Badgley Mischka: Three Decades of Design

Photo: Badgley Mischka

Interview by Kyley Warren

Fashion sure isn’t what it used to be. And Mark Badgley and James Mischka, founders of the beloved Badgley Mischka brand, will be the first to admit it. Throughout their careers as designers, the duo has seen just about everything. As they recall from their early years, the world of fashion was held in a pristine, nearly unattainable regard—with access and insight on an invite-only basis, and the sure sign of label success being rooted in higher price points for luxury products. As Badgley noted, the stuffy nature of the industry would often deter a couture customer from shopping contrasting departments, like evening gowns and sportswear. Fashion today, however, has significantly shifted those boundaries. “It’s all a blur. She could be wearing a T-shirt and a $10,000 Chanel coat, and it doesn’t matter,” Badgley says. 

Designers Mark Badgley & James Mischka of Badgley Mischka

The industry demands a lot from those working within it. For designers, a keen sense of creativity, quick instincts and an ability to balance focus between multiple business endeavors are regarded as necessities for survival—and perhaps that’s why the cut-throat nature of the field has remained, despite the modernization of so many other aspects of the industry.

Though for designers Badgley and Mischka, the unpredictable business of fashion has proven to be less of a career obstacle, and rather more of an artistic opportunity to solidify their status as some of the most influential creatives in the world. Since their brand’s inception nearly 30 years ago, the pair has delivered unforgettable couture collections and red-carpet gowns that still continue to captivate consumers decades later. We’re looking at you, Jennifer Lopez circa the 1997 Oscars. Whether they’re dressing the likes of Oprah and Helen Mirren, or they’re crafting ethereal bridal gowns for celebrities like Lauren Conrad, the duo’s ambition and sincere love for the pieces and collections they create is why they have continued to thrive as designers all these years later.

Photo: Badgley Mischka

CAKE: You’ve both been in the fashion industry for a long time—over 30 years, in fact. What trends are you especially loving at the moment?

James Mischka: What was big when we started is what’s coming back now. So, it’s kind of interesting. 

Mark Badgley: Fashion has been pretty soft for the last few years in terms of silhouette. Our customer has been wearing dresses, beautiful blouses and skirts, as well as a lot of soft clothes. All of the sudden, now she seems to be lacking a little bit of structure again. And when James and I first started in the industry, that was back in the 80’s with power shoulders and everything. I don’t think it’s coming back like that, but she’s [the customer] lacking a little bit of tailoring in her silhouettes again. We had fun with this collection…incorporating that. We’re usually very much about soft diaphanous dressing, and it’s been fun bringing back tailoring a little bit, certainly for day wear. But we introduced it also into summer evening gowns, beautiful chic evening coat dresses. I think [they] look really fresh again and sort of give a woman a stature and a power that I think she’s having fun wearing now.

“There’s a thread of glamour that runs through everything that we do too—that’s sort of the consistent, and it doesn’t matter if we’re designing a teacup, a sofa or a wedding gown. Everything has a touch to glamour.”

— Mark Badgley

CAKE: You both have styled so many fabulous women. Can I ask who your favorite client has been that you’ve been able to work with?

JM: We’ve been super, super lucky to work with so many of them.

MB: We dressed multiple Oscars [dresses] for Jennifer Lopez, and it doesn’t get any better than that for a fashion designer. She’s a true inspiration on any level. One of our favorites of all-time is Helen Mirren. We were thrilled that Kendall [Jenner] just wore one of our gowns to Justin Bieber’s wedding. It was a vintage gown that we remember explicitly working on because it was a dress that was very labor-intensive. It was a really special dress to us, and it was so funny to see it resurface 25 years later and to be on her of all people. We also love dressing Oprah; she’s super inspirational.

JM: And we worked with the Olsen twins on a collaboration for a while. They were really fun to work with too because we get such a variety of customers. We will sell the same dress to a ‘prom girl’ and Barbra Streisand, which is what’s interesting that our collections can span that wide of a range. 

Photo: Badgley Mischka

CAKE: The brand has dabbled in everything from runway couture to home collections, and even perfume scents. Do you approach your creative process a little bit differently within each of those fields?

