Mark Badgley and James Mischka have achieved one of the most successful collaborations in fashion history and after nearly 30 years in the business have become synonymous with timeless elegance and red carpet glamour. Described by Vogue as one of the top 10 most important American designers, Badgley Mischka have dressed the likes of Jennifer Garner, Helen Mirren, Taylor Swift and Kate Winslet, to name a few. In honor of their new collection available at Dillard’s, the dynamic duo discussed with Soirée the secrets of their success and their favorite Southern treats.
How do you guys like being in the South, have you been here before?
Mark: We have an affinity for the South. We do travel obviously a lot for our jobs, but we’re lucky enough to have had a horse farm in Lexington, Kentucky, for about 10 years, which is where we really got acquainted with the Southern lifestyle, and we fell in love with it. So we’re really excited to come here. We’ve never been to Arkansas before.
What’s your favorite Southern food?
James: Pimento cheese! I could eat that at every meal. And of course biscuits and gravy and country ham.
Mark, you originally studied biomedical engineering? How did you move from that into becoming a fashion designer?
Mark: After calculus and I didn’t get along too well, I skipped out of engineering and went into managerial science and art history. From there I went to fashion at Parsons, where I met James. After my first semester, I ended up loving it and stayed, so that’s how it happened.
The two of you have been collaborating since 1988 now. That’s a long time to work together. What are the secrets to harmonious collaboration?
Mark: Well the fact that we’re both capricorns certainly helps, we stay calm in most situations. But it’s a very crazy industry and it’s not as glamorous as a lot of people think it is. It’s a lot of hard work and all that goes along with it, you know, finding that combination between balancing the creative aspects of the industry with the commerce and business aspects of the industry are always a challenge. But it’s been great that we always have someone we trust that we can bounce things off of.
James: He’s trying to be nice. It’s a very difficult industry, but really it’s the two of us against everybody else. So having someone who will always have your back is really great to have and very important.
Mark: And we can be at two places at once which is very fortunate too in this situation. If someone has to go put out a fire somewhere or work on our accessories or something in Europe and someone’s got to go to New York, it helps that there are two of us. That kind of ability to be in two places at once has really come to an advantage over the years.
It’s very difficult in this day and age for designers to keep their own name and keep from being bought out by the big luxury conglomerates. How have you managed to achieve your independence and business acumen where a lot of designers stumble at that hurdle?
James: Well, as designers we both really wanted to know every part of the business, so we always had our hands in the production department or our noses in the PR department, or the finance department so that we really helped. We really tried to get the bigger picture rather than just sitting in the design room and drawing dresses. We’ve done everything for the company from designing to shipping to making the patterns and everything else that we know how to do. In terms of keeping the business going, we’ve had different financial partners over the years. We were part of Escada for a long time and we just recently bought our name back from them about a month and a half ago, so that was really exciting.
Mark: It’s a juggling act for sure in this day and age to continue to have creative control over what a fashion house does. It’s so expensive to keep a fashion house going full steam ahead 24 hours a day, but James and I have been fortunate. We’ve always watched our company closely. We’re very involved with the business aspect of it as well as the creative side, and have always taken all those responsibilities on ourselves. We have always tried to control the destiny of where our company is going so we don’t wind up with one of those horrible situations that you hear about where a designer no longer even owns their own name.
What is your favorite and worst part of putting a collection together?
Mark: I hate the beginning when it’s so daunting and I think, “My God, can’t we just push a replay button and do last season all over again? It was a great collection, I loved last season, we’re never going to do anything better than that,” but we can’t. It’s always in the beginning that it’s like “Where do we start?” Especially if the fabrics don’t look that exciting that season. But then you have to say, “Let’s just get this engine going.”
James: The worst part is the beginning and the best part is the very, very end, when it’s finished. Because the way clothes work, everything is coming together last minute and the accessories are coming from Europe last minute and this and that, and then in the last 10 minutes before you line up the girls before they go out on the runway, you finally get to see everything that's come together for the first time. You’re constantly in a state of panic that it’s not going to work until you get to see it all, and you realize that you really got something and it did come together. So that's sort of the fun part and the most nerve-wrecking part of it.
How do you reinvent this art every season and come up with something fresh?
Mark: To us it’s not about reinventing the moon every season because that's not really what your customer is coming to you for. We’re always trying to perfect what we do and give it a slightly different direction and something that is going to freshen it up. But new inspiration could come from a new friend that you meet that inspires you by the way she puts herself together or typically it’s our fabrics or it could be a trip that we’ve been on.
James: It’s always going to be inspiration sending you off on a different direction. You want to keep the continuity, but at the same time, it has to feel fresh and new.
Mark: We don’t like work like fashion is a ping-pong ball where it’s all one thing one season and then say “Well that was last season, the next season is a whole different direction.” It gives no continuity, and we like consistency. And it’s collective so you just keep developing on the layers after layers.
Finally, what are the pearls of wisdom that you would pass on to your proteges or the biggest lessons that you’ve learned?
Mark:I think you can’t be everything to everybody; you’ve got to pick your niche and what you love to do and what you really believe in so that you can really contribute. For example, James and I started working when everyone was doing sportswear or doing really trendy clothes, but we really believed in gorgeous, glamorous clothes. We didn’t show five gowns, we showed 55 gowns and we really dominated that category because we really believed in it and loved doing that. I think it’s especially hard when you start out and designers are trying to do this and that and then also try to appeal to this and this and this. You just sort of dilute your message. So I think that it’s all about focus — and not even just in the beginning — it’s always about focus.
James: Two things we’ve learned over the past 30 years is that if you can make a woman feel beautiful and make them feel young, then you’ve won. Those are two very key tools to a successful fashion business.