With Michelle Obama and Kate Middleton among his clients, Naeem Khan, one could say, is a prime example of the American dream. He moved from India to New York City in the late '70s to work under Halston, garnering the knowledge and experience to launch his own namesake line in 2003. Miami, however, didn't catch his attention until about five years later, when he and his wife Ranjana bought a home in the Floridian city. "As a designer, I travel the world, and I definitely felt an energy that attracted me to [Miami.] I felt it could be a future big city, like a mega city," says Khan.
With a desire to give back to the country that continues to drive his career, Khan is leading a charge to reinvigorate Miami's fashion industry roots. Several decades ago, the city had thriving neighborhoods known for manufacturing garments. But as production started to move overseas, so did the jobs. Today, Miami's association with fashion has more to do with nightlife and swimwear. (A new, higher-end Miami Swim Week is set to take place in July.) But Khan hopes to expand our perception of the city with plans to build his company's future headquarters, a 70,000-square-foot space, along the Miami River. By late 2018 or early 2019, his design, production, licensing and more will take place in Miami. "I'm not saying it's an easy task. It's a huge amount of investment," says Khan. And it's an investment that's gained the support of both the county and city mayor, according to the designer. "A city needs business related to production to create jobs," he says. "We are creating jobs and bringing in a whole industry."
Designer Rene Ruiz, whose evening gowns and dresses can be found at Saks Fifth Avenue and Neiman Marcus, has been running his eponymous brand in Miami for the past 25 years. In 2013, in need of an efficient way to meet the increasing demands of his stockists, he opened a 10,000-square-foot factory in the Miami-adjacent Hialeah. He currently oversees 60 employees. "Everybody looked to Miami for the clubs, nightlife and beaches," says Ruiz. "But they never thought Miami had become the metropolis that it is today. I think with the whole new wave of architecture that has been changing the skyline of Miami — the Pérez Art Museum, Frost Museum of Science, the Adrienne Arsht Center — the whole culture of Miami has been becoming richer and richer, and much more influential around the world."
Together, Ruiz and Khan are laying Miami's groundwork for a budding fashion industry, says Marimar Molinary, Miami Dade College's Director of Academic Development. This fall, the school will launch the Miami Fashion Institute with a two-year associate's degree program in fashion design and merchandising. "Miami has the elements to be the international fashion hub," says Molinary. "But the industry won't reach its full potential unless it has an educational infrastructure to prepare a skilled workforce." The application process will open June 29, and the Miami Fashion Institute plans to accept 50 students for its first class.
On the retail front, Miami is quickly becoming a major player in the luxury market, thanks largely to Craig Robins, CEO and president of Dacra, the company behind the development of Miami's Design District. Dacra and L Real Estate, an LVMH-affiliated investment firm, joined forces in 2010 to truly transform the neighborhood. "We are equally investing in the creative side of the neighborhood as we are making spaces for business," says Robins. "And what that's done is inspire the most important brands of the world to do amazing new concepts."
By 2015, the Design District attracted such fashion brands as Hermès (its sixth flagship in the world), Dior (its biggest store in the U.S.), Louis Vuitton, Lanvin, Marni, Marc Jacobs, Rick Owens, Cartier, Céline, Givenchy, Loewe and Tom Ford, among many others. This year, the Design District will welcome flagships for Isabel Marant, Saint Laurent, Rag & Bone and Tory Burch. In 2017, Alice & Olivia and Diane von Furstenberg also have plans to open up shop. "Those are indicative that Miami is considered a very important market," says Robins.
"Only a handful of cities in the world can be so successful so quickly," adds Zach Winkler, a senior associate of CBRE Miami's urban and high street retail leasing practice. Winkler believes that Miami's appeal to international retailers has joined the ranks of cities like New York and Los Angeles, especially for European and Latin American brands looking to enter the U.S. market. "It's actually amazing that they're considering Miami as their first stop now, even over a city like New York," he says. "Miami is a true gateway city to the rest of the world. There's so much going on here right now."
One major driving force of Miami's increasing relevance in the fashion industry has been Art Basel Miami, a highly anticipated international art fair that's taken place every December since 2002. "That was one of the biggest things that began to change the city for the better," says Miami-born Roma Cohen, who founded the high-end boutique Alchemist with his wife Erika. "It brought all sorts of different demographics to Miami during a beautiful part of the year. People began to appreciate the landscape and the weather and the Art Deco vibe and all of what the city was about." And where there's an art crowd, there's usually a fashion clique not too far behind. Art Basel Miami has served as a great marketing platform for brands across the globe, including Alchemist, which, in 2013, partnered with influential Paris boutique Colette on a 24-hour "drive-thru" offering exclusive art pieces and merchandise.
Independent retailers like Alchemist, which has a newly opened fine jewelry outpost in the Design District, and The Webster, which has expanded beyond Miami with a new flagship in Houston, have helped build the foundation for designers and fashion professionals to launch their own businesses in the city. Simonett Pereira, born in Venezuela and raised in Miami, was a fashion blogger before she founded Style Mafia in 2013. It offers small runs of six collections a year, and just nabbed ASOS and Shopbop as two new retailers. The label's showroom is in the up-and-coming Wynwood neighborhood, known for its graffiti-covered buildings, bars, boutiques, art galleries and restaurants. (Although Pereira names Little Haiti and Ironside as the next buzzing areas in Miami.)
Fashion players from New York City have also migrated to Miami to continue their careers. One of them is Kelly Framel, also known as The Glamourai. She started to take regular 2.5-hour flights down to Miami in December 2014, and in October of last year, she sold her apartment and began splitting her time between the two cities. Framel and her boyfriend are official residents of Mid-beach, which she claims is another up-and-coming area for the fashion crowd. The neighborhood is already home to fashion-friendly hotels like the Faena, the Edition, the W, 1 Hotel, Soho House and the newly re-branded Thompson Hotel, now called The Confidante.
Currently, Framel is working on a project in Miami that she is obliged to keep under wraps, but she happily spoke about why she made the big move: "There's a scene bubbling up here that's really palpable and that I haven't seen in New York or LA in a long time," says Framel. "It's definitely in its nascency, the early days, but a scene is most special during that time. I don't know anybody that's not spending time in the city. My boyfriend and I joked that it's the sixth borough — we see our New York friends more in Miami than we do in New York."