Miami Style Makes a Comeback

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Dismissed for decades as the land that style forgot, the city is having another moment in the fashion sun.

It’s hard to believe now, but in its heyday in the 1930s Lincoln Road was dubbed “the Fifth Avenue of the South.” As the fashionable epicenter of a city founded on showy derring-do, and whose beaches did not require the black stockings commonplace in more sober locales like Palm Beach, the shopping strip offered up the latest risqué fashions. As a 1931 Vogue magazine article noted, “The South brings freedom: warm winds, wide blues, and the gayest, briefest clothes.”

These days Lincoln Road is more than a little démodé, having been overrun by touristy restaurants and boutiques, but Miami’s premium on skimpy nouveau extravagance has remained a constant.

“Miamians like to look sexy and show off what lies beneath the clothes,” explains designer Tomas Maier, who divides his time between New York and Florida.

And therein lies Miami’s fashion problem. In a city where dreams go to diet, clothes (high fashion or otherwise) have a hard time competing with their hyper-toned wearers.

That’s not to say that Miami is entirely the land that style forgot, but the city’s most significant contributions to the fashion arena have stemmed not from local designers but from its portrayal in popular culture. While other examples come to mind (Michelle Pfeiffer’s scene-stealing entrance in a backless satin slip dress in Brian De Palma’s 1983 film Scarface, for one), it was the TV show Miami Vice that really put the city on the fashion map.

Miami Vice premièred in 1984, with Don Johnson as James “Sonny” Crockett and Philip Michael Thomas as Ricardo “Rico” Tubbs—two undercover Metro-Dade detectives with tropical brio to rival the louche private investigator played by Frank Sinatra in the 1967 film Tony Rome. Their permanent-vacation, pastel-heavy look, which drew heavily on the unstructured suiting that Giorgio Armani was doing in Italy, became a national sensation and arguably ushered in the era of the metrosexual.

“The show has taken Italian men’s fashion and spread it to mass America,” said Kal Ruttenstein, the late senior vice president of Bloomingdale’s, in a 1985 Time cover story about the show. “Sales of unconstructed blazers, shiny fabric jackets and lighter colors have gone up noticeably.”

Miami Vice was not only a hit with TV audiences and style-starved men but also with fashion designers, including Gianni Versace. “The first person I ever dressed in Miami was Don Johnson,” Versace would later recall. A frequent visitor to Miami from the late ’80s, Versace became so enamored of the city that in 1992 he purchased Casa Casuarina, a garish mansion on Ocean Drive, for $2.9 million and proceeded to spend $33 million on renovations.

Soon Versace and Miami became indissolubly fused in the public imagination, with images of palm trees and hunky male models in foulard-print shirts on South Beach appearing in every fashion magazine of note and, ultimately, in the highly collectible coffee-table book South Beach Stories.

But with Versace’s murder outside his home in 1997, the era of Miami as a party-crazed high-fashion Eden came to an end. “Everything changed when Versace passed away,” says hairdressing legend Oribe, who worked on many of the Versace campaigns and now resides in Miami. “He was so over-the-top that his death left a huge hole; the glamour was gone.”

Until now. Luxury behemoths are opening up boutiques all over the city (see Bal Harbour Shops vs. the Design District), presumably to serve the evolving tastes of Miamians and the sophisticates from Latin America and beyond who are flocking to the slew of new hotels and real estate developments. And nascent local concerns like Del Toro and Miansai are helping to break down the fashion stereotypes associated with the city.

Still, some locals like Oribe hope that the new focus on luxury and youthful sophistication does not fully erase the city’s glitzy past. “I mean, thank God for Miami being a little tacky!” he says. “It gives it flavor, and without flavor you have no Miami.”