MB: The manufacturing process is different. But I think that the initial concepts and the way we go about building a collection, there’s no shortcuts. It starts with our sketches and finding the raw materials, and knowing the hands that work on the products and the continual struggle to find the quality, and the process of developing for samples—it doesn’t matter if you’re building furniture or an evening gown or a fragrance, the process is pretty much the same. 

JM: You gather your materials, you gather your shapes, and then we add embellishment to them, of course. You just have to meld it all together. Your materials can be satin and lace for a gown, or it can be wood and gold leaf metal for furniture, and it can be different accords for the fragrance. So, you have to really take these things and meld them together with the silhouette to create the product.

MB: There’s a thread of glamour that runs through everything that we do too—that’s sort of the consistent, and it doesn’t matter if we’re designing a teacup, a sofa or a wedding gown. Everything has a touch to glamour.

CAKE: What sort of wedding trends can brides look forward to?

MB: I think brides are taking a little bit of a risk right now. I think they’re much more interested in a gown that has an interesting cut or detail or silhouette. Though, there still has to be something classic about it. They’re hijacking beautiful inspiration from runway, like a fabulous detail or something that somehow is incorporated on a very traditional, gorgeous bridal gown. And that’s what makes the dresses so pretty right now.

Photo: Badgley Mischka

CAKE: Wedding gowns seem to be one of the key pieces in fashion that tend to get replicated quite a bit. As designers, do you find that flattering or frustrating?

MB: I think it’s flattering. You can’t really get too bogged down on it. 

JM: Plus, with those dresses, we’re always on to the next one after those. So, we’re not keeping that in our collection and trying to replicate ourselves.

MB: There are a lot of categories like that. Bridal is certainly one of them because at the end of the day, it’s a white dress. So, you know that the industry is very influenced by what’s out there. And when you see something that’s supported, it trickles down quickly, sort of like a handbag. When a big, European handbag company does a certain silhouette, you’ll find it trickle down on a million different collections. There’s certain industries where that’s very prevalent. 

JM: I think our first experience with that was when we had done the dress for The Bachelorette. And it was a beautiful white dress with pink floral accents. It was top-secret, $6 million, nondisclosure agreement. Then at a trunk show at Kleinfeld’s, we saw that they made an exact copy of the dress.

“One of the most useful things for us is that if we have an idea for something, we sort of cast out a net: Has anybody else done this? And if they have, then we go a different direction.”

— James Mischka

CAKE: Social media has become a big place for fashion inspiration. How have you guys incorporated these digital mediums into your own brand? 

MB: Absolutely. I’m the lowest tech person you could ever imagine. I think our company was slow to really jump on the bandwagon. And since we have, it’s been super helpful and inspirational. It’s gotten our brand out in ways that you just can’t underestimate. I think for any design house, it’s an amazing tool to instantly research on a creative level. I can’t imagine even conducting any sort of commerce today without it.

JM: One of the most useful things for us is that if we have an idea for something, we sort of cast out a net: Has anybody else done this? And if they have, then we go a different direction. 

Photo: Badgley Mischka

CAKE: What can we look forward to from the Badgley Mischka label in the coming year?

JM: We’re mentally almost through 2020 already.

MB: It’s fun because the industry’s changed a lot, as the world has changed a lot. For a couple of decades, we were just about the red-carpet gowns, and unfortunately what comes along with a product like that, is it’s not that accessible, price point wise. And I think what’s been really interesting for James and I is that we’ve now designed, under our umbrella, a couple of other collections that have gorgeous product at different price points that are accessible. I think every woman dresses like that. You know there was a day when I’d come into Neiman Marcus, and the couture customer would never walk across the hall to the sportswear floor. Now it doesn’t matter, it’s all a blur. She could be wearing a T-shirt and a $10,000 Chanel coat, and it doesn’t matter. So, I think that’s the most fun thing that we’re doing now. There used to be a stigma against doing that in the industry years ago, and you had to stay in one lane. Although we do stay in one lane with our aesthetic of the kind of clothes that we like, we’re able to do a couple different price points and get our clothes out in a different way.

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