Miami’s weird… at least that’s what most people will tell you. I get it; on average it’s hot, humid and most commonly associated with college spring break douchery. I was last there in 2009 and while the majority of my experience only solidified the reputation as true, I knew there was something more. As is common with any city, the company you keep has almost as much of an impact on your experience as the place itself so I’m going to go ahead and write that trip off to lame guidance. And in spite of it all I still thought it was rad… Wynwood was blossoming the culture was diverse and the bones of the city whispered the types of stories that make you want to listen.
Fast forward to Desert and Denim last February when Johnny Miami approaches our booth… he reeks of gardenias and tropical paraphernalia. He’s a lost conch shell in a desert of cacti and immediately we connect. He tells us about his brand – Algae - that’s 100% manufactured in Miami, the thriving dub scene and his new home in Little Haiti. We agreed then and there that during our next Miami visit we would be spending some time together.
Last week we found ourselves touching down in Miami. Fresh off a stuffy stint at New York Mens Fashion Week we were eager to shed the city muck for some equatorial amity. We shopped the shows (Cabana and Agenda) and made sure to carve out a bit of time with the founder/designer of the newest brand to be welcomed to the Aloha Beach Club assortment.
Spending a few days with Johnny bouncing around Miami Swim Week parties, drinking rum drinks and eating Jamaican food helped instill a new appreciation for the city. I think a lot of it had to do with Johnny’s appreciation for the past and contributions to the future of the diverse mecca that is Miami. Before we left we made it a point to visit Johnny in his little river abode where he was kind enough to share some words that help shine a little light into who he is and why he does what he does.
Why did you start Algae?
I started Algae sort of on a whim. I wanted to make an artist tee for myself and a few of my artist friends. I didn't want to use a blank. I wanted a sort of boxy, open neck, super breezy tee. So I started asking around. I found a couple vendors and fumbled my way through cutting up paper to make patterns and feeling out a handful of different cut and sew shops. After all the work that went into it I realized no one else was doing it in Miami anymore. I met some old industry people who showed me empty factories and talked of glory days before things went off shore.
I realized no one was dedicated to telling the lifestyle story of east coast tropical water people and no one was manufacturing here. It felt like I found a niche and something I was obligated to share.
Where are you from and how has that influenced your work?
I'm from central Florida. I grew up waterskiing and fishing on all the lakes we have there. All of my family water skies and swims. My dad is a competitive skier and mom used to be a show skier at cypress gardens. I was inspired by those early days of Florida leisure and growing up as a water baby. A lot of inspiration came from a place of nostalgia and a solid love for the water. Old motel signs specifically inspired the Algae logo. I moved to Miami about 7 years ago and was hooked by the tropical sun drenched and bleached out tones of Miami and the Caribbean. It feels like a dream here, like when you go outside and have to squint because of how bright it is. I think so much of what makes this place magic is how reductive the elements are… the water and salt and air and flora… Joan Didion calls it "tropical entropy". Coming from a studio art and interior design background I'm heavily influenced by modern painters and designers and I think that comes through at times in subtle ways and more literal when we reference Matisse or Ellsworth Kelly. There are a lot of points of interest that go into the brand which is where the idea of a time slip between past and future came from..."Since Whenever".
Are there certain characters that have particularly inspired the direction for your brand?
The idea for the name of Algae came from the idea of it as a simple Building block in nature that I thought would translate well as a platform to explore a lot of creative ideas through. I loved that the name encapsulated the systems at work in the ocean and also had this super classic Latin name. The name also lead me straight to Matisse where I've been pulling inspiration from since the start of the brand. Other south Florida heroes include Marjory Stoneman Douglas - champion for the Everglades, Totch brown - epic swamp man, Hemingway etc. ... Although I've never read anyone or heard anyone nail Miami the way Joan Didion did in her book "Miami". There are so many lines in there that read like poems and somehow encapsulate the city's natural beauty, socioeconomics, and bizarre fantasy...for better or for worse she got Miami.
Tell us about your workspace?
We started in Wynwood and three years ago moved up to Little River which is a neighborhood in little Haiti. The area is really inspiring and feels like it's own little microcosm. The studio we have situated here is great because it can be used for so many different projects. We've got lots of natural light to work by whether it's hands on dying, screen-printing, Pop ups, photo shoots or the less glamorous but frequent long days spent corresponding and planning. On days when I don't have meetings I like to stay at home which is just around the corner. You can find me there multi tasking in the backyard posted up by my fountain with my dog and taking hose showers to keep cool.
You are a bit of collector... Is there a common theme behind the things you choose to hold on to?
From An early age my grandfather taught me to see value in people places and things that others might look over. The things I collect are not always rare or valuable but are similar in that they tell a story about our place and time. It comes from the same desire to encapsulate Miami, Florida and the tropical landscape of the islands around us. It might be a seedpod, and old farm tool, a chunk of really nicely worn oolitic limestone, a machete, an old water ski, or a vintage wicker chair. At once objects can weigh you down. But for me simple objects can bring me comfort and inspiration. I would say these objects just have a way of finding me, but when I think about it I've definitely pulled to the side of the road because I saw something I had to have. And I spend time cruising old estate sales, and old tourist shops. History is very important to me. You can't make anything new if you don't know where you're coming from.
What do you listen to while you work?
Lately I've been listening to a lot of Akae Beka who formed from members of Midnite out of St Croix. I was lucky enough to catch a little set they did at Dubwise Miami which feels like the hub here for a lot of great new reggae revival (props to Corey Chase, Jahsen, and Yaadcore for creating the best weekly party in Miami) Akae Beka is really meditative reggae for getting into a deep groove. Also Jesse Royal and Protoje are top. Besides reggae I've been into some weird Tropical-Afro vibes by Cumbias en Moog and Meridian Brothers. Also a ton of Jonathan Richman. He makes my heart feel so full.