Craig Robins Jump-Starts the Design District
by suzanne mcgee
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 Vuitton 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 Valérie 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, art, food, and fashion,” Robins says. “I wanted to create a place that didn’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 bring potential investors to see the site during the day so they wouldn’t be frightened off.” But it was hopping in the daytime as affluent 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 transformation 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 world of interior design with that of the luxury brands, as Burke introduced Robins to L Real Estate, an equity fund that invests in real estate with luxury retail components. The fund’s investors include not only the usual roster of institutions and high-net-worth individuals, but—critically—Groupe Arnault and LVMH, parent company of Louis Vuitton and Fendi.
All of those brands are aware of the importance of having access to the right real estate and locations, and most were already mulling what to do about Miami, a fast-burgeoning market thanks to the post-recession influx of Brazilian, Venezuelan, Mexican, and Russian money. Luxury retailers saw tremendous potential in the city, but their leases on premises at the Bal Harbour Shops prohibited them from opening new stores elsewhere in the Miami area, unless they gave a percentage of additional store revenue to Bal Harbour’s owners. Increasingly, as L Real Estate executives were well aware, their luxury brand investors were chafing at those restrictions, and their inability to expand into larger premises at Bal Harbour itself. True, they could just have abandoned Bal Harbour in favor of one of the Miami area’s other luxury-oriented malls, Village at Merrick Park at Coral Gables or Aventura, but that would simply have been swapping the presence in one mall for a possibly larger space in another mall. The emergence of the Design District offered them something beyond more space and less restrictive lease terms.
“We had been looking for a project in Miami for quite a long time, but we were not finding the right one,” says Mathieu Le Bozec, managing partner of L Real Estate. “There was this anomaly there, with Bal Harbour having a monopoly on the market, while retailers believed the market was much deeper and able to support perhaps as many as three stores.” While Robins saw the Design District as a way to “curate” a new neighborhood, for L Real Estate and the luxury brands that invested in it and that now became aware of his plans, it was a way to give high-end retailers a way to stand out in Miami’s lucrative fashion retail market. Negotiations between L Real Estate and Robins’s real estate development firm, Dacra, got underway, culminating in a 50-50 joint venture, Miami Design District Associates, in 2010, and setting the stage for Design District 2.0. The joint venture raised the project’s profile in the eyes of top brands and gave Robins’s vision the L Real Estate seal of approval. It was left up to Robins to close the deal—or rather, a series of deals— with the retailers themselves.
He set about his campaign to convince them that the Design District was the future of high-end retail, presenting his vision of a different kind of shopping experience, and of a neighborhood linked by design, art, and entertainment rather than the kind of mall to which Floridians had become accustomed. “The moment Craig came into my office and laid that plan in front of me, my life changed,” declares Robert Chavez, CEO of Hermès USA. “It’s unique because you have this foundation, these architectural designs and showrooms already drawing exactly the kind of high-end clientele that Hermès serves.”
Chavez was ready to be convinced by Robins’s pitch for the Design District. The space the luxury retailer occupied at Bal Harbour was too small to accommodate everything he hoped to display and still permit employees and customers to move around comfortably—an integral part of the luxury retail experience. About 18 months ago, just as Hermès’s lease at Bal Harbour Shops was coming up for renewal, Chavez began to hear the first whispers about the latest stage in the evolution of the Design District—a place where luxury brands would have the space they needed and, nearly as important, the chance to customize not just the interior of their new stores but also the exterior, and even in some cases design the entire building to their liking, something that simply hadn’t been possible in Miami’s mall-driven luxury retail environment. “Someone had mentioned Craig’s name to me, and then within days, before I had a chance to contact his company, I had a phone call; he wanted to come and see me.”
Chavez was almost instantly captivated by the breadth and scope of Robins’s plans—and by what he had achieved already. “It was the total experience— shopping and dining—that has the potential to become for Miami what Rodeo Drive is [for Los Angeles and Beverly Hills],” Chavez says today. “In a city that size, there is room for something new and different and much more dynamic.” Above all, there was plenty of room for Hermès to customize a 10,000-square-foot building—more than twice the space it had at Bal Harbour. “Our sheer presence will be much more significant; we won’t be just another single-floor luxury boutique inside a mall with a lot of other luxury boutiques.” Hermès will open in a temporary location in mid-February, and its permanent store will open its doors in fall 2014. The design of the boutique, he says, will be in keeping with the “eye-catching” nature of the district, although he adds that it’s too early to provide details.
Hermès isn’t alone; a trickle of early arrivals among the luxury retailers (Céline, Louboutin) is turning into a torrent. Prada will open in the Design District; Dior Homme is in the process of building its store. Cartier, Van Cleef & Arpels, and Emilio Pucci all now either have a presence in the Design District or are planning to open a store of their own. “Luxury isn’t just expensive; it’s experiential,” says Robins. “And the Design District offers them a great playground to experiment, to do things differently, or on a larger scale.”
Redefining what is meant by luxury retail in Miami also means reshaping what is meant by premium locations: The Design District itself encompasses some dozen square blocks, from Northeast 38th Street to Northeast 42nd Street. What makes a location prized today, residents say, may be in the process of shifting, as details of the luxury retailers’ specific plans percolate out into the public domain. Certainly there’s a battle among the biggest to obtain the largest spaces available: Louis Vuitton’s temporary store, opened in mid-October, has 6,000 square feet of retail space, beating out Hermès, whose temporary quarters, almost directly across Northeast 40th Street in the GB Building, can boast slightly less than 5,000 square feet. Architects (whose names have yet to be disclosed) are still working on the design for Louis Vuitton’s permanent store on Northeast 39th Street, but the mandate, say those familiar with the plans, is to make it “aesthetically distinct” from anything else in Miami, and even from Vuitton stores worldwide. When its permanent store opens in 2014, it will be much larger than the temporary space, says a company spokeswoman, and it will become one of its biggest retail stores in North America.
LVMH brands were among the early movers in the Design District: In response to Bal Harbour’s claim that there was no room for the luxury retailer to expand its footprint within the mall, Louis Vuitton announced in March 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. Hermès announced its own departure from Bal Harbour and Design District plans in September 2011; Burberry and Ermenegildo Zegna have followed suit. In February, Robins and his new partner, L Real 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, Céline, 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, Hermès, 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 furniture showrooms, a post office, and a lot of construction activity— into a recherché 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 artistic 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 the 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 try out new ways of combining art and design in their outlets. This isn’t confined to the interiors, either. The building in which Hermès will house its permanent store may boast a roof garden, but Louboutin—with architecture firm 212box as its collaborator—went a step further: The steel awning is shaped like a Louboutin shoe that extends the stone façade. When Louis Vuitton opened its temporary store, it opted to commission graffiti artist Marquis Lewis— known as Retna—to paint a mural on the store’s façade, 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 1stdibs.com, a luxury retail site that combines everything from 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 intrinsic glamour, 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 ultrawealthy 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 finding 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’t 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 there himself? “I wouldn’t rule it out. I see it becoming precisely the kind of place I would want not just to spend time in, but live in.”
PHOTOGRAPHY BY GARY JAMES