Ocean forsaken, the Design District is evolving into Miami's epicenter of luxury, a hive of creativity through food, fashion, and design. But just how did Craig Robins pull it off?
In the eyes of the world, Craig Robins may be one of Miami's hottest real estate developers, thanks to the role he played in transforming the dilapidated Art Deco neighborhood of South Beach into a glittering playground for both locals and visitors.
Now less than a 10-minute drive from South Beach, the Miami-born Robins is at it again, reinventing the once forsaken Design District. The area north of Miami's downtown core, near Northeast 40th Street and Northeast Second Avenue (once a part of Buena Vista), earned its design moniker in the 1920s, when Theodore Moore built the first furniture showroom, Moore & Sons, there. But by the early 1990s, when Robins began casting around for a new part of Miami to develop, the vacancy rate among the area's rundown buildings was topping 50 percent and both property prices and rents were very, very cheap-a great business opportunity, certainly, as Robins instantly recognized. "Originally, in the mid-'90s, we were purchasing buildings for $20 to $30 per square foot. Today, land sells for more than $1,000 per square foot," he says.
In South Beach, that was such a big area, with a lot of property; we didn't have enough control to shape the neighborhood's identity," he recalls. In the Design District, he realized , he and whatever partners he chose to bring on board would have a free hand to reinvent the neighborhood how they saw fit.
Enter Robins the curator. Even as he set about acquiring properties in the area in the mid-1990s, then bringing back some of the furniture warehouses and showrooms that gave it its name nearly a century ago, he had in mind a radically different vision-one that is only now beginning to be realized, starting with the game-changing announcement by Louis Yttitton in early 2011 that it would abandon the Bal Harbour Shops in favor of establishing a Miami headquarters in a large, freestanding building in the Design District; the move would make Robins's new neighborhood the very "now" area of choice for both luxury retailers and their customers. And the luxury retailer didn't even wait for that building to be completed before relocating. "It was important for Louis Vuitton to be in the Design District now with a temporary store because we like to be part of building a story," says Valerie Chapoulaud-Floquet, president and CEO of Louis Vuitton North America. "It is part of our pioneering spirit." The move by Louis Vuitton, in Robins's eyes, was confirmation of his own vision from the luxury retail world. "Here was our opportunity to help define Miami as a cultural destination by creating a neighborhood that advocates creativity through design, are food, and fashion," Robins says. "I wanted to create a place thatdidn't just have galleries or restaurants, but that could become a destination for creative businesses."
The first step drew directly on the area's heritage and revolved around salvaging the neighborhood's buildings, renovating them, and recasting them as showrooms for everything from furniture to bathroom fixtures. That made the revitalized Design District a destination in its own right for the interior design cognoscenti, as it became the place to source one-of-a-kind items, custom cabinetry, or the latest trend in lighting or cabinetry beginning in the late 1990s. A turning point came in 2002, with the inception of Art Basel's sister show, Art Basel Miami (now Art Basel Miami Beach), says Robins. "We organized events in the Design District that brought even more people to the neighborhood." Even then, for a few more years, recalls restaurateur Michael Schwartz, who had opened Michael's Genuine Food & Drink in the area, "except for the art fair, it would be a bit of a ghost town at night. I tried to b1·ing potential investors to see the site during the day so they wouldn't be frightened of." But it was hopping in the daytime as affiuent shoppers, made even more aware of the area in the wake of Art Basel events, flocked to galleries and design showrooms.
The time was ripe, Robins concluded, for the next step: Design District 2.0, the transfmmation of the region into a hub for luxury retail. In his eyes, it was a logical extension of what he was already doing by providing designers and artists with a showcase for their talents - only now, however, the products in that showcase are the very latest in designer accessories and fashion from the world's premier brands, ranging from jewelry at Cartier and shoes by Christian Louboutin to menswear from Dior Homme. In the process, he is shaking up the established world of luxury retailing in Miami.
