Accessories designer-turned-environmental activist Kate Fleming grew up playing with the seahorses that bobbed in her Biscayne Bay backyard. The Miami Beach native remembers how their delicate tails would curl around her 5-year-old fingers. She left home to attend the Parsons School of Design in New York City and got caught up in the fashion world for decades, designing for Thierry Mugler, Diesel and Tory Burch, whose bestselling Fleming bag is named after her. Meanwhile, the seahorses and most of the bay’s other marine life disappeared to development.
“New Yorkers can become so career-focused that they forget they’re on this planet. Some days, I didn’t even look at the sky,” says Fleming, who had an epiphany during a National Geographic expedition to Antarctica. “If even animals in the most remote places were suffering, I thought, what can I do as a designer to connect scientists with creative people with far bigger voices than mine to spread the word?”
The natural-born connector founded Bridge Initiative, a “PR for Planet Earth” nonprofit that organizes and funds artist residencies and large-scale collaborations to raise awareness about climate change. In 2018, its inaugural project partnered artist David Benjamin Sherry with the Alaska Whale Foundation; his residency’s resulting photographs were exhibited on billboards from Manhattan to Nebraska. Waterproof Miami, a series of site-specific public art projects co-presented by local, artist-run space Bas Fisher Invitational, hits close to home—her beloved bay. “Coral City Camera” live streams rare, urban coral reefs in Biscayne Bay to expose their resiliency despite the odds. It’s a collaboration with Coral Morphologic, a marine biologist and musician duo, who combine their careers into a call to action to save endangered coral.
“I use it as my screensaver, because it’s very soothing,” says Fleming of the work that premiered at Design Miami in December and traveled around Miami by mobile billboard in 2020. (It has also inspired several complementary playlists on SoundCloud.)
The series continues this summer with artist Carlos Betancourt’s cutouts of mangroves and indigenous avians on the InterContinental Miami Hotel’s exterior digital display (yes, the one that infamously features a gyrating woman). Heat Wave, a summer residency followed by a group show during Miami Art Week 2020, pairs three emerging artists with scientists. Resortwear brands like Figue and Kai Lani signed on for a fundraising barbecue and shopping party at the Standard Spa Miami Beach timed for Miami Swim Week in July, too.
“Rather than look at climate change from a state of fear, art has the power to make people fall in love with something and want to protect it,” says Fleming.