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Arena Homme: Prada, Miami

Arena Homme: Prada, Miami

Day One. Months before a Miami trip was mentioned the Baxter Dury track of the same name was uppermost on my Spotify travel playlist sandwiched, oddly, between ‘Moskow Diskow' and the latest from Mr Jukes. On arrival I wondered if Dury had a point: 'Welcome to Miami now/Broken promises are here'.  The city was new to me. Prada, the reason for my visit, less so. (The new store here is a break with the past and a glimpse of the future). It was January. Winter in England. In Miami it was 75°F. A semi-dry season between two moments synonymous with the neon city: Art Basel Miami Beach pulls in the rich for a week in December. Spring break attracts the young to Florida. It's aptly captured in Harmony Korine’s film ‘Spring Breakers’, in which the voice of Faith (Selena Gomez) is heard over images of drunken, drug-fuelled, sexed-up teenagers, semi-naked at beach parties: ‘I'm starting to think this is the most spiritual place I've ever been’. The designer-clad curators and gallery owners drawn to the Art Basel fair engage in their own bacchanalian excess in a city that's currently re-inventing itself.  Something it's done throughout its history, and often in the aftermath of riots and hurricanes. To the fore of the transformation there's a visionary entrepreneur. This was true with the creation of Coconut Grove, which launched Miami at the beginning of the twentieth century, and neighbouring Miami Beach which blossomed on a mangrove swamp between the wars.  Since the 1950s the city has been a haven for the émigré seeking exile. Little Havana is here. Little Haiti is here. A less official Little San Juan is here. And now another enclave between these neighbourhoods, attracting the rich foreigners passing through second or third or fourth homes in the skyscrapers altering the landscape at the water’s edge: the new Miami Design District.  

Local boy and real estate developer Craig Robins is behind the scheme. He created Miami Design fair, which runs parallel with Art Basel.  His private art collection is held here.  Like Miuccia Prada he believes in bringing art and fashion together.  'They both have the same social inquisitiveness’, she has said, 'and reflect the dramas, the joys, the pleasures of life as it is lived today’. At last year’s Art Basel Miami the designer staged a three-day nightlife event with the conceptual artist Carsten Höller ('The Prada Double Club Miami’). That same week saw the opening of  the new Prada store in the Miami Design District. Like this city, Prada is no stranger to change. A year ago it launched Prada 365, a strategy to remodel the brand from social media to retail. The store is the latest development in the masterplan.  Stylistically, it jettisons the formal and embraces the domestic. Mrs Prada - as of course, she prefers to be called - has declared that this is the future of retail. When she speaks others listen; when she speaks of the future, they listen hard.  Like I say, I was familiar with Prada but Miami less so. America was a relative stranger to me. Home of chance meetings. Coincidences. Natural disasters. At least in my experience -  a survivor of LA’s 1994 earthquake.  Prada pulled me to the former sun and fun capital of the world…..Welcome to Miami now……..the former retirement capital of the Atlantic coast….. Broken promises are here. A long way for a short stay, I know.  It felt like a pilgrimage. And a pilgrimage is, well, a nobler kind of travel according to Hilaire Belloc, ‘in which we tell our tales, draw our pictures, compose our songs’. 

Day Two. It was late-morning and 73 degrees and rising when I reached the design district. Across the Biscayne Bay from Miami beach, mainland Miami seems impossible to navigate via public transport. Those that can afford to, choose Uber cars and car pools. The driver was in his twenties, and born in Colombia. ‘I’m not a gringo’, he joked. It seemed an old-fashioned word from another time, when people hailed cabs and paid by cash. What did I want to listen to throughout my journey? I asked him to play his song of the moment, maybe the 'our tune’ that made him and his girlfriend swoon - her photo was on the dashboard. He chose ‘Stay’ by Kygo. The Colombian had studied at business school. He had made tentative investments in cryptocurrencies.  Despite stories of crashes and flashes in pans, Bitcoin was the future he assured me.  (Like Mrs Prada he had an eye on tomorrow). I wondered if the joys, pleasures, dramas of his life would be reflected in the 650 square metre space at Prada and the art and fashion of the new design district. He had little interest. Fort Lauderdale was his pleasure between shifts. And anyway, all this, he said, as we arrived at my destination, raising his arm and sweeping away the gleaming, golden lower case letters of miu miu, will be under water in twenty or twenty-five years. He was as certain of this as he was of Bitcoin’s long-term prospects.