The critical ingredients for this next stage in the district's evolution proved to be Robins's association with Miami's art community and the neighborhood's roots as a showroom for the design trade. His work creating Design Miami, a major international design show, brought him into contact with Michael Burke, at the time CEO of Fendi. Burke rapidly became a fan of Robins's plans, and before long, Fendi Casa had opened its doors in the area. Ultimately, Burke and Bulgari served as ambassadors of a kind, Linking the 2011 that it would forge ahead with plans to build a major Miami presence in the district. Space was part of the appeal, to be sure, and flexibility was another attraction. Indeed, Louis Vuitton seized the opportunity to combine its departure from Bal Harbour and the announcement of its Design District plans with the news that it also would open a boutique in the Aventura Mall. But the real allure was in the nature of the district itself, which Louis Vuitton saw as "a neighborhood genuinely devoted to fostering creativity and promoting arts," says Chapoulaud-Floquet. These values mirror those of Louis Vuitton itself. making the area "a natural fit for us and an opportunity for us to showcase our relationship with the arts and our commitment to giving back to the community through the expression of art." Vuitton's willingness to stake its future here might be viewed as a catalyst, as others became more inclined to make the same leaps of faith. Hermes a1mounced its own departure from Bal Harbou1· and Design District plans in September 2011; Burberry and Ermenegildo Zegna have followed suit. In February, Robins and his new partner, LReal Estate, released news of an agreement with LVMH under which another 12 of its brands would join Louis Vuitton in the Design District, including Emilio Pucci, Bulgari, Celine, and Marc by Marc jacobs.
For now, at least, the center of the action is on northeast 40th Street, where the permanent stores of luxury retailers like Christian Louboutin. Maison Martin Margiela, and Dior Homme are nestled beside the temporary locations of Cartier, Prada, Louis Vuitton, Hermes, and others. The traditional gauges of premium locations are still evolving. (As are land values, jumping from $200 to $1,000 per square foot in the last two years.) Some argue that the mere presence of Louis Vuitton's permanent store will transform a less-busy Northeast 39th Street - today home to some fufurniture showrooms, a post office, and a lot of construction activity - into a recherche locale. But luxury retailers aren't relying only on scoring the "right" street or corner; while they want to be in close proximity to their rivals, they are counting on distinctive ar tistic flourishes to make their stores stand out from the crowd to an even greater extent than is the case in more established luxury retail districts, from Midtown Manhattan to Paris's Faubourg Saint-Germain. In part, that emphasis is due to the nature of tbe city of Miami, increasingly known for its edge and artistic vibrancy, but also because the luxury retailers believe that their affluent clientele want to feel a part of a broader artistic experience. Miami is the ideal retail incubator for them to out new ways of combining art and design in their outlets. This isn't confined to the interiors, either. The building in which Hermes will house its permanent store may boast a roof garden, but Louboutin - with architecure firm 212box as its collaborator - went a step further: The steel awning is shaped like a Louboutin shoe that extends the stone facade. When Louis Vuilton opened its temporary store, it opted to commission graffiti artist Marquis Lewisknown as Retna to paint a mural on the store's facade, a first for Louis Vuitton's US retail stores and a way for the luxury brand to combine its emphasis on experiential retailing with Miami's reputation as a center for the arts.
It's that kind of distinctive mix of retailers and artisans that could make the Design District more than just another high-end shopping venue-and simultaneously seals its success as a sophisticated retail destination. "Luxury brands are chasing the art crowd," says Anthony Barzilay Freund, former editor of Art + Auction. who is now director of fine art for lstdibs.com, a luxury retail site that combines everything (rom one-of-a-kind antiquities and works of art to fashion and real estate offerings. "No other world gives the sizzle the art world gives, offers the the talent. Luxury brands are smart to tap into it, smart to tap into the rarefied group of collectors buying major contemporary pieces."
Some may see Robins's eventual plans for the Design District as little more than a new kind of open-air mall, but Freund credits the area's backers with recognizing that the world's most affluent shoppers don't just want to spend money; they want an experience - and a diverse one.
Thanks to Michael Burke, Fendi, and LVMH, Robins now has these iconic retailers viewing the Design District as the nucleus for their own efforts to reinvent themselves to the growing throngs of ultra wealthy visitors to Miami from Latin America, Europe, and even Asia. "I have heard that some Europeans in quest of the latest 'must-own' coat or other object are being told they have a better chance of Boding it in Miami these days (because of less competition than in Paris, London, or New York- especially for a cold-weather garment, which Miami stores stock despite the fact that there is less demand from residents for them)," says Carole Sabas, New York-based correspondent for the French edition of Vogue, who recently published a fashion lifestyle guide to Miami. And even for those who aren in hot pursuit of a particular item, she figures the Design District will have an appeal due to its emphasis on public art (one of Robins's passions) and plans to open a lot of rooftop gardens and restaurants - part of the next stage of the district's growth, which Robins hopes will include a hotel and more residential space. Would he abandon his Miami Beach home to live ll1ere himself? "I wouldn't rule it out. I see it becoming precisely the kind of place l would want not just to spend time in, but live in."