Exhibit brings Miami’s fashion history to life

By Amy San Pedro, guest film curator for the Museum of Fashion, a 2014 Knight Arts Challenge winner Photo by Amy San Pedro

Not that long ago the entire country looked to Miami for its style. This history lingers in the signs that read “Fashion District” marking the perimeter of Wynwood. Winter styles in Miami set the summer styles for everywhere else, and because Miami was known as America’s Riviera, there was a sense of liberty to play with the rules. Fashion was at once self-indulgent, exotic and sophisticated. It was “Made in Miami.”

In 2012, Keni Valenti, a designer and collector with 40 years of fashion experience, chose to relocate his collection of over 20,000 pieces of vintage couture from New York to Miami. He was well aware of the importance of the apparel and fashion industries to Miami’s history. As his collection grew, so did his dream to preserve the clothing and the stories behind them. He knew that there was no better place than Miami to open the Museum of Fashion; in many ways Miami and Western fashion came of age at the same time, inextricably linking their histories.

Few people know that by 1962, the fashion apparel industry had become Dade County’s largest single industrial employer, with over 60 percent of Florida manufacturing of apparel and related items taking place in metropolitan Miami. Even with its consistent growth of over 20 years, the industry had to prove its value. In 1966, the Florida Fashion Council presented a document before the City Commission in hopes of getting the city to recognize the importance of the apparel industry to Miami’s future. The fashion and apparel industries continued to expand and by 1979, the growth led to an official redevelopment plan of the Garment Center/Fashion District.

Fast-forward almost 40 years and the “Fashion District” signs scattered around the perimeter of Wynwood have little meaning for many. Tucked in the middle of the block on Northwest Second Avenue, between 26th and 27th streets, the Museum of Fashion brings to life this forgotten time in Miami’s history. The museum mounts a different exhibit every two months, and as different as they are, they have one thing in common. Each exhibit showcases the history of humanity through the lens of fashion; the designs, designers, colors and fabrics reveal the historical relevance of fashion in today’s world.

The Museum of Fashion’s latest exhibit, “Made in Miami,” realizes Keni’s vision. “What amazes me is that there were all sorts of things made here, from bathing suits and resort wear to the most extravagant evening gowns,” he says. “As I continued to find items for this exhibit, one thing that especially shocked me was the craftsmanship and the quality. You can really see the influence of the workforce of Cuban immigrants who had just come to America, and brought with them their sense of style and expertise. They were incredible tailors.”

“Made in Miami” includes historical footage courtesy of Miami Dade College’s Lynn and Louis Wolfson II Florida Moving Image Archives. It is one of the largest institutions of its kind in the United States. The historical footage, which I curated, combined with the vintage fashions, curated by Keni, brings additional context to the telling of Miami’s story in the “Made in Miami” exhibit.

The footage shows the beginnings of the Made in Miami label; from a mock fashion show put on by the men of the Fashion Council in 1954, to one of Miami’s “Lady Godivas” parading down Collins Avenue on horseback to announce Fashion Week. The fashion on display includes designs by Alix of Miami, Miss Jane of Miami and Lily Pulitzer. Together, the exhibit takes you back to the height of Miami’s fashion industry and sheds light on a story often hidden or forgotten.

“Made in Miami” opens 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 14, at the Museum of Fashion in Wynwood, 2612 NW Second Ave., Miami. Knight Arts Challenge South Florida is open for entries through Feb. 23. Apply at