Miami's Museum of Fashion: Inside Keni Valenti's Clothes Haven

For Keni Valenti, a closet full of clothes is just not enough. A museum housing a 15,000-piece collection accumulated over the past 40 years, worth $4 million, would be better.

The New York native, known as the "King of Vintage," moved to South Florida two-and-a-half years ago, in hopes of opening up the world's first Museum of Fashion.

"There's no other Museum of Fashion in the world," the man dressed head-to-toe in fine white linen says, as he wipes the right lens of his 18-karat gold, vintage Cartier glasses. And if the Knight Foundation deems him worth of a Challenge grant -- Valenti is one of 75 finalists for the awards -- that museum could expand significantly.

The museum, currently small enough to be considered a gallery, hides behind a small door that reads "open" off of NW Second Ave. in Wynwood. Though fairly small by museum standards, it serves as a perfect textual terrarium, hosting Valenti's themed shows thrown every month.

"The last show I put on was called 'Surf and Turf' and was about the birth of the mink stole in Miami," the Knight Foundation finalist tells us.

The current show, "Made in India," occupies the belly of the gallery replete with blue, hard ladies swathed in fine silks, decorated with exquisite gold bullion detailing and pure sea pearls, and wearing Indian umbrellas-turned-lanterns-turned-hats atop their bald heads. The show focuses on vintage pieces that were only made in India.

"Here's another Halston dress from '77," Valenti points to a black silk dressed with a slouchy bodice and pervaded by gold, aligned sequins. "I lent this one to Kate Moss."

Photographs by local photographer Annette Bonnier hang sturdily in large frames depicting India's street life and day-to-day fashions.

Valenti, however, has come a long way from hosting monthly exhibits in the heart of South Florida's Toon Town. In 1995, a design lab first displaying his collection in New York's Garment District was opened and ran entirely by Valenti. It wasn't until tragedy struck New York's Financial District on September 11th, 2001 that Valenti decided to haul ass to a tropical "paradise" -- Miami.

"I left New York to come down here because I love South Florida," Valenti smiles. "Right now, I'm on 50th Street and Collins Ave. It's much better than living in Tribeca looking at rats all day."

Fathering a blooming fashion museum may seem glamorous, but sometimes, Valenti says, it's harder than hell. "It's been a struggle for me to even be alive in Wynwood," Valenti explains, pointing to Wynwood's less-than-affordable rent situation. "I'm being pushed out of Wynwood. If I stay, my landlord has to charge me three to four times the rent that he's charging me now."

How does he get by? "I sell things on eBay." But even selling some of his most prized vintage pieces still isn't enough to keep him afloat comfortably.

All Wynwood rent woes aside, Valenti has bigger things to worry about. "There is no fashion industry here," he complains. "All the multi-cultural communities don't understand vintage clothing."

"I'm trying to get the community involved -- from kids to local artists," Valenti says of his tried efforts toward a more fashion-conscious way of life.

Perhaps it also doesn't help that South Florida has some of the poorest museum attendance in the United States. But despite these discouraging factors, Valenti sees a promising horizon for his Museum of Fashion.

In September, the Museum of Fashion will pop-up at HistoryMiami as a test run to potentially reside there, until his own museum is fully functional. The show that will launch the pop-up museum is appropriately entitled "Made in Miami," featuring pieces only made in Miami.

"My 'Divas' show was the show that convinced HistoryMiami to let me do a pop-up," Valenti says, describing an exhibit comprised of clothes celebrities rented from him.

For now, planning his next show is Valenti's biggest priority. "The next show is happening June 10th and the guest curator is Professor Max Wilson from Parsons in New York. The name of the show is called 'Best in New York,' focusing on only made-in-New-York pieces.

While showcasing his master styling skills through countless exhibits each month has been a blessing, perhaps the most noted blessing has been elected one out of the 75 finalists in this year's Knights Art Challenge in South Florida.

"I feel like it's been such a breakthrough with the Knight Foundation even noticing me. This is the third year I've applied... If at first you don't succeed, try, try again."

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