Mark Badgley and James Mischka aren’t that kind of designers. That kind — Badgley’s words — being those celebrated for edge and trend-driving provocation. Rather, they espouse a classic vision of glamour, their every choice based on simple, specific precepts: They know themselves, they know their customer, they know what she expects from them.
That starting point has proven effective, ultimately sustaining the duo through decades of fashion-industry and cultural vicissitudes. With their show tonight, Badgley and Mischka mark their brand’s 30th anniversary. Over lunch in their Manhattan office, they discussed their lives in fashion, over 30 years and into the future. “Our quest,” Badgley said, “is always trying to do something new but not abandoning what we stand for and what our customer likes.”
As happens in the throes of workaday matters, some career markers can sneak up. “It kind of surprised us,” Mischka said. “We just do the same thing all the time, so it’s like this is one more day in the life of Badgley Mischka. But it’s a very important day.”
Few in the industry would argue that a brand’s 30th anniversary isn’t worth noting. Once the designers became aware of the approaching milestone, they decided to celebrate. Even at this most challenging time for fashion in general — and certainly for those who specialize in high eveningwear — the men approach their work with boundless enthusiasm. Coming to work, they say, is fun again.
Accent on “again” because now, just as when they started out, they are free to run the company their way. Together with their longtime footwear licensee, Titan Industries Inc., headed by Joe Ouaknine, and MJCLK LLC, (founded in 2008 by the designers and Christine Currence, Lara Piropato and Kimberly Lee-Siu as apparel licensee for the Badgley Mischka brand), in 2016 the designers bought back the company from Iconix Brand Group, which had purchased it from Escada in 2004.
Since the sale, they have ended some licensing agreements and embarked on others. As a result, the brand enters its fourth decade with a flurry of activity to complement the core business of “couture” and collection eveningwear: A fragrance and children’s wear line are launching now, while the next year will see the opening of a whopping 30 stores in China. In addition, Badgley Mischka does an ongoing exclusive collection for Dillard’s, called Belle, and has designed a one-off anniversary special for Neiman Marcus, comprised of 30 black dresses. Bridal, shoes, sportswear, swimwear, eyewear, watches and furniture are among the products it produces under licensing deals.
As for that core business, the collection the designers will show tonight was planned in recognition of their brand’s 30-year journey, the theme decided months ago: Alice in Wonderland. Guests will sit at pastel café tables and take in a fanciful set decorated with demonstrative paper flowers. “It’s kind of down the rabbit hole,” Mischka noted.
“It’s very whimsical and a little elegant and a little circus-y, and it’s very signature,” said Badgley. “We brought back a lot of our favorite things that we’ve done over the 30 years and updated them.”
That idea of “bringing back” is rooted partly in archival interest and partly in the pride the designers take in the classic strain that keeps their clothes ever current. Nothing makes them happier than when clients tell them about the 20-year-old column that still looks as good as ever.
Nostalgia aside, Badgley and Mischka still love staging shows, which they consider the biggest bang for the marketing buck, “It’s reaching the consumer,” Mischka said. “It’s getting to the editors, because that’s [still important]. Then you have all the social media. Bloggers make up a big part of our audience,” he said.
Added Badgley, “The day after the show, our store in L.A. will get 10 calls from ladies in Abu Dhabi, Dubai or in Mexico or whatever. ‘I just saw Badgley Mischka on Vogue.com. Look number seven and look number eight and look number nine — can you order those for me in my size?’ If you don’t do the show, they don’t see it. Shows are expensive, but everything else is as expensive, if not more.”
While they applaud the instant global interest influencers attract, they are more conflicted about another area of technological impact — e-commerce. All of their major accounts have significant e-commerce components, which in some cases accounts for 50 percent of the brand’s business with the retailer, and Badgley Mischka has its own, small but growing e-commerce component. It hasn’t come without cost. The men look sadly at the decline of physical retail, particularly the loss of “literally hundreds” of small, once-vibrant “carriage trade” stores that not long ago accounted for some serious sales.
Against today’s volatile landscape, a milestone such as theirs speaks not only to power and clarity of voice but also to grit and tenacity. The partners arrived at fashion from very different perspectives. Badgley’s was the more familiar route — a style-obsessed kid, his particular object of fascination, Lucille Ball. He would sit for hours in front of the television, sketching her exaggerated Fifties silhouettes. As he grew up, Parsons proved a no-brainer.