The Miami Design District is a work in progress. Cranes hover and construction workers gather at the corner of 41st Street and 2nd Avenue, navigating plans as though they were maps that could lead them to the treasure. Certain flagship stores of familiar luxury brands rise from the flawless streets with the majesty of the pyramids and similar wonders: Dior, Tom Ford, Rick Owens, Maison Margiela among them. Towering above these, the temple where other treasures are held - those not in the Robins collection: the Institute of Contemporary Arts (which he co-founded). The public sculptures that pepper the streets are outnumbered by valets stationed at pitches throughout: mature black men in electric blue polo shirts.  In its previous lifetime the district specialised in clothing, when locals worked in manufacturing. Now, inevitably, retail and the service industry are the main options. Nearby Wynwood, where the graffiti and  murals of  Wynwood Walls attracts snap-happy tourists with elongated selfie-sticks, was once dominated by shoe-making. 

The design district had the appearance of a deserted, yet perfect film set. Rather like Rodeo Drive the day of the LA earthquake. The exterior of the Prada store is a nod to 1960s civic, modernist design, with white vertical panels almost concealing the  huge windows from the sun. What a departure from  the original Milan store, opened by Mrs Prada’s grandfather in 1913, and  housed in the glass and marble thoroughfare of the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II. In the words of the author Andrew O’Hagan:  ‘The shop is now like a beacon in some modern Italian fantasy of style and wealth. Outside, there might be industrial decline and migration, but here the lights are fantastic and the people are drawn to it like moths’.  Similar could be said of the Miami outpost. Although on this weekday, at this time of the morning, those being drawn to it were few.  Not too long ago Mrs Prada told the writer Alain Elkann that she was rethinking everything.  The very concepts of luxury, fashion, beauty, style needed re-examining. What followed was the Prada 365 initiative. 

The Miami shop is the latest in a line-up of ‘epicentres’ among the 461 stores the company own. These venues are just as likely to show films, stage music and exhibit art as showcase clothes. It’s not entirely a new concept. The late Elio Fiorucci applied a similar ethic to his eponymous emporiums. Perhaps one of the reasons that Vivienne Westwood, I think, referred to him as ‘the father of us all’. The first Fiorucci was launched in Milan in the 1960s when Miuccia Prada was a young, rich, revolutionary distributing pamphlets for the communist party while kitted out in Yves Saint Laurent. When the revolution came, and the wall came tumbling down, it was not communism but consumerism and consumption that thrived. The masses couldn’t afford the wardrobe of the young Mrs Prada, so they settled for less but bought more, cheaply and in bulk. While the boom that gathered pace in the decades that followed her taking the reigns of the company in the 1970ssaw Prada swell to become a multi-billion dollar empire. 

The Miami store is a reflection of the city -  its history and its architecture. The Prada green walls, with 3D plaster flowers, seem almost edible. There are chequered floor tiles in black and white marble. A reference to the modernism and the art deco that survives on Miami Beach, painted and preserved as a reminder of the era when it was first a playground for the rich and the beautiful. Craig Robins was active in the expansion and preservation of the Art Deco Historic quarter. He owns the hotel I was staying at on Ocean Drive, five miles from the midtown area of the design district. It's close to the clichéd names that represent the fossilised glamour and elegance of that bygone age: the Boulevard, the Starlite, the Colony. Beneath them individual eateries offering dishes that could pass as over-priced fast food. Much of it championed as authentic Cuban cuisine, with each establishment enticing the potential punter with Mariquitas and numerous versions of ‘Guantanamera’. The art deco theme brought to mind similar glorious relics found on the English coast: the De La Warr Pavilion at Bexhill. Marine Court, the landlocked ocean liner building at St Leonards. It brought to mind buildings in Bertie Bassett colours from summers long since passed. The ersatz continentalism of Butlin’s camps that, as someone once pointed out, were a testament to the British ‘obsession with the bogus’: the sham waterwheel at the Viennese bar. The rumbling miniature Krakatoa at the Beachcomber restaurant. In Miami this translates as ‘tropical deco’.

I slumped on the sheepskin rug cast across one of the numerous rosewood sofas. There's an attempt to make this store feel like a home, to make it accessible to those that maybe can’t afford the clothes, and appeal to those like The Colombian and his girlfriend for whom the store holds no interest. 'Rich people need to be entertained more and more’, according to Mrs Prada. 'Let's not entertain anymore. Let's be simple’.  Here she’s heading for the more personal and intimate and the ‘real' feel she has increasingly introduced to her clothes design. The furniture is from the personal collection of her and her husband, Patrizio Bertelli, and it will remain installed for a year: chairs, sofas, jacaranda screens and tables. These antique, bespoke pieces are by the team of south American designers that emerged in the post war years, with an ambition to create a particular Brazilian identity in interior design. The shift is a further clue to where the Prada store is heading in the future. Art appears to be taking a back seat to furniture. There are plans afoot for a Prada Home line of furniture design which is expected to appear this year. The staff are keeping schtum or being kept in the dark. As a teaser, the Miami store is the first to house Prada’s foray into chinaware design. A Joaquim Tenreiro table supports a varied collection of cups, saucers and demitasses.  In some ways it lessens the impact of the collection, seems slightly at odds with the clothes as though in a small, out-of-town department store. It may be the future of retail but at first sight it seems clunky, even ugly or at least not particularly tasteful. But isn’t this where Mrs Prada came in?  

