Enigmatic Argentine Alan Faena has created a whole new district of Miami’s Mid-Beach, named after himself. But what is the real story of the man in the white fedora?
(First published in American Way magazine, December 2016)
Five years ago, the few blocks north of Collins Avenue and 32nd Street weren’t empty, exactly. But there was little in the parking lots and ten-cent condominiums to draw people from the bustle of South Beach, a 20-minute walk to the south. There was nothing, either, to suggest that the area would become home to one of America’s most unlikely property projects. Yet last month it was officially opened as the Faena District, the first time a part of Miami has been renamed since the Art Deco District back in 1979.
This “man from the south,” as the Argentine Faena likes to call himself, doesn’t do things by halves. He’d already launched a game-changing fashion brand in Argentina and turned a derelict Buenos Aires grain store into a pioneering hotel when — less than five years ago — billionaire investor Len Blavatnik brought him to scope out this sleepy stretch of Mid-Beach, and in particular the old Art Deco Saxony Hotel. The Saxony was once the grandest hotel in Miami Beach, but had grown as tired as the area around it.
The Saxony Hotel looks very different today, even if the neon sign remains. Now Faena Hotel Miami Beach, it’s an almost otherworldly pleasure palace, where everything is done to the maximum — from C’est Rouge!, the lavishly arty cabaret show in a red-velvet Hollywood theater, to Damien Hirst’s gilded woolly mammoth skeleton, the sculpture that has launched a thousand white-toothed selfies.
That’s just the beginning. The $1 billion Faena District — funded in large part by the Ukrainian-born Blavatnik — already includes a smaller boutique hotel, Casa Claridge’s; a lavish condo whose two-story penthouse was on the market for $72 million; an arts space for “the ambitious, the innovative and the groundbreaking”; and a high-end shopping emporium. Plans for two new condos, Faena Mar and Faena Versailles, may curently be on hold — but the brazen ambition of it all is staggering.
Most of the buildings have been renovated or designed from scratch with big-name architects, from Rem Koolhaas to Norman Foster, but most are named after one man. There’s the Faena Forum, the Faena Bazaar, the Faena House residence — even the beach is the Playa Faena. Little wonder that Philip Levine, the forward-thinking mayor of Miami Beach, has described the man behind it all as a “modern-day Wizard of Oz.”
Given the hype, I’m a little surprised to discover that the nerve center of the Faena empire is a nondescript trailer on a building site — albeit a trailer with artful old photos on the wall and animal-print fabrics strewn around. Faena sits at the end of a Formica table, dressed as he always is: white fedora and white shirt, collar up. This is him dressed down; for more formal occasions he’ll add a white jacket, and sometimes a cane. He is chiseled, intense and talks quietly, often in metaphors delivered with a pronounced accent.
The story Faena likes to tell is of the visionary outsider who made good. Growing up in Buenos Aires, the son of a second generation Syrian-Jewish textile manufacturer, he was noticeably different. “I was always creating other worlds,” he says. “I fantasized about jumping into the pictures on my wall. I hated school, and I was always in my own head.” Though he says he learned to be social — his asado barbecues are legendary — he says his head is still where he’s happiest. “I can pay attention to other people for some time, but then I go back to my thoughts.”
The big thinking started at 19, in the wake of Argentina’s return to democratic elections in 1983. Faena used his savings to launch a fashion label, Via Vai, selling brightly colored T-shirts aimed squarely at Argentina’s newly optimistic youth. “Democracy was starting, freedom was starting,” he says. “It was time to dance.”
Despite being little more than a plan to “walk my thoughts” — a favorite Faena phrase — the business took off, and fast. It grew to 80 stores nationwide, and was the first Argentine label to export to Europe.
But Faena didn’t want to be a fashion mogul forever. In 1996, aged 32, he sold the business to become a gardener, living at his beautiful beach house in Punta del Este, an exclusive enclave on the Uruguayan coast. Typically, his reasons were a curious mix of philosophy and practicality. “I knew that more stores and more clothing lines wouldn’t have made me happier or a better person,” he says. “I wanted to learn about time without time, to be more coordinated with nature.” He’d also seen the peso collapse in Mexico in the mid-1990s, and rightly predicted that hard times might be on their way to Argentina, too.
During his five years of self-imposed exile, creative types from around the world started coming to Punta Del Este, intrigued by the star who’d left the fashion world behind. “It was like an embassy of pleasure,” says Faena. “It was a healing place for all these people. After a few years, I started thinking, can I take this to more people? I started to feel the need to create again, to make another revolution.”
