“The property owners were very welcoming, and we would negotiate for rooms in exchange for credits included in the photo spreads in the magazines,” Irene Marie, modeling agency owner
After becoming a hub for the modeling industry during the height of the fabulous 1990’s, Miami Beach was dubbed the “American Riviera,” and the young and the beautiful flocked to the area.
Contrast that scene with one from a dozen years prior, when in the midst of a slump, the area was known as “God’s waiting room” for its preponderance of elderly senior citizens and its frumpy image.
Once thought of as a place to visit grandma in January, Miami’s reputation as a glittering tourist hub has grown since the days of Miami Vice, through the birth of the Art Deco fashion district in the early 1990’s (think Madonna and Versace), and the explosion of the South Beach club scene. Tourists now flock here all year for high-end shopping, electric nightlife, fine dining, celebrity sighting, and the Atlantic’s warm waters.
The area boasts the offices of several Latin music labels and other entertainment-based industries, including film and television production.
Miami Beach was built up in the 1930’s with dozens of Art Deco hotels. In the 1950’s, Miami Beach saw the construction of sprawling hotels such as the Fontainebleau, which attracted stars like Joan Crawford, Frank Sinatra, and Jackie Gleason. It was Gleason who filmed his television show at what would become known as the Jackie Gleason Theater of the Performing Arts.
But by the 1970’s, Miami Beach’s buildings and population were showing their age, and the one-time vacation hotspot had become “God’s waiting room.”
The rebirth began in the 1970’s, when activists founded the Miami Design Preservation League and urged the restoration, not demolition, of old hotels.
A writer on the architecture industry and a devotee of the area’s Art Deco heritage, Barbara Baer Capitman took a good hard look at the buildings on South Beach and saw a treasure, not an eyesore. Behind the chipped facades were graceful, curved structures which had been the centerpiece of Miami Beach’s heyday decades earlier. Leonard Horowitz, a friend of Capitman’s and an industrial designer, seized on the idea of resurrecting the buildings with the use of color, splashing a palette of pastel hues on what had previously been white-washed edifices.
It worked. People started returning to South Beach, as visitors and as investors. Decaying, old hotels were restored and made to look better than ever. In 1979, as a result of the efforts of Capitman, MDPL and other preservationists, Miami Beach Art Deco District was placed on the National Register of Historic Places.
The next step for this newly popular strip of beach was to find an identity. Calvin Klein helped a bit. Photographer Bruce Weber came to South Beach to shoot a series of Klein’s wildly successful and controversial underwear ads in the early ’80’s. The images he produced convinced a number of fashion industry executives that this was an ideal location for photo shoots, what with good weather, colorful and attractive buildings, and, of course, the beach. The designers came, and along with them came leggy models and sexy photographers. And then a lot of folks came just to watch them. Chic restaurants started appearing in hotel lobbies. Sidewalk cafes, boutiques, nightclubs. The press caught on and “South Beach” started rolling off everyone’s tongue. Or rather, SoBe, in keeping with those other trendy enclaves like New York’s SoHo and San Francisco’s SoMa. Madonna came and so did Sylvester Stallone.
In the early 1990’s, the region began to regain its reputation. The fashion and entertainment industry saw an inexpensive, untouched location in South Beach, making it ideal for photo shoots and film productions. From then on, the city became a sparkling tropical paradise boasting numerous leisure attractions, warm sunny weather year-round and cool, pastel-colored Art Deco buildings. As South Beach began to draw the interest of the fashion and entertainment elite, celebrity residents and travelers from around the globe, the area’s once-deserted shopping and restaurant districts as well as hotels were being restored, rebuilt, and re-developed.
Developer Tony Goldman said he and others worked to help make the fashion industry feel welcome. “Glamour, that’s what made it happen,” said Goldman from his New York offices. “We hooked up to the fashion industry and they were interested in making the scene. We encouraged them to stay and develop young modeling talent. That brought in production companies, modeling and rental agencies, and reps for the retail catalogs and fashion publications. It became a one-stop shop for the industry [after we gave them an incentive] to stay there.”
As South Beach began to be rediscovered by international fashion magazines, models started popping up everywhere. The beautiful people crowd had deemed the place to be “fabulous.” Hurricane Andrew, which devastated most of South Florida in 1992, proved to be an economic boon to the Beach as displaced Floridians took up temporary residence here. And as more and more people began relocating, investment began to pour in as never before.
Modeling agencies, recording studios, and film production facilities abounded. At one time, said Goldman, the area was home to 22 modeling agencies, and 4,500 models made South Beach their residence.
If you’ve ever looked at a fashion magazine, you’ve seen it: it’s the photo shoot site. And if you walk around South Beach in the early morning, you’re likely to see shoots in progress.
“The models brought everyone along,” said Bruce Singer, head of the Chamber of Commerce and a former city commissioner. “Everywhere you had these young beautiful people and South Beach brought us free publicity around the world. The publicity we received was priceless.”