She railed against 'the bourgeois idea of beauty’. She hated the rituals of the bourgeois life when she was growing up. She loathed fashion because the taste that ruled it was dictated by haute couture. Her intention was to redefine the concept of luxury by being anti-luxury, while keeping the price tag high. It began with the black Pocono nylon rucksack that by the 1980s had crushed the image of Prada as a heritage brand for leather goods. (In the past her family introduced walrus and lizard luggage along with toad skin wallets).   'I was never classical enough for the classicists, and never avant-garde enough for the avant-garde’, she said.  'It was always uncomfortable, I always did something wrong’. She opted for a middle way, located somewhere between the academic and the accessible. Over time she challenged conventional notions of beauty, style, taste, which led to charges, in the 1990s, of Prada celebrating the ugly and the trashy.  Perhaps this was the beginning of the pursuit of the real, the accessible, the democratic: 'I was trying to find a new elegance — an old fashioned word — and make it meaningful in the present’. This may now be applied to the home. Although living with clothes for a season is different to living with furniture for a decade. And who will buy? Here in the neon city, who will buy? 

I got some idea much later that night. But for the moment, on the drive back to the hotel I was advised there was a more pressing concern for Miami than the prospect of being a modern Atlantis in a decade or two. ‘This place is a time bomb’, he confided. The man at the wheel was born in Nicaragua and docked in Miami at eight years of age. He worked, he saved, he moved in recent years to the suburbs. In the aftermath of Hurricane Irma last year, he said, the poorer districts were without utilities for a fortnight. In the past, the riots left long-term problems. These had erupted intermittently in the 1980s along with the obligatory looting and arson. Those same run-down districts were almost destroyed by the carnage.  The cavities left within them were vacant until the art world and the fashion industry colonised them.  Now, according to The Nicaraguan - in his fifties and exultant at being freed from the city - those in ‘the projects’ are both in retreat and angry at the wealth on their doorsteps. It’s not a new story, I told him. It’s not an experience particular to Miami. ‘This place is a time bomb’, he said again. 

The Colombian sees a future city under water. The speculators see the future emerging along the waterfront with apartment blocks heading skyward. Who will buy? Will these be the fashion-conscious consumers that keep these stores afloat? According to the stylish sentries in black at the Prada shop (West Indian, Puerto Rican, European) who served their apprenticeships at high-end luxury brands in London, Paris, New York, this is  partly true. Russians, Chinese, Arabs are heading to midtown as surely as gallery owners gravitate to Art Basel and spring breakers to the beach. I was told that a wealthy band of Italians, notably Milanese, make the pilgrimage to Prada in whatever city it can be found. Mrs Prada herself has stated that one of her biggest challenges is to produce designs that resonate with a global audience:  'I don't want to address myself to a small, elite group. This is too easy’. And yet the price tags and the reputation ensure that it remains attractive and available to an elite despite the simple, homely plans for the store: 'People talk about luxury — and fashion is more or less expensive — but it is nevertheless democratic’. 

Those that can afford the prices were to be found that night on Collins Avenue, the main stretch parallel to Ocean Drive, where the refurbished art deco monoliths are taller, wider, grandeur and less lurid than the ailing counterparts on the beach.  Here the beautiful people rally to galleries and restaurants; to Ian Schrager’s Edition hotel, and the Faena, designed by the film director Baz Luhrmann. The setting makes little reference to 'Moulin Rouge' and is closer to his Gatsby mansion, with gold pillars and Trompe L’oeil murals in the lobby. A sculpted golden stallion looks ready to bolt from a golden plinth at the centre of the main bar and restaurant. It’s here I saw them, skipping by like modern flappers of a new jazz age, heading for cocktails and starters cooked in truffle oil. Some with the accessories - bags, key rings, sunglasses bedded down in cases suspended from belt loops - from the collection that surrounded me at Prada during the day. One or two were wearing the whole kit.  On the lengthy flight in I'd been reading Rachel Cusk’s novel ‘Transit’, published last year.  Summing up London, one of the characters came up with a line that seemed equally applicable to the Miami experience to this point - its hotels, its fashion, its art, its architecture, its ethnic enclaves: ‘You can’t be a poseur here - everything is already an imitation of itself’. 