So he started going back to Buenos Aires, which by 2000 had been crippled by depression. His vision had become “a building that was like a big pot for ideas,” when, in the run-down port area of Puerto Madero, he came across an old grain silo that was slated for demolition. “I just thought, Wow,” he says. “But there was nothing around; not even streets.”
Finding financing was, he says, “a very long story.” The turning point came when Faena flew to New York City to meet Chris Burch, a billionaire investor who’d also made his money in the fashion industry. Burch came back to Buenos Aires and — despite describing Puerto Madero as “a junkyard with wild dogs” — was persuaded by Faena’s passion and vision. Burch introduced Faena to Blavatnik, who would go on to become Faena’s main partner. Between them, they stumped up $200 million to turn the run-down mill into the first Faena Hotel, hiring Norman Foster and Philippe Starck to fulfill Faena’s architectural and interior design vision.
In 2004, the hotel — “a fantasy of art, music, taste and smell” — opened with a bang. “We got it right straight away,” says Faena, simply. The Puerto Madero “junkyard,” meanwhile, quickly became one of the hottest property success stories in Latin America, with the likes of soccer player Lionel Messi moving into its million-dollar apartments. In 2011, with his wife Ximena Caminos, Faena added the Faena Arts Center, which opened with an enormous fabric walkway installation by Brazilian artist Ernesto Neto. Puerto Madero, like Faena, had truly arrived.
At Miami’s Hotel Faena, it’s easy to feel that all this was meant to be; as if it were obvious that all the glamour should land here. But take a walk around Mid-Beach, and you can get a sense of what Faena and Blavatnik found when they first came in 2011. Away from the Faena District, Collins Avenue is lined with liquor stores, mom ’n’ pop bodegas and Cuban holes in the wall. Back then, there wasn’t the trendy Edition Hotel down the road, with its futuristic interior by boutique hotel pioneer Ian Schrager, or the hip Freehand hotel and hostel.
“This part of the city wasn’t abandoned, but nothing was happening,” says Faena. “No one was interested. They all said, ‘That part of Miami? Forget it.’ You have to build it cheap because you won’t be able to sell at a high enough price. But I saw it as an outsider. I saw the beach, I saw the trees. It was about listening to my heart and mind, and not the market.”
I saw it as an outsider. I saw the beach, I saw the trees. It was about listening to my heart and mind, and not the market.
From the start, Faena says, there were “battles, jealousies. Every day there was a fight. But I’m a fighter for my thoughts.” He comes back to that phrase again: “My motivation was always to walk my thoughts; there were moments of uncertainty, but this is the walk of the creator.”
While developing the hotel, the largest piece in the puzzle, he fired three hotel designers before hiring movie director Baz Luhrmann and his wife Catherine Martin, normally a costume designer, to “develop the narrative of the hotel.” As Faena puts it: “The problem with most interior designers is that they like to repeat themselves. But I needed people who were free of mind, and ready to work with my script.”
Faena is sometimes compared to Jay Gatsby. He doesn’t blanch at the reference, nor at the one about the Wizard of Oz. He’s happier, though, with comparisons to Walt Disney. “He brought fantasy to emptiness,” he says.
Much of the Faena Hotel feeds into the myth of its creator. The eight murals in The Cathedral lobby, by Argentinian artist Juan Gatti (“our Michelangelo”), teem with references to Greek mythology, but also to Faena’s life: the rose in Gnosis represents his gardens, but also his personal genesis; the sword in Pax refers to Faena’s fighting spirit. The list goes on.
There’s symbolism throughout the hotel, too. The grand chandelier in the Gatsby-esque Living Room bar is tuned to flicker more whenever there’s lightning over the South American Pampas. The Tierra Santa Healing House (the spa), inspired by Faena’s Uruguay beach house, was designed with a Latin American shaman who recommended singing bowls and Andean lava treatments.
Faena says he was “a hundred percent involved in everything. I control every detail of every stone, every painting, every fabric, every sofa, every color.”
But there’s also a bigger picture at play. With a whole district now named after him, Faena becomes the latest visionary to leave his mark on the 101-year history of Miami Beach. “I’ve studied all these great minds, these crazy people doing crazy things,” he says. “They find in me a new generation who is pushing the limit. I feel glad that we’re delivering on our promise.”
Certainly, he’s more than aware of his own legacy. “I think, in a hundred years, people will say: How did these incredible buildings arrive on the beach?” he says, gesturing beyond the trailer. “And they might wonder how a man from the south, an outsider, created utopia here.”