Sunshine Fashions: Miami’s Rag Trade

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Photo taken by Amy San Pedro. 

Ever notice the lone sign on the corner of Biscayne and 29th Street that marks Miami’s Fashion District? Follow the sign (use your internal map) and you will end up in Wynwood, now a mecca for street artists and new development. At one time, however, the warehouses of Wynwood housed designers, manufacturers, wholesalers and retailers, all devoted to Miami’s leading industries — fashion and apparel. Miami’s relationship with fashion is deep-rooted, and was bred from allure, convenience, and consistency.

Fashion can be perceived as transient and impermanent. The very meaning of the word, “a popular trend, especially in styles of dress and ornament or manners of behavior,” implies that it is a mutable creature. It seems that with each new spring line the desire on the runway is to be as different as possible, both from the previous spring and the next designer. What is often overlooked is that in each new design are traces of what came before. We can use fashion as a teller of time and watch history unfold with the ever-changing length of a hem.

tennis lady

Photo courtesy of The State Archives of Florida. Woman modeling tennis fashions, Burdine’s roof, 1929

In the 1920’s Miami was a playground for the wealthy, drawing visitors from all over the world, and not just to play. Florida’s land boom sparked dreams of overwhelming, instantaneous wealth. The 1930s brought art deco and an increased number of middle class tourists with the means to travel. And in the heart of Wynwood, the apparel industry began to take root.

By the 1940’s the apparel industry had staked its claim. Most of the city’s apparel manufacturers were located in what came to be called the Garment Center/Fashion District, bounded by Northwest 29th Street and 5th Avenue. As South Florida boomed after World War II, in swept the glamour of the 1950s, bringing movie stars, models and the rich and famous.

dress lady

Photo courtesy of The State Archives of Florida, Customer, Martha Erwin, in tailored afternoon faille, eyes sport ballerina worn by model Joan Johnson.  Photographed at Burdine’s.

The Fontainebleau and Eden Roc Hotels opened, and Miami joined New York and Los Angeles as a place to watch. Jordan Marsh, a premiere department store, caught up in the era’s extravagant mood, opened in Miami in 1956, complete with a swimming pool (the first in any department store) and yacht dockage. In 1959 Fidel Castro seized power in Cuba and as the 1960s began an exodus of Cuban refugees flooded into Miami, changing the city’s culture, workforce and feeling forever.

The 1960’s also brought Jackie Gleason, the Beatles and the mini-skirt, and Miami cemented its position as a style center, a city that people looked to for glitz, romance, and fashion. In 1964, even Miami-based Eastern Air Lines made fashion news, introducing new uniforms for stewardesses designed by Don Loper with accessories by Neiman Marcus.

By 1966 the fashion industry was so large that in an economic survey by Barry J. Hersker Ph.D, Fashion Advisor to the City of Miami, proposed the creation of a Miami Merchandise Mart. He also suggested more accommodating tax laws, increased publicity and better communication between vocational training programs, Dade County Schools and the apparel industry. He also pointed out that although the industry was the largest in the county, very few local retailers supported it, saying, “Only one major Greater Miami retail outlet – Richards Department store- has made any real attempt at purchasing and promoting large quantities of Miami-made fashion products.”

 

The social discontent of the 1970’s inspired many to protest, even about fashion. Miami’s women were particularly vocal and held demonstrations against the midi skirt, the mid-length skirt that was thought to cut a woman’s natural line and hide her legs. The growing aeronautics industry made it easier to ship the “Made in Miami” label and the potential for Miami to become the fashion center of the Caribbean and Latin America was within reach.

By the end of the 1970’s additional changes were affecting Miami’s fashion industry. As more items were made overseas, local retail expanded and local manufacturing declined. Miami, however, was in an anomalous position. Resort wear and seasonal items, predominantly women’s dresses, were the industry’s top products, and while imports required a lead time of six months, fashion sensitive items (such as women’s dresses) were less affected, and thus offered a small protection for Miami’s industry. In addition, Miami had a proximity to skilled low wage labor in Haiti, Honduras, Costa Rica, and San Salvador, which provided offshore garment assembly.

The fashion and apparel industries fought to hold on, but despite the support of local government, changes in the market outpaced community redevelopment in the increasingly blighted Garment Center/Fashion District. By the 1980’s imports were expected to capture half of the apparel market due to hourly wage costs in apparel manufacturing, one of the least automated and most labor-intensive manufacturing industries. The recession and the increase of crime in Miami took their toll.

In the 1990’s the Fashion District morphed. Northwest 5th Avenue became a center of Korean-American owned retail stores as its warehouses were vacated. The fashion industry in Miami took on a new look, and as models flocked to Miami Beach to work in the film and fashion industries, modeling overtook manufacturing as an economic engine. The film and fashion industries were bringing in an estimated $58 million a year, with 70% coming from fashion. More of the rich and famous flocked to Miami in the 1990’s than during previous booms.

Today, Miami still has a presence in the fashion world, though its role is a hybrid one. It is still a mecca for fashion models and photo shoots; there are still warehouses full of product in Allapattah and Hialeah, and even the remnants of the retail haven of Northwest 5th Avenue. A new wave of Miami designers, eclectic, creative and inspired by the shifting landscape of Miami, and a myriad of design firms and schools, lead the way in new design technologies and concepts. Another new development is the Museum of Fashion, dedicated to telling the story of fashion one exhibit at a time.

Fashion and history are locked in a symbiotic relationship. Fashion is a living archive, maintaining elements of the past in the DNA of design and the traditional skills of couture, simultaneously reflecting current social and cultural trends and trying to predict the future. Like Miami, the fashion business is complicated and transient. No wonder the relationship has lasted so long.

-Amy San Pedro

Resources:

Savchuk, Katia. “Why The End May Be Near For The Fashion District Koreans Built In Miami” wlrn. WLRN, 13 Oct. 2013. Web. 15 Aug. 2015.
Retrieved from http://wlrn.org/post/why-end-may-be-near-fashion-district-koreans-built-miami

Cordle, I. P. “Swim Week puts focus on Miami Designers.” Miami Herald July 15 2013: Web. 24 June 2015.
Retrieved from http://www.miamiherald.com/living/fashion/article1953265.html

Hersker, B. J., “The apparel manufacturing industry in greater Miami and Florida : an economic survey with recommendations for action to encourage the growth of the apparel industry.”(1966): Miami Metropolitan Archive, Miami Metropolitan Archive, South Florida Collection, Government Documents, Green Library, Florida International University. 
Retrieved from: http://miami.fiu.edu/

City of Miami Planning Department, “Garment center/fashion district redevelopment plan.” (1979): Miami Metropolitan Archive, South Florida Collection, Government Documents, Green Library, Florida International University.
Retrieved from:  http://miami.fiu.edu/

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