pest tree.
Like a modern Medici in a Floridian Florence, Versace created a creative cauldron on South Beach that bubbled with artists and craftsmen working at the peaks of their talents.
For three to four years, they labored long hours, sometimes sleeping at the mansion, to fulfill the designer’s vision of lavish decadence, inspired by Greek and Roman myths rendered in the florid colors of the tropics.
Accustomed to the blander taste of Palm Beachers, Materio was confused at first about creating such visual extravagance.
So, Versace offered a simple guideline.
“When you think you’ve gone too far, just go one step further.”
Said Materio, “It took me a while to realize that pink and orange really do go together.”
Materio never heard him raise his voice, but he wanted the work done quickly, she remembers.
A panel that would take 16 weeks had to be done in three.
“I went through a (third) pregnancy, gave birth and hardly remembered this child until he was 3,” said Materio, only half joking.
At one point, she even employed her mother to help coat every window’s lead veins with gold leaf.
The intense work became a family affair, for both Versace and the artists. Versace’s younger sister, Donatella, and older brother, Santo, stayed frequently at the house. (Donatella took over the Versace fashion empire after her brother’s death.)
Materio, who had two daughters before her son, P.J. was born, often brought Taylor, then 6, to play with Donatella Versace’s daughter, Allegra. (Allegra went on to inherit much of her uncle’s estate.)
“I remember eating gelato with her in the kitchen,” said Taylor, now 32, who works with her parents.
Celebrities came, too, although someone usually had to explain who they were to Materio.
“One day, Sting came to the door to let me in,” she said. “Of course, I didn’t know who he was.”
The musician graciously posed for a photo with her and some of her thrilled staff.
“I was more excited by sitting between the two Picassos on the wall,” said Materio. “Isn’t that crazy?”
Her crew, however, preferred the sight of the famous rock star jogging on the beach in his Speedo, then washing off in the beach’s public shower.
By the time they were finished, Versace had the Materios install stained-glass windows and doors in almost every room of the 10-bedroom, 11-bath villa. It was $300,000 just in stained glass.
“He told me he’d spent $50 million on the house,” said Materio.
Versace’s 1993 collection was a love letter to Miami, made with bright fever dream prints of palm trees, corals, flowers and suns mixed with animal prints and Greek key borders.
“He once told me that in interior design, like in fashion, you always have to leave something to the imagination. You look at some of his dresses and you think, what’s not on display, but there was always something. Same thing with interiors. He piled on so much decoration but there was also restraint there,” said Materio.
After his murder, she didn’t return to Casa Casuarina for two years.
The house had been sold and the new owner wanted something repaired. But he wouldn’t pay for the expensive mouth-blown German glass that gave Versace’s windows the brilliance of stilled fireworks.
She says,”I was never hired there again because I made it known I wouldn’t compromise his vision for the house.”
Today, the house is a luxury hotel called The Villa, Casa Casuarina, but she’ll never visit.
She couldn’t bear seeing Versace’s villa without the man who dreamed it into being.