Conversely, Mischka’s family discouraged his interest in art and architecture — “too hard to make a living” — so he headed to Rice University and a biomedical engineering track, planning to design artificial limbs, “the most artistic thing I could do in the field.” But calculus and Mischka didn’t get along, so he switched to managerial science and art history, ultimately finagling a semester away, at Parsons. He never looked back.
There, he focused on men’s wear and Mischka, women’s. They met senior year and quickly became a couple. It was the beginning of their ongoing fashion odyssey. It started at a time when New York nurtured parallel ready-to-wear and sportswear camps anchored by giants Blass/ Oscar/Herrera on one side and Ralph/Calvin/Donna on the other. But there were plenty of other major talents, and major personalities, working as well, some of whose paths the young designers crossed. At Parsons, students had professional “critics.” Badgley’s critics were Calvin Klein and Giorgio di Sant’ Angelo.
“Calvin was big picture, not details,” Badgley recalled. “A student would come out with a coat and there’d be all the underpinnings underneath it. And [Calvin would] say stuff like, ‘that coat is very sexy, if a coat could be sexy.’ They’d fit the coat and the model would start to take it off to fit the underpinnings and he’d be like, ‘it’s really about the coat.’ He was done by then and he’d be onto the next. His fittings were—“ he snaps his fingers twice – “short and sweet. But he was Calvin. It was a big coup for [Parsons] to get him because he didn’t do stuff like that…[And] he was an FIT guy.”
Di Sant ‘Angelo was “very flamboyant, very hands-on. No dress could be tight enough, [no neckline] low enough. Super, super sexy, seductive.”
Mischka came under the critical watch of Jeffrey Banks and Willi Smith. “[Banks] was so kind,” Mischka said. “I’m a student, I’m eating like bugs for dinner, and I’m doing this big fake fur coat and flannel trousers. I couldn’t afford to buy the flannel so he gave me flannel from his collection to do the trousers.” Smith “wanted everything to be fun and flamboyant, and make a fashion show out of it.”
Unlike the generation of designers who would follow them, as neophyte fashion school grads, Badgley and Mischka didn’t set out immediately to launch their own brand. Rather, each sought gainful employment at an established company. If Parsons affirmed their mutual love of fashion, their first jobs opened the door on a world that had moments of pure dazzle and real-life Ab Fab. For Badgley, a single day of employment at Arnold Scaasi was bracketed by more resume-worthy stints with Jackie Rogers and Donna Karan, both, he said, “amazing, strong women.”
Rogers, he recalled, “was so talented. She just never had the right partner or the financing.” Yet she didn’t let a little thing like that interfere with the good life. As her design assistant, Badgley accompanied her to daily lunches at “all the fancy restaurants — The Four Seasons, Le Cirque.” When they traveled to Première Vision, the best trade-fair intentions might lead to boredom, so she’d truncate their scouting efforts and head to Monte Carlo. He recalled all eyes on Rogers when she walked into the hotel casino in a shocking pink tuxedo jacket over white bias crepe trousers: “She was stunning.” As beautiful and eccentric as she was, Rogers was also kind. When Badgley’s father died, he took an extended leave to go home, staying away for six months and she wanted to pay him.
Karan was a “workaholic,” who didn’t much care for the morning shift. “Donna was so hands-on,” Mischka said. “She’d get to the office around lunchtime and stay every night until 10 o’clock. James and I knew every restaurant in New York that was open at midnight.”
Badgley had interviewed with both Karan and Scaasi, and Scaasi offered a job first. But on his first day of work, the young designer got the Donna call. She was “the queen” for whom everybody wanted to work, so he left Scaasi after one very interesting day’s work — at the elder designer’s Central Park South apartment, where he often worked and where Badgley reported for duty. It was the day after a big event in New York, probably the Met, and all day long, beautiful flower arrangements came and went. Ultimately, they were outgoing — from Scaasi to the women who had worn his dresses the previous evening — but not until each merited the designer’s personal seal of approval.
“He had records of all of his customers, what color their bedrooms or dressing rooms were: ‘Mrs. Davis, it’s blush with celery accents.’ He insisted on seeing [the arrangements] before the florist could deliver up to their fancy Park Avenue apartments. He’d be like, ‘that blush is too deep. Her room is more powdery than that; send it back.’ I mean, the guy was incredible. He was so into the details.”
Meanwhile, Smith had hired Mischka for a men’s wear position at WilliWear. Smith represented New York’s emergent young sportswear attitude, and was then one of the coolest designers on the planet, a forebear of the streetwear deities of today. His first day on the job, Mischka, who had never been out of the country, was to get a passport and visa for a trip to India, where the WilliWear sample room and factory were. Mischka would travel there often for the company, garnering knowledge that would prove beneficial for his own business.