The buzz caused Irene Marie, who owned a modeling agency in Fort Lauderdale, to make a move south. She bought a building, pretty much on instinct, in the 700 block of Ocean Drive. The street was soon made famous in the 1980’s movie Scarface starring actor Al Pacino.
“To look at the area at the time, there was not a lot that was attractive,” said Marie. “But as an entrepreneur, I had an insight. My clients really are the ones who discovered South Beach for me. My European clients started talking about the area and wanted to find places to shoot. The property owners were very welcoming, and we would negotiate for rooms in exchange for credits included in the photo spreads in the magazines. Soon, we had all the major magazines here. They’re always looking for something new, and the fashion world helped spread the new image of South Beach.”
The move proved to be a good one for Marie, owner of Irene Marie Management Agency. “My sales tripled in one year,” she said.
Christina LaBuzzetta, who scouts locations for film and video shoots, credits the success of 1980’s TV cop show Miami Vice for introducing the area’s blue waters and colorful Art Deco architecture dating back to the Jazz Age. “South Beach was a wreck, and people were talking about tearing down the old buildings and putting up condos or casinos. The local people didn’t appreciate the architecture. Then Miami Vice came along and really put the area on the map to a worldwide audience. The show was a huge hit and it had an amazing style, and it brought notoriety to the area.”
LaBuzzetta said when location fees began to soar and the permitting process got cumbersome, modeling agencies began to look elsewhere. “They are always interested in the most inexpensive locations, and some left when the prices got so high. But business is starting to come back slightly.”
A re-imaging campaign to promote a younger, hipper community began long ago, however. Dona Zemo, who was hired by Andrew Capitman to work promotions for Art Deco Hotels Ltd., remembers her early attempts to interest the travel industry. After Capitman renovated the Cardozo in 1981, she was sent to a travel convention. “The first year I went, no one was interested. Everyone saw it as a haven for retirees, and it had a reputation as crime-ridden and dangerous,” said Zemo, who is credited for coining the term “SoBe” as a take-off on the then-newly-trendy Soho district in New York. The following year, after the debut of the popular TV show Miami Vice, Zemo found a better reception. “People would ask me, “Is the ocean really that beautiful?” They called me the Art Deco Girl after that. Miami Vice really opened things up for us, and it introduced Art Deco to the nation.”
Zemo worked her connections and was able to secure for personal appearances a parade of celebrities in town for other events and engagements. When the musical Sugar Babies came to town, she bartered free rooms for an exclusive performance by cast member Patti La Belle. When artist Christo’s famed Surrounded Islands encased some islands of Bay Harbor Village in pink plastic, Zemo arranged for the artist to stay in South Beach and hold press conferences. “We did their opening night party for Surrounded Islands. And every top art dealer came to South Beach to see Christo,” she said. Other early promotions featured artists and entertainers such as Della Reese, Lena Horne, Ringo Starr, the Beach Boys, and Italian tenor Luciano Pavarotti. Pavarotti was booked by concert maven Judy Drucker to give a concert on the beach, and Zemo offered a special package rate to help fill up hotels. “People were renting rooms to watch Pavarotti,” she said.
In 1984, Zemo contacted officials of the Bloomingdale’s department store to interest them in a South Beach photo shoot. “At the time they weren’t interested, but a few years later it became the place to shoot. The fashion industry lent a lot of glamour to the area and brought a very interesting group with money to spend,” Zemo said.
Adding to the heady mix was fashion ICON Gianni Versace’s embrace of the district. Versace became one of the first big-name designers to set up shop at South Beach, when he established a boutique just blocks from his house. In 1991, the designer stopped to visit Miami Beach on his way to Cuba. South Beach was still in the midst of its revival at the time, but Gianni already loved it. He bought a square block that consisted of two buildings, including the Amsterdam Palace apartments, and spent two years and millions of dollars turning the residence into “Casa Casuarina.” He not only renovated his estate, he renovated Ocean Drive.
The street soon became a place where one can sit outside a cafe and watch a fashion shoot. The nearby beach, meanwhile, has an exotic flair, and is littered with some of the world’s most beautiful men and women. The shops and roadside carts are manned with those who have yet to be discovered.
Two dozen years after its rebirth as a hip, happening model playground, a more gentrified South Beach keeps evolving. From Lincoln Road north to 23rd Street, there are 1,200 hotel rooms, and $420 million invested in developing or renovating properties. Despite some slowdowns related to a sluggish national economy, luxury condominiums continue to move, and there’s expansion of the city’s arts and cultural facilities as people come to Miami Beach for its beaches, clubs and bars, and to witness one of the most spectacular redesigns in modern architectural history.
The starlight of fleeting fame is still drenched with the golden tinge of late afternoon sunlight in South Beach. “We’ve become a much more established market; there’s been a tremendous amount of growth,” said Irene Marie. “Now it’s more diverse, with entertainment and film in addition to the fashion industry.”