The Pastel-Soaked Return Of Miami Vice Style
Messrs Don Johnson and Philip Michael Thomas in Miami Vice, season 2, 1985. Photograph by Mr Frank Carroll/NBC Universal via Getty Images
It happens just the way we remember it: when he walks on screen and into the cultural consciousness as James “Sonny” Crockett, an undercover Miami cop trying to infiltrate a drug smuggling ring, Mr Don Johnson is already all Aqua Velva and five-o’clock-shadow swagger, wearing a white linen suit, aquamarine T-shirt and white espadrilles. In retrospect, and in the years since Miami Vice premiered in 1984, Sonny’s wild, blousy, pastel-coloured suits, tees and sockless suave have seemed (to me, to us all) at times ridiculous, outrageously cool and oh-so-Miami. Of course, all three of those sentiments are true. But those suits, and that style, helped to illustrate an aesthetic arc (for me, and for us all) that has, in recent years, begun again to bend towards the breezy, billowy silliness that Sonny made famous. But let me start at the beginning.
My dad watched Miami Vice, which means that I, as a child, inadvertently absorbed it more than anything else. I took it for granted, like wallpaper. What I absorbed was a balmy, neon-coloured machismo for which I had no taste, and something else that intrigued me, something cool. The cool didn’t just come from Mr Johnson and his partner-in-crime-solving, Mr Philip Michael Thomas (who played the grittier, double-breasted Ricardo Tubbs), but from the show itself. I was 10, maybe, when the show was a primetime mainstay, so I wasn’t yet aware of anything such as a director or mise en scène, but I knew that the way this somewhat sleazy world was being presented, and the way in which Miami (its colours, its places, its style) was being realised – or, really, fantasised – was special. Mr Michael Mann, the show’s producer (and the director of Heat, Collateral, The Insider and other macho classics) is now rightly revered for the concussive volleys of violence he orchestrates, along with the oil-sleek modernism of his visual taste in constructing a world.
If I can point you to just one clip that illustrates of all of this, let me show you this three-odd minute segment from very early on in the show’s run. Here is all of the slow-burn energy of a moody thriller, slick with the fetishisation of silent, powerful, manly men driving a Ferrari down a Miami street late at night on the way to a gunfight. The neon signs, the stilted call to an old lover, the percussive drop of Mr Phil Collins’ “In The Air Tonight” – this is peak Miami Vice, and signature Mr Mann. Oh, how I loved it. I loved the reflections of the streetlamps in the sheen of the car, loved the voluptuousness of the partners’ purpose, and the offhand oh-this-ol’-thang elegance of their clothes. For a young boy with no siblings, a boy who felt a bit estranged from mainstream masculinity, fogging up the window on the world of manhood trying to decipher its bro codes, this scene, this show was intoxicating.
Messrs Don Johnson and Philip Michael Thomas in Miami Vice, season 2, episode 4, 1985. Photograph by NBC Universal via Getty Images
I mean, I abhorred the violence and never really caught the car bug, but the clothes, and specifically Sonny’s suits, became a symbol for cool. Not the you-can’t-sit-with-us, Viper Room, in-crowd kind of cool, but something I took to be a bit more… mythic? As I say, I am aware, and have been since then, how ridiculous all of this sounds. But I wasn’t the only one who felt this way. This show really changed things, from the way Miami saw itself, to the way men’s magazines and their readers saw male dress.
“Before Miami Vice,” Mr Guy Trebay wrote in The New York Times, “adult males were not often in the habit of wearing T-shirts under sports coats or shoes minus socks. Most guys without ties in the 1980s would have been considered slobs or candidates for the unemployment line. Pastel-coloured trousers were reserved for caddies, pastel-coloured vehicles for pimps. Suits in the late Reagan era were still substantially lined and padded and as rigidly shaped as Barcaloungers, although with sleeves. Loose, crumpled garments were considered work wear for convicts or gigolos. Hardly anybody without a begging cup wore a straw hat… few men except bank tellers rolled up their jacket sleeves, and about the only folks who flipped up their blazer collars were the singer George Michael or patrons in some Fort Lauderdale gentlemen-only bar.”
That was written in 2006, with nearly 20 years’ perspective. And now, another 14 later, we’ve come around again on those suits – done in what was once called the Giorgio Armani cut, with a little Neapolitan in the shoulder and a little slouch to the lapels, a high waist on the pleated trousers, in linens the colour of malbec, or Trident chewing gum – and on Miami style. Look at the past few collections from Mr Dries van Noten, in which he’s shown suits in aubergine and almost tangerine, in voluminous cuts with 1980s lapels. Bottega Veneta, too, under creative director Mr Daniel Lee, is making menswear in International Klein Blue and Sonny’s dusty orange from later seasons.
Messrs Philip Michael Thomas and Don Johnson in Miami Vice, c.1984-1989. Photograph by NBC Universal/Alamy
And now that we’re coming around to the clothes, we are also embracing again the Skittle-coloured fun of Miami’s skyline, its sports cars and satiny nightlife. In Miami, a neon-green Lamborghini on Collins Avenue is not at all strange, a drab, grey Honda is. In Miami, everyone looks photoshopped, or a little frumpy if they aren’t in full Versace-level extravaganza. Which makes Miami perfect for satire, or at least imitation.
This week, Messrs Will Smith and Martin Lawrence return as a kind of cooler facsimile of Crockett and Tubbs in the third instalment of the Bad Boys franchise. The movies are as much about Miami’s decadent ostentation – its architecture, its sunsets, its bodies – as anything. In the trailer for the new film, Mr Smith’s Mike Lowery again dons a bright Barney-purple suit with a cotton candy-coloured silk lining – maybe it is the same bright-purple Ozwald Boateng suit he wears in the last film in the franchise, which he throws on (in gratuitous slo-mo, of course) over his T-shirt and holster (Sonny Crockett style) saying, “I put a little something on. I like to look good. What?”
In the new movie, Bad Boys For Life, the guys have a heart-to-heart conversation in what appears to be Mac’s Club Deuce, the beloved dive bar in South Beach. As they chat, they are surrounded by what looks to be the same pink and green neon that the original Miami Vice crew installed in Club Deuce for the show’s first season. (Update: we checked with the Deuce and the neon is not theirs; let’s give it an “inspired by” credit, and the fantasy creation of Miami continues.) The Deuce’s particular neon, a stage set creation by Mr Mann, is now a Miami icon with the same relationship to the real, “cocaine cowboy” era Miami as his fantastical pastel linen suits. Like the suits, that neon has already been imitated, and has come to represent the city like a mascot. And it’s so incredibly cool.