When it comes to Florida cities that saw a pandemic boom, Miami gets most of the attention. But 75 miles north, there’s another fashion hotspot emerging.
Palm Beach, which is located on an island just off the eastern coast of Florida (West Palm Beach is across the way, on the mainland) has long been known as a playground for an influential, old money crowd — the Kennedys wintered there, and long before it was Donald Trump’s residence, Mar-a-Lago was built by cereal heiress Marjorie Merriweather Post in the 1920s.
Where the rich congregate, luxury brands tend to follow. But while fashion has always played a role in Palm Beach life, it’s often been through private trunk shows and runway presentations in country clubs restricted to those in the know. The city’s main shopping drag, Worth Avenue, has played host to designers for decades — Saks Fifth Avenue opened its second-ever store in Palm Beach in 1927 and brands like ultra-bright womenswear company Lilly Pulitzer and whimsical loafers label Stubbs & Wooton were founded there.
That all changed during the pandemic. Like the rest of Florida, Palm Beach saw an influx of new arrivals. As the residents of cities like New York and Los Angeles faced strict Covid-related restrictions, Floridians lived life with less interruption. Nearly 10,000 people moved to Palm Beach County between 2020 and 2021, and in 2022, Palm Beach saw a record 9.1 million visitors. Many who once saw Palm Beach as their “winter Hamptons” now live there year round.
Brands relocated too. Some 140 businesses that relocated to or expanded within the area in 2022, according to the Palm Beach Business Development Board. Locals say there’s been a decided shift in the level of brand activity happening in Palm Beach as of late, with more fashion-forward, modern brands arriving in the city. Retailers like MyTheresa and brands like Hill House Home and Nili Lotan have built a presence in the last year or so.
“Fashion has always been a pillar in the community,” said Sarah Wetenhall, the owner of The Colony Hotel, which had Dolce & Gabbana as a designer in residence, operating a store in the hotel’s retail space, while skin care label Dr. Barbara Strum offered facial treatments in the hotel throughout the winter as well. “But now, it’s not within the echelons of the private club community. It’s more public, taking place at hotels and inside boutiques.”
A Changing Landscape
Palm Beach’s history as a centre for the rich and influential has always mandated a certain dress code, even today.
In that sense, it’s a natural fit for fashion-savvy transplants, who are seeking the sort of events, retail stores and other experiences in Palm Beach that they found back home.
“There is a lack of casualness on Palm Beach Island, and there’s a certain amount of presenting oneself that has endured throughout time,” said Wetenhall. “It’s evolved, but there is a strong social season with galas and events that require women to dress a certain way.”
But those people are also bringing a new style sensibility to a city known for bright prints and more traditional, prep-infused dressing.
“Some of these younger people who are new to Palm Beach Island are more apt to buy into a Nili Lotan product, which feels edgier, a little bit more understated,” said Dana Filetti, the marketing director at The Royal Poinciana Plaza, a shopping centre in Palm Beach that counts labels like Hermès, Nili Lotan and Alice & Olivia as tenants.
Still, those who have relocated down south are also embracing a more resortwear-fused look. Katie Sturino, founder of the personal care brand MegaBabe who moved to Palm Beach three years ago, said the melding of the two aesthetics — New York chic with traditional Palm Beach style — can end up looking like “a New Yorker wearing a Palm Beach costume.”
The Brands Descend
In arriving in Palm Beach, brands are simply following their customers.
“A lot of these brands are realising their Florida doors are at the top, even surpassing some of their New York doors,” said Filetti. “They might have presented at New York Fashion Week, but they’ve decided to shift that funding and do things like fashion shows and activations here in Palm Beach because the business is so strong.”
The Royal Poinciana Plaza opened six new stores in the last year. That includes companies that are new to the city entirely, like direct-to-consumer apparel brand Hill House Home, which set up a shop in early 2023, which was drawn to the city because it had a fashion-inclined population that was already well-versed in luxury and quality, said Nell Diamond, the brand’s founder and CEO. There’s also returning patrons, like Cartier, which closed its Palm Beach store in April 2017, did a pop-up at the end of 2021 and went on to open a new permanent location last year. Filetti said they currently have no empty retail spaces.
For those that aren’t committing to a full-on storefront in the area, they are investing in events and other activations. Brands like Tod’s, Dolce & Gabbana Alta Moda hosted lunches, Oscar de la Renta held a presentation and Veronica Beard and Kiton put on runway shows. (Kiton also has a store in the Royal Poinciana Plaza.) Mytheresa hosted an event and pop-up shop with Vogue at The Colony Hotel in March 2022.
“We were seeing more shipments going to Palm Beach, and we knew that if we could activate and engage with new people, we would have additional customers,” said Heather Kaminetsky, president of North America at Mytheresa.
Palm Beach hospitality purveyors are also eager to foster the city’s fashion connections. The most visible is The Colony Hotel, which has hosted pop-up shops and other brand events. This winter, it had Dolce & Gabbana as a designer in residence, operating a store in the hotel’s retail space, while skin care label Dr. Barbara Strum offered facial treatments in the hotel throughout the winter as well.
However, brands arriving in the city also must navigate the environment. Just because New Yorkers are heading down to Palm Beach doesn’t mean the same strategies will work there. Wetenhall said that embedding within the local community can be effective, noting how Dolce & Gabbana teamed up the Palm Beach Historical Society to create a line of custom kaftans.
“We welcome and embrace [transplants], but we ask them to be respectful to the history and heritage of Palm Beach, because this is not New York City and we don’t want it to be New York City,” said Stacey Leuliette, the owner and editor of The Scout Guide, a website that offers guides to cities like Palm Beach and Nantucket, Mass.