Swim Week puts focus on Miami designers

Fab Silberstein eagerly shows off her retro-inspired swimwear line, pulling out a soft one-piece with a lacy over-skirt, then several vibrantly patterned bikinis — all samples from her second La Belle Rebelle collection, which she will present to buyers at next week’s SwimShow in Miami Beach.

With a degree in fashion merchandising and financial help from her family, Silberstein launched her line here last year, manufacturing in her native Uruguay.

Like dozens of other South Florida designers, Silberstein is translating her dreams into fashion, and has chosen Miami to showcase her wares.

“In Miami, I feel there is this underlying culture of very talented, emerging designers that are just starting to break out,” said Silberstein, 25, who opened a shop on Washington Avenue in Miami Beach in June. “I’m seeing it grow.”

As Swim Week kicks off in the coming days — with a flurry of trade and fashion shows, parties and other events surrounding swimwear, the fashion world is again aiming the spotlight on South Florida. Here, the Miami aesthetic reigns, with more bright colors, prints and flowing, cutting-edge styles.

Whether designing swimwear, footwear, children’s or menswear, women’s apparel, evening and bridal gowns or lingerie, fashion designers are flourishing in Miami, where barriers to entry are lower, and competition less fierce than in other U.S. design hubs like New York or Los Angeles.

“Years ago, you almost had to live in one of the major fashion capitals to really become known as a designer or make your mark in the industry,” said Charlene Parsons, department chair for fashion at Miami International University of Art & Design, who has watched the industry develop over 40 years. “Now, you can almost live anywhere, because of the Internet and because of how things have changed.”

Indeed, from new entrants to more established brands like Perry Ellis International, Rene Ruiz, Eberjey or Julian Chang, South Florida has proven to be an exciting, desirable base for creating a collection and building a brand name.

The fashion industry is spurred by the Swimwear Association of Florida’s SwimShow — the largest swimwear trade show in the world that brings buyers here from across the globe each July — plus swanky Art Basel Miami Beach and fashion-related events that are spread throughout the year. New designer boutiques opening in Aventura, Bal Harbour Shops and the Design District also help boost the area’s cachet.

“What we’re finding is that more and more we have fashion lifestyle companies looking to establish in Miami, not just for retail but for their business operation,” said Pamela Fuertes, vice president of the international economic development program at the Beacon Council. “Companies are saying we need to be in a place that is exciting and growing, and that is Miami.”

For the past five years, the Beacon Council, Miami-Dade County’s economic development agency, has targeted the fashion industry as an area for growth.

“It really does make sense because it is one of these industries making Miami modern, sophisticated and really attractive,” Fuertes said.

Most recently, the Beacon Council’s One Community One Goal creative design committee has begun an initiative to create a fashion design incubator in Miami, geared to helping foster the industry’s development, Fuertes said. The effort is in its infancy, though, and no date is yet set — nor has funding yet been determined — for the project, she said.

Meanwhile, Miami’s international flair has contributed to an influx of Latin American fashion designers, like Alessandra Gold, of Brazil, who designs her fashion-forward men’s and women’s KruZin sneakers in Miami that are manufactured in Taiwan, as well as her own Alessandra Gold line of shoes for women, which are made in Brazil. Gold has a store in Midtown Miami, where she sells her footwear as well as clothes and accessories from other local emerging designers, like Claudia E and Art of Shade.

Many international students arrive in Miami to pursue a degree in fashion, like Chang and Silberstein, and then stay to open businesses. Both Chang, of Peru, and Silberstein, of Uruguay, graduated from Miami International University of Art & Design, which has seen its fashion students double in the past decade. Today, it has about 900, with 16 percent international students.

“Miami allows you to grow,” said Chang, 33, who just opened a new showroom in Miami, where he is focusing on his wholesale women’s line, producing more than 30,000 pieces a year to be sold worldwide.

“Miami has a lot of talent, and people are interested in seeing what designers from this area are doing,” he said. “But it is also easy to label you ...‘he’s a Miami designer, so it will be beachwear ...’ We are proud to be here, so we show a lot of prints and colors to show we are from Miami, but we don’t want to be labeled.”

Among the benefits of being based in Miami is lower costs. Chang figures he pays one quarter of what he would have to spend in New York, for everything from salaries to space.

“You don’t have to have a huge number of employees or a huge manufacturing company,” Parsons said. “You can do your designs, get your resources, your fabrics, and have them manufactured here, or you can set up them up in Ecuador, or Colombia or Italy to have them manufactured, and have someone rep your line. You don’t really have to have that huge overhead.”

One of the challenges designers face, however, is the lack of a fabric district. In New York, a designer can easily run down the street to stock up on raw materials, Parsons said.

New York still beckons, and some Miami companies have expanded and opened showrooms or other operations there, including Alexis, co-owned by Alexis Barbara, 25 and her mother, Ana Barbara, 45.

Launched in 2008, the women’s ready-to-wear collection is now sold at nearly 300 stores worldwide, Ana Barbara said.

Fashion design, of course, is not new to South Florida. As an industry, it has seen its ups and downs, particularly as much of manufacturing has moved overseas.

Andy Varat’s father Morton Varat founded Cover Girl in the mid-1950s, and Andy Varat co-founded the active sportswear brand Tail in 1974 with his sister Cheryl. They sold it after 34 years.

Now serving as a facilitator for several apparel businesses owned by his family members — Top Secret, Louis at Home, Lucky in Love, Recovery and A’nue Ligne — Varat has kept his eye on the industry. His family warehouse also houses BloqUV, Eberjey and Anatomie, as well as cutting and sewing facilities.

“There was a lot of apparel migration from New York in the late ’50s and ’60s — it started in Wynwood and Hialeah, and it was a time when Cuban refugees were coming in that created a great, talented labor force, with intelligent, hardworking, loyal people,” Varat said.

In 1978, twin sisters Jackie Baird and Gillian Mitchell started The Twins, a swimwear line that sold all over the country. The company manufactured in Hialeah and peaked with more than 100 employees in the late 1980s.

“Bikinis were coming into fashion and we had the good fortune that we could do them more inexpensively,” said Baird, who retired in 2002 and is now 82.

Today, the industry is experiencing a revival, and new fashion lines are constantly emerging. Take designer Alessia Solari, who launched her line of sandals earlier this year. Such newcomers supplement other growing South Florida brands — like Bogosse, Liancarlo, Petit Pois and Peace Love World.

And while designers once started with wholesale and then opened their own shops after they became established, nowadays many designers start out selling their designs online or at their own stores, like designer Arianne Brown, who sells her Ramona La Rue by Arianne line at her stores in Midtown, Coconut Grove and Miami Beach, and just opened a fourth store on Saturday in Fort Lauderdale.

Ruiz, known for his elegant cocktail and evening dresses, also started with a shop in Coral Gables, and still maintains a showroom there. He is now focusing on expanding his wholesale line, with a new factory in Hialeah.

Such companies are helping to give the fashion industry a leg up.

“I like to be part of the change as it happens,” said Silberstein, whose family has invested $200,000 in her La Belle Rebelle, and has helped out with everything from graphic design to accounting. “Ten years from now, I can say I was here when it was happening.”