Scouting with Lily Kwong: Walking through Miami's Design District

Kwong gives us a guided tour with legendary developer Craig Robins.

If you haven't already noticed, Lily Scout Kwong — model, philanthropist and Cov-alum — has some seriously good taste...something that runs deep in the Altuzzara family. We asked her to take us through Miami's Design District, which she worked on, where style, art and fashion have all intermingled, to show us how this once-derelict space has transformed into Florida's premiere brick-and-mortar shopping destination. 

"Let me paint a picture for you; it’s July in Miami and I’m drenched in sweat, squinting into the unforgiving summer sun, watching 40 foot palm trees sway in the air. I’m in the middle of the Design District’s Palm Court with the landscaping team, trying to maneuver our 86 hand-selected palm trees between the impending Sou Fujimoto façade and Buckminster Fuller dome. Hermès, Tom Ford, and 50 other glittering stores are slotted to open their doors later in the year, but right now, I feel about as far from fashion as you can get.

My past summer working at the Design District was organized chaos—swarming with construction workers, heavy machinery and the eardrum-popping noise of development. When I took a position fresh out of Columbia University’s Urban Studies program as a Project Director at Island Planning Corporation in 2012, I signed up to witness the transformation of the once-derelict Design District into an international luxury-shopping destination. Today, the District is opening their permanent stores in phases, with  Fendi, Tom Ford and Van Cleef & Arpels coming soon. The project’s ambitions extend far beyond that of an outdoor mall – the Design District promises not just be an 18-square block shopping destination, but a rich cultural experience.

The Miami Design District has been a decade in the making, the brainchild of legendary developer Craig Robins and L Real Estate’s private equity fund, whose investors include LVMH . The awesomeness of the project isn’t lost on Robins, either. “There’s this feeling of elation and surprise… I’ve been working on the Design District for a long time, but when it comes to life, it feels like the difference between fantasy and reality,” Robins told me in his office this March. Full disclosure: I also managed the landscape design of Robins home, which features a master bedroom designed by none other than Zaha Hadid, and I can tell you firsthand Robins doesn’t see much separation between life and work. Like his home, Dacra’s (Craig Robin's development company) offices are splashed with artworks from his personal collection. As co-founder of the international show Design Miami/, Robins’ appreciation for design is strongly felt in the District, which features public art from renowned artists like John Baldessari and Zaha Hadid, designers, and architects like Aranda/Lasch and Leong Leong, as well as over 300 sculptural native trees and the most mythic fashion brands in the world. In other words, fantasy is reality.

As I explore his office, I notice Craig talks about art and objects like they’re magical—from his Prouve desk, which has the power to “stimulate the creative process,” to the Rizzoli books and Basquiat plate he keeps nearby. I know the Cov family will feel me when I say we all have dresses like that… the little-bit-magical dresses. You know the ones, the pieces that change the way you feel about yourself when you slip into them —you are in essence, transformed. That’s one of my favorite aspects of fashion; at its best, it offers a fantasy world where you are free to step into your most extraordinary self.

In a way, that’s the same opportunity the Design District offers brands in terms of urban space. The generous store footprints have created an environment where Robins says “the brands can express themselves in new ways and the best ways. In malls they’re so confined. In a dynamic neighborhood they can make interesting contributions to architecture, they can create spaces that are more experimental.”

The Hermès store is a good example, which was among the first powerhouse brands to announce it was moving out of the established Bal Harbor mall to the until-now uncharted territory of the Design District. They have defined their space with a 40-foot tall Pachira aquatica tree that will be installed inside a glass atrium, which we fondly referred to at Island Planning Corporation as the ‘million dollar tree’ for all the retail space it will occupy. Hermès’ 14,000-square foot store will also feature a roof garden, which have also been planted across the District and are designed in hurricane planting patterns, topped with gorgeous canopy trees.

My favorite moments in the District are when the trees and landscape take the spotlight. Each individual tree, from the majestic mahoganies in front of Louis Vuitton, to the elegant thatch palms arching throughout Palm Court, to the famed Hermès tree that were carefully hand-selected by IPC.

I can still feel the sticky Miami air against my face as I'm hanging out of a rumbling Ford F-150, driving around the state of Florida, from Homestead to Davie counties, hunting trees like we were tracking exotic wildlife on a safari adventure. Each tree in the District represents a triumph, a specimen that we found special enough to stand next to the work of some of the most famous artists and architects in the world. In some spaces, landscape and design truly intertwine, like industrial designer Konstantin Grcic’s Netscape, whose 24 swing seats will soon be taken over by crawling vines. All these landscape sections, from the street trees to the elaborate roof garden systems, represent not only feats of engineering, but also a significant contribution to the urban ecology by creating habitats for wildlife and absorbing rainwater from Miami’s epic tropical storms.

Robins isn’t just changing the urban ecology, he seriously disrupted Miami’s retail environment. For decades, Bal Harbour was the luxury goods Goliath and boasted the number one ranking for sales per square foot in the entire world. The fact that Robins was able to convince brands like Louis Vuitton, Céline, Cartier and Dior to lead a mass exodus to the Design District is nothing short of a retail miracle. As he said himself, “It’s so rare that there’s a new opportunity to do something different.” In managing to balance business interests with cultural interests, the Miami Design District is poised to take luxury retail into the future.

When I toured a near-complete Design District with Robins, I was thankful to swap construction boots for my Nicholas Kirkwood flats. That said, now that I’m back in New York, I often miss my hardhat days when all of the tremendous parts of this thriving area were coming together. But Robins assured me: “It’s still transforming, we still think there’s a lot to do.”

- Lily Scout Kwong

- Photography courtesy of Steve Blaine

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