By Kathryn Wexler
Don't let the facade fool you. Casual passersby may see The Webster as just another Art Deco grand dame with a face lift on the Collins Avenue strip. Mais non! After untold millions of dollars -- and a boatload of French refinement -- South Beach's old Webster building reemerged June 1 as a 20,000-square-foot, outrageously chic emporium whose allure extends far beyond the beach crowd.
Its French founders, Laure Hériard Dubreuil, Frederic Dechnik and Milan Vukmirovic, have concocted a three-floor shopping experience with men's and women's clothing from the most elite brands, fine jewelry, vintage watches, art offerings, a lounge area, rooftop space and the first U.S. outpost of the famously hip Paris eatery Caviar Kaspia. But the boutique's real glory is in the details.
Huge, handmade wood tables are by BDDW. French artist Christophe Brunnquell has left his quirky, inky mark on the walls, as he did for The Webster Temporary Boutique a few blocks south, which remains open for now. The restaurant has a travertine bar and a 1930s motif. Huge tableaux of original 1950s wallpaper and various photograph collections hang throughout the building, gutted and reduced from four stories to three.
Miami Beach, of course, has a spattering of selective boutiques amid the flashy club clothing purveyors and mass market chains. But the opening of The Webster promises to lure more international sophisticates to Miami Beach for shopping, the way Tomas Maier's boutique did before it relocated to the Design District last year.
''I think this is the type of thing for Miami Beach that we need to go over the top,'' said Michael Aller, tourism and convention director for Miami Beach. When The Webster's gilded racks are filled this week, they will hold labels that read like a credits page ripped from Vogue: Balenciaga, Prada, Azzedine Alaia, Lanvin, Miu Miu, Pierre Hardy, Martin Margiela. If the shop is modeled on anything, said Dechnik, it is Corso Como, the Milan lifestyle venue, with a boutique, art gallery, restaurant and fashion label. At Corso Como, the ''slow shopping'' philosophy took shape, meaning dawdling is as legitimate as spending. ''We want people to feel very welcome and stay in the building and enjoy the restaurant, the rooftop terrace,'' said Dubreuil, 31, standing with Dechnik, 37, last week in the store. ``We want people to feel it's luxurious, refined, warm.''
The Webster reflects the pedigrees of the three founders: • Vukmirovic has held creative positions at Christian Lacroix, Lanvin and Tom Ford; worked as a fashion photographer; and is a founder of the Paris boutique Colette. • Dubreuil is an heiress to the Remy Cointreau liquor fortune and holds degrees from Fashion Institute of Technology and Universite de Paris Dauphine. She has also worked on the merchandising team at Balenciaga. • Dechnik has held merchandising positions at Hermes, Gucci and Yves Saint Laurent.
The curricula vitae of this triumvirate are enough to make fashion lovers go weak in the knees. ''All the people involved have such unbelievable backgrounds in fashion -- and you can tell,'' said art collector and attorney Michelle Rubell. ``You learn something about fashion when you go [to The Webster Temporary]. It's a really a unique selection of things. I think it adds to the city.''
The partners chose South Beach because it seemed a relatively untapped source of cool and because it already draws a constant stream of moneyed travelers from South and Central America, and Europe. Plus, they say, an old Art Deco building simply felt like the right retail home.
''We've been working in fashion -- we know all the stores in the world,'' said Dechnik. ``The first time we saw The Webster, it was an immediate -- how do you say -- crush?'' ''Love at first sight,'' interjected Dubreuil. The Webster hotel was designed in the 1930s by architect Henry Hohauser.
Staircases, ceilings and the lobby's terrazzo floor have all been restored. One floor is devoted to jewelry and watches, with pieces by such notable designers as Aurélie Bidermann, Ilias Lalaounis, Solange Azagury-Partridge, Pamela Love, Genevieve Jones and House of Waris. ''We are European,'' Dechnik said. ``We have our European taste.''
Dechnik and Dubreuil (Vukmirovic will arrive in town next week) say they envision a clientele reflective of their own social circles, with ''super-chic bourgeois and the underground people doing T-shirts,'' Dechnik said. They wanted to keep The Webster's ''soul'' intact, he said. But in other matters, the founders are taking a decidedly Continental approach.
Ask how much renovations cost and you get only this from Dubreuil: ``We don't speak about money.'' Nor do the owners expect to promote their wares the American way, by broadcasting names of celebrities who shop there. Said Dubreuil, ``we'd rather keep the confidentiality.''
Hours: 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday to Saturday, noon to 7 p.m. Sunday. Caviar Kaspia serves lunch and dinner, 11 a.m. to midnight, seven days a week.
The Webster opened its doors to its store on South Beach with a private party. Photo: Tomas Loewy.