Icons / November 2016

The Miami Vice Effect

How the Michael Mann-helmed TV hit turned gauche into gold, shaped 1980s men’s style and gave a facelift to a city on the side.

Often cited as the ultimate example of life imitating art, Miami Vice utterly reshaped the city that inspired it. Over the course of its five-season, 112-episode run from 1984 to 1989, Vice rehabilitated the Floridian burgh’s “global image from bland retirement village to a sexy and shady metropolis,” in the words of local organ, the Miami Herald.

“It showed Miami as the capital of cool. It oozed glitz and glamour. Fast boats and flashy cars… Miami Vice had it all,” said the Christian Science Monitor. “Too bad the city itself back then (in the ’80s) had a murder rate more than quadruple the national average. Tourism revenue was at rock bottom… But when Miami Vice was cancelled, a funny thing happened to the real Miami: It started to look more and more like the TV show.”

The influx of ill-gotten gains made by exactly the type of ‘contraband entrepreneurs’ who were Miami Vice’s stock in trade fuelled rampant development in the city, with the flow of cocaine money trickling down to car dealers, nightclubs and bars, five-star hotels, restaurants, lawyers, realtors and various other upper-echelon service providers, plus purveyors of all manner of luxury products (Miami was America’s top market for Swiss watches for much of the era). Flush with narco dollars, the newly affluent city was given a facelift to match the slick, colourful look show impressario Michael Mann has fastidiously created on screen. (In some cases, Miami Vice was directly responsible for the restoration. Producer Mann — who’d decreed a ban on earth tones and tattiness — would often have dilapidated buildings in rundown Miami repainted and spruced up to suit his keen aesthetic sense.)

Not only did Miami grow to ape its glamourised, televised image, but the American man’s conception of cool, louche style came to closely resemble that of the show’s stars, Don Johnson (‘Sonny Crockett’) and Philip Michael Thomas (‘Ricardo Tubbs’). The duo would wear between five to eight outfits per episode, each the height of contemporary fashion — when asked how much was spent on clothing per episode, costume designer Bambi Breakstone replied, “We have a budget that we stay within. But it’s always too low.”

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Christian Barker

Christian Barker is The Rake's Asia editor-at-large, a frequent contributor to this site, and an enthusiastic consumer of fine whiskies, sashimi and classic disco music - ideally in unison.