A chance to meet and greet the incomparable design duo of Mark Badgley and James Mischka is in store during the highly anticipated Fashion Meets Art event February 22 at the Vero Beach Museum of Art. Badgley Mischka gowns have set the standard for easy elegance on the red carpet, at black-tie events, and in the penthouses of their loyal clientele. Both men believe that we can bring glamour into our everyday lives just by donning something that is simply beautiful instead of an old T-shirt and feel uplifted by that act.
Badgley and Mischka see art and fashion design as kindred spirits: “A lot of times our collections are inspired by paintings, painters, and even sculptors,” says Mischka. “John Singer Sargent is an influence in terms of the volumes and silhouettes we do for evening and in his moody color palettes.”
The pair also envisions the chiaroscuro effect—the use of strong contrast of light and dark to create a three-dimensional view, often employed by da Vinci, Rembrandt, and Vermeer—as a way to highlight the intricacies of color and the embellishments in their clothing designs. “Sometimes our collections are photographed that way, as if they are emerging from the darkness, which is a good metaphor for us,” notes Mischka.
Badgley and Mischka met at the revered Parsons School of Design. Upon graduation, Badgley worked for an evening-wear designer who was a former fit model for Chanel, and then moved on to join Donna Karan’s team. Mischka landed a job with Yves Saint Laurent before turning to menswear at Willi Smith.
In 1988, they launched their own label with a dozen cocktail dresses. “There were 11 black dresses and one red,” recalls Mischka. “The red one ended up in the window at Barneys, which became one of our first accounts.”
At the time, grunge was the big trend, but the pair bucked it with chic looks enhanced by statement-making embellishments. Their big break came on the red carpet, when Jennifer Lopez wore a black strapless ball gown with a bejeweled bodice. “That was a favorite of ours,” says Mischka. “We also loved the blush dress worn by Winona Ryder, who was on a rapid rise in Hollywood at the time.” The Chantilly lace dress was originally designed in ivory, with a pearl-encrusted bodice and bra cups shaped like scalloped seashells.
Badgley reveals a few hiccups in their last-minute push to deliver the gown. “Two days before the Oscars, Winona became obsessed with having the dress in a blush color. This was an intricate gown cut on the bias, and since there was no possibility of remaking it in that amount of time, we put our heads together for a solution.”
To change the dress to the blush color Ryder craved, the designers took a drastic step: They dyed it in the kitchen sink. “It was the middle of the night and we were a bit frenzied,” recalls Badgley, “but we were relieved to see that the dress took on the color in a very pretty way.”
After a brief night’s sleep, they awoke to a problem. “I looked at James and said, ‘I think it shrunk.’ Sure enough, it was now 6 inches shorter.” Ryder’s stylist was calling them urgently, checking on the progress. “We told her, yes, everything is fine,” laughs Badgley. “So that day, we booked a first-class ticket on Pan Am and brought the dress aboard with 22 Campbell’s soup cans tied to the hem. We told the first-class flight attendant the story and she hung the dress in the closet while we hoped for the best. Believe it or not, Winona wore it that night and it was the perfect length.” The young star was judged Best Dressed by Women’s Wear Daily, and Badgley Mischka red carpet designs were now officially soaking up the spotlight.
Devotees over the years include Ashley Judd, Kate Winslet, Taylor Swift, Queen Latifah, Jennifer Garner, and, the queen of them all, Helen Mirren. “Badgley Mischka has always been age inclusive and size inclusive,” says Mischka. “We have sold the exact same dress to a prom-going girl in Beverly Hills and to Barbra Streisand. We love to dress women who just want to look beautiful.”
Badgley and Mischka have seen big changes in the fashion industry amid the push toward globalization. “We had actually considered starting our line in Paris,” says Mischka, “then realized we don’t speak French, don’t know where to source the best buttons and zippers, or where to get the best thread.” Their line is based in New York City, still the fashion capital of the world, but inspiration comes from some unexpected places. The designers owned a horse farm in Kentucky for a time, and the green, open spaces influenced a collection. “It was a collection full of open skies, a feeling of space and Americana,” recalls Mischka. “Corn and tobacco colors were featured, and even the tops of wheat plants with their intricate braiding influenced our embroidery.”
At this year’s Fashion Meets Art event at the Vero Beach Museum of Art, patrons will see the newest Badgley Mischka designs for spring, and perhaps a few exclusive previews. “We’ll show a lot of our favorites,” says Badgley. “Expect to see rich colors, perfect for the Floridian woman, and we may sneak in a new piece or two from an upcoming collection.”
The designers now live in Palm Beach, where they appreciate the celebration of color. “It used to be that when you went to a black-tie event in New York, it was a sea of black,” says Badgley. “Now that we live in Palm Beach, we see almost no black, and even at events now in New York, the room is full of color.”
A VIP reception will kick off the festivities with guests mingling with the designers. Leslie Bergstrom, who has a fashion design degree from the American College of London and interned with Donna Karan, is event co-chair along with interior designer Gregory Allan Ness, owner of Coastal Interiors in Vero Beach.
“The main event will feature a beautiful stage decorated to the designers’ specifications that Greg and I will create,” says Bergstrom. “Mark and James will then take the stage, and journalist Tiffany Corr will interview them.” The designers will then field questions from the audience. Expect to get a glimpse into their process and hear about their experiences dressing top Hollywood stars.
The event will wrap up in the atrium with appetizers and bubbles catered by Windsor. All of this glamour has a purpose: “I am focused on the excellent educational programs offered by the museum that Fashion Meets Art will benefit,” says Ness.
Among these programs are the Art for Health’s Sake partnerships serving seniors with cognitive and physical challenges and the A+ Art program for teens and young adults with different learning needs. A+ Art encourages positive social interactions while youngsters discuss a work of art in the gallery, practice sketching, and create an in-studio art project in keeping with that week’s theme. For young families, there is the Art Zone with hands-on activities to spark curiosity and learning, and Museum Stories, a theme-based program for babies, toddlers, and their adult caregivers; it features reading, singing, dancing, and creating art together.
Badgley and Mischka still see their work as a fresh challenge every season. “It is easy as a designer sitting in your New York studio to get caught up in big-city looks, but the Badgley Mischka customer comes from all over,” notes Badgley. “Viewpoints used to be limited to the person’s own compartments of culture and life. What makes our industry so much fun now is that the lines between fashion, Hollywood, cinema, and the art world have blurred to encourage a wonderful melting pot of creativity.”