Day Three. ‘This is Cos’, he said, tugging at his merino wool crew neck. Our paths crossed at the Prada store entrance.  I needed directions for later.  He looked like he might be American, local, and familiar with the place: smiling eyes, unkempt hair and stubble. We commented on each other’s accent: his was west end Glasgow, mine - London native. I wondered how he could afford Prada prices. He buys the odd designer piece and accessorises with high street staples, he whispered. This is Cos. The Scotsman split his time between Miami and Scotland. Here a Brazilian girlfriend created interiors for new apartments. He was in his forties, and designed furniture and public sculptures in Britain. We discussed why we favoured navy wool, in a city where just a few miles away toned figures wore thongs to walk their dogs. ‘That’s Miami’, he said. We paused at womenswear. I mentioned I’d seen some of these outfits at the Faena the previous night: cartoon strips on trench coats and elegant blouses.  Purses with 1950s comic characters, reminiscent of the Roy Lichtenstein exhibits at the Institute of Contemporary Arts across the road. Ahead of us bags and shoes in black whip leather, dotted with silver pyramidal studs. I’d been told a group of women had been asked to summon an emotion that would inspire the design. The survey said ‘Anger’, and these accessories were Prada's response.  'I want women to be strong because still there is so much against us’,  Mrs Prada has explained.  If her socialism was a reaction to the bourgeois rituals of her youth, was her feminism sparked by the (initial) negative reaction of the men in the family to a woman running the business? She was aware the sisterhood also had issues: 'At that time, with the politics of the period and feminism and so on, to deal with beauty and fashion as a subject was so uncomfortable, but I did it because I liked it so much. So I felt really uncomfortable until probably a few years ago’.

As a feminist from the 1970s, how does she feel about the farcical feminism of the present? The celebrity hashtaggers united in victimhood, who cast their kind as delicate, prissy figures in need of a chaperone, a crinoline, or even a burka? ‘It's really something that to me is very present’, Mrs Prada has said. 'The sufferance of women’. For once she appears to be behind the curve instead of ahead of the game. Although the figures she would align herself with can at least afford her clothes. The upper middle class women with their UGG boots, a topknot tucked under a pussy hat, their status as a suffragette confirmed because they cancelled a Pilates class to march. And what of the feminism that takes to Twitter, takes to the streets, over a man touching a women’s knee twenty years ago, but falls remarkably silent when Pakistani grooming gangs serially rape poor white girls?  ‘She’s a feminist, like me,’ I overheard one shopper announce proudly to a friend, during my previous visit to the Prada store. It echoed and died, like a hollow, old-fashioned word empty of meaning and value. Rather like ‘gringo’ or ‘elegance’.  

Fashion was covered. Being an artist, The Scotsman took up my invitation to go in pursuit of art. Mrs Prada is as synonymous with art as with fashion. The venue that houses her collection, the Fondazione Prada, opened in 2013 in Milan. Art, like feminism and politics were passions before fashion. Yet she claims to be neither a collector nor a patron. To a Sixties revolutionary all property is theft, I guess.  Streets away the suite that houses Craig Robins HQ, and his private art collection. ‘It’s his site office’, The Scotsman joked. We blagged our way into a huge white room, broken up by hallways. He said he was an artist, I said I needed to sit down. It could be a permanent art gallery - which in a way it is. As Mrs Prada’s furniture will change annually, so too Mr Robin’s collection. At the moment he favours John Baldessari photographs, and an 8ft wax sculpture of the artist-director Julian Schnabel by Urs Fischer,  that dwarfed us. The piece stood out and stayed with us, after The Scotsman drove me to the warehouse walls that are a canvas to multi-coloured murals in Wynwood. The scene elevates graffiti art and street art, I imagine as a way of placating and accommodating the long-term locals. The neighbourhood was previously nicknamed ‘Little San Juan’. Puerto Ricans migrated here from the 1950s. Cubans settled in what became Little Havana following the revolution. Haitians followed in the 1970s.  I was told the previous night that neighbourhoods such as this were no go-areas in the 1980s.