Eventually and independently both young designers started to mull the idea of going out on their own. “We both thought that we were working so hard for other people, so why don’t we…?” Mischka said. As they pondered individual moves, the lightbulb went off and they thought, why not start something together? “Because,” Mischka deadpanned, “the names are so easy to pronounce together.”
To that point, the order of billing was a matter of pragmatism: They thought Mischka Badgley could be misunderstood as “Mr. Badgley.”
Confident that their aesthetics would mesh, the two young men jumped in, starting their business with financial help from their families. Finding the New York market flooded with young sportswear types, they determined to go a different route. It was the height of what WWD’s John B. Fairchild famously dubbed Nouvelle Society, a moment of famously conspicuous consumption. The tony party circuit flourished, and with it, women’s evening wardrobes. At the same time, Badgley and Mischka were aware from retailers that while the mainstays of American chic — Blass, Oscar, Scaasi — were flourishing, there was a dearth of younger names in that arena.
That’s where they decided to focus, launching with both women’s and men’s, though they eventually dropped the latter. For women, they started with cocktail. The high evening that would become their signature emerged gradually, often in diaphanous, lavishly embroidered renditions. Hollywood took notice, and Badgley Mischka became a red-carpet phenomenon. Their first high-profile celebrity — Teri Hatcher — and soon thereafter, Ashley Judd, Brooke Shields, Kate Winslet, Halle Berry, Jennifer Lopez, Sharon Stone, Jennifer Garner, Julia Roberts, Taylor Swift, Helen Mirren, Sarah Jessica Parker and Carrie Underwood. Two favorites are Mirren and Lopez. Mirren has worn the brand for at least a dozen red-carpet appearances; J.Lo chose it for four consecutive Oscars.
While those ladies create buzz and drive interest, Badgley and Mischka are most enthusiastic about the women who buy their clothes season after season. While their base demographic is 40-plus, they appeal increasingly to a younger constituency as well. And they were size-inclusive before it was a thing — their standard ranges from zero to 16 — and in custom, up to 22. “We feel that way about age, about size,” Mischka said. “If they can afford that dress, then they can afford that dress.”
That attitude stems from deep respect for the customer, a point hammered home in early advice from Bill Blass. At a dinner, he stopped at their table to introduce himself. Badgley recalled the conversation. “He said, ‘There’s a lot of dames out there’ — he said ‘dames’ — that need your clothes, and there’s not a lot of people doing them anymore. Those dames still like beautiful clothes and they like to get dressed up. And he owned that customer.”
Of course, times have changed, and like everyone else, Badgley Mischka have had to adjust. “Back then,” Mischka said, the customer pondered “how she presented herself, she agonized [over dressing].” Then, too, trends were, well, trends. Noted Badgley, “[Today], you have a trend report from Neiman Marcus. Basically everything is a trend. When I was at Donna Karan, if short was in, short was in and everybody did short. If navy was the color, if you didn’t do navy that season, you missed the boat. Now, there are trends but there are no trends because there are so many different ways to look and there are so many voices. With the Internet, there is so much information. I think it’s probably great for the customer because she has so many options, but there’s no longer a real point of view.”
All the more reason to know your customer, to stay focused on her needs and expectations. The pair learned that the hard way one season when they experimented with fashion on the edge, veering from their usual upbeat prettiness into moodier territory. Editors loved it. In the showroom, they couldn’t give it away. “The clothes were beautiful, but our retailers thought they had a dark side to them,” said Badgley. “That’s not us. It’s not what they come to us for.”
Being life and work partners in so taxing an industry can narrow daily conversation, and Badgley and Mischka happily pursue separate hobbies. Badgley is an accomplished equestrian; he rides every weekend in Palm Beach when not in collection mode. (The couple owned a horse farm in Kentucky for ten years. They loved it, but after a reduction in flights, the weekend commute proved impractical.) Mischka loves home do-overs, for which he can now use the brand’s furniture collection. And he’s a serious cook. As the pair has recently gone sea-gan with their diets, he’s now experimenting with meat-free cooking, and finds it a challenge. “I’m not totally versed in it,” he said. “It’s easier to throw a hamburger on the grill.”
Despite those extracurricular interests, the men acknowledge that fashion is their mutual occupation and preoccupation. “When we go home, it’s not like we talk about the weather,” Badgley said. “Until our heads hit the pillow, it’s work. It’s a great industry, and – “
Mischka joined in unison: “We wouldn’t do anything else.”