The woman was Danish, in her sixties, and with her husband at the bar of  The Betsy in south beach. I arrived after leaving the Faena. It was gone eleven. This hotel with its Colonial Revival-style entrance, older clientele, ceiling fans, palms and pianist, was a departure from the Lurhmann place. She collared me when I was seated at the bar nursing a sorbet. ‘You look like someone I know’, she said. ‘I get it all the time’, I replied, ‘and have done for years’. Once it was Bowie and Toyah, now it’s Harry Hill or Nosferatu. ‘Who?’ I asked, wondering for a moment if - What fresh hell is this? - she was thinking of Craig Robins. Did he own this place too?  She flicked through photos on her phone and flashed one at me. It was a friend of hers. A generic middle-aged bald white man with glasses. He looked like a pillow with features. ‘Yep. That’s me’, I said. Her husband chipped in and said he migrated to the US in 1980 having been born in London, and got into IT early. In one of those coincidences, those chance meetings that along with natural disasters have occurred on my infrequent trips to the states, it emerged that we grew up minutes from each other on opposite sides of the Old Kent Road. We talked about that once familiar landscape, in a city that had seen as many transformations as Miami. We talked about roots. The Dane filled me in on her American story, and details of a previous marriage and her life in midtown Miami during the 1980s. Long before the divorce, the home on Delray Beach, and a chance meeting with the current husband during a dog walk. ‘The Wynwood area, and those other neighbourhoods’, she recalled. ‘You thought you were taking your life in your hands if you walked through them’.  It was the era of the riots, when Joan Didion arrived to research her spirited book ‘Miami’ (1987), and was alarmed by the bulletproof windows and ‘Guerrilla discounts’ for guns. The Scotsman told me  that he wouldn’t venture here at night, even now. For the moment, late into a hot and sunstruck January afternoon, the Wynwood Walls park was buzzing with tourists queuing to catch a selfie against a mural of the Dalai Lama. 

The Nicaraguan had told me that the various ethnicities here co-exist. A Grenadian said you needed to speak Spanish to live here. A Haitian taxi driver believed the city thrived on Colombian drug money. It’s the Cuban experience that remains widely felt. Even though it's a Cuba of the long-forgotten past. Miami became a refuge for those that arrived with the culture of the pre-revolution era.  In Little Havana, the revitalised Ball and Chain bar and lounge is the closest the tourist will get to the memory of  the Buena Vista Social Club. There is a chain of restaurants named 'Havana 1957’. It’s been noted, repeatedly, that Miami is no longer an American city. ‘It’s like London’, The Nicaraguan had told me. ‘Everyone is from somewhere else’. I paused, before pointing out that there were plenty of people in London that were Londoners. They had been natives for generations, as were many of their ancestors. Some present before the industrial revolution. ‘You’re an historian, like me,’ he said. Even those that had - like him - made the voyage out to the suburbs felt a connection to their roots, and even though they lived like ex-pats a train ride from the London they barely recognised. Successive mass immigration, and an agenda to re-write their experience by revisionists pursuing a mythical, historical inclusiveness was making them feel as stateless as exiles in their homeland. What’s more the agenda was being set by a well-off, well-healed mobile middle class for whom roots were anathema.  'I don’t want to reject my past because I have it so deeply inside myself’, Miuccia Prada - a global citizen, based in her native Milan - declared at some point.  And later:  'To have roots is like an anchor of reassurance; an almost practical tool that enables one to maintain one’s equilibrium’.

Leaving  Wynwood, myself and The Scotsman witnessed relics of the old shoe-making district and a few people sleeping rough on the pavement. South Beach beckoned, where I packed and picked up my bag. Then back across the lagoon, over the toll bridge, towards the walking suburbs of Miami where itinerant, professional middle class interlopers have bought the bungalows of the elderly, and where new malls are shooting up to cater for their tastes. By the time we got to his home to settle and talk until our tongues hung loose, we had literally covered the waterfront.  Truman Capote wrote that when you travel alone you travel through a wasteland. In the hours since The Scotsman had joined me for a field trip, a road trip, the city had become less of a wasteland and more of a mystery. It’s been said that many outsiders have tried and failed to capture its essence. I guess because it’s always in the process of becoming something else. It wasn’t the most spiritual place I’d ever seen, or necessarily the city of broken promises. 

It was night. I was at a restaurant back in the Miami Design District, seated opposite The Scotsman, grateful that he had, surreptitiously, bought a total stranger (me) a meal, and was now offering a lift to the airport.  As we left we passed Prada, and the various darkened stores on the deserted streets, where the construction cranes above were in silhouette and silent.  I was reminded of Joan Didion’s description of this city during that earlier period of tumult and transformation, as we drove along the highway and I headed skyward and home. Leaving behind a neon city, where the construction cranes ‘still hovered on the famous new skyline, which, floating as it did between a mangrove swamp and a barrier reef, had a kind of perilous attraction, like a mirage’.