By Doris Degner-Foster
It was a seemingly innocuous day at a horse show during some rare time away from the office about 20 years ago that changed fashion designer Mark Badgley’s life. “I was really stressed from work — James Mischka and I were working round the clock then,” Mark said, adding that he’d ridden and shown up till college. “I went out to the Hampton Classic Horse Show and I remember sitting there watching the hunters and realized that I really missed it, so I started riding again. I came back the next year and was champion on my two horses! I felt like I’d really gotten back into the sport that I loved and missed so much.”
One of the things Mark missed was the feeling of camaraderie among others involved with horses. “It’s the best sport; it’s incredible the friendships that you gain along the way. I just love everything about it. I’ve never been to a horse show where I didn’t have a blast,” Mark said. “It’s always such a privilege to be at them and maybe it’s because I never quite get enough of it because of my schedule, so when I’m there I’m grateful for every minute of it.”
Mark’s riding career began as a child on ponies showing in the northwestern U.S. and Canada, and only ended when his time was taken over by college and the Parsons School of Design in New York, where he met James Mischka. After graduation, they both worked at other design houses before forming their company, Badgley Mischka, in a loft in New York — with just the two of them and one seamstress. With his usual relaxed good humor, Mark said that at first they weren’t sure about the name, joking that Badgley Mischka sounded like an old Russian lady. The name choice turned out to be a positive one and their brand now includes shoes, handbags, jewelry, eyewear and a bridal collection. But it’s their elegant, glamorous evening gowns for which they’re best known.
Building a Business of Dressing Ladies
In the 20 years since Mark came back to the horse, Badgley Mischka has grown considerably in the competitive design industry. Mark and James decided early on that they’d specialize in evening gowns — where their interest and enthusiasm was highest — and that they’d never try to be everything to everybody. “It’s been a huge advantage to have a partner like James because we always had each other to bounce things off of and we could be two places at once, which comes in very handy in this industry,” Mark said. “You just have to do what you believe in and you can’t get discouraged. It’s all about focus, hard work and determination.”
When a major turning point came in their business, it didn’t initially seem noteworthy. “We got some phone calls from Hollywood when the awards show season began in 1995,” Mark remembered. “We were asked if we could send some evening gowns and we thought, ‘Well that’s strange, but why not?’” Although evening gowns were their specialty, they were a bit puzzled because in the early 1990s New York designers weren’t in demand in Hollywood; it was more common for stars to turn to their own sources for the awards shows and red carpet occasions.
That incident set the design house into motion playing a leading role in celebrity dressing. That year, Teri Hatcher wore a Badgley Mischka dress to the Emmys and a few months later, Winona Ryder also wore a Badgley Mischka creation to the 1996 Academy Awards. “It put our name on the map,” Mark said. “It’s such an amazing way to introduce a brand: When a celebrity wears one of your dresses on the red carpet, it’s sort of instantaneous.” Their gorgeous, old-world glamour gowns have since been in demand among celebrities. Beyonce, Carrie Underwood, Jennifer Lopez, Oprah Winfrey, Kate Winslet, Taylor Swift and Ashley Judd are among Badgley Mischka’s regular clients and fans.
“Here we are a few decades later and it’s just this huge ongoing project that never really loses its importance, so that’s been a really fun part of what we do,” Mark said. “The stylists and celebrities know they can come to us because we do such a wide assortment of evening clothes.”
Glamorous Gowns Within Everyone’s Reach
The phrase One zip and you’re glamorous! sums up Mark and James’ philosophy. They feel that it’s important to keep the act of dressing up simple and not intimidating, reasoning that when a woman’s going out at night she has other important things to be concerned about.
“It’s our job to drape a gorgeous gown and work on the proportions and the silhouette, the fabrications and the fit,” said Mark. “It’s important, too, that the clothes are comfortable. I think gone are the days that a woman will suffer to be beautiful. She really demands it all now. It’s hard for a woman to feel glamorous if she’s not comfortable.”
Through online shopping and stores such as Neiman Marcus, Saks Fifth Avenue and Bergdorf Goodman, in addition to the brand’s flagship store on Rodeo Drive, women anywhere in the world have access to their elegant evening and wedding designs. Although Mark was skeptical at first about making their products available online, that’s where the most successful increases in sales have been, especially with shoes, handbags and other accessories. “We’ve dressed amazing women; it’s also just as exciting when we’re out for dinner and we see a woman across the room in one of our dresses,” Mark said. “That’s always a true compliment.”
Mark was just as thrilled recently to provide a gown for a young lady who isn’t a Hollywood celebrity, but certainly just as important to him. “My niece graduated from high school last spring and she wore one of our evening gowns to graduation,” Mark said with pride. “It’s the small things in life that are fun and exciting, that close to home.”
A Change in Focus
Although riding horses and training for competition requires time and focus, for Mark it’s time well spent. “It’s really something that takes my mind off work and that’s one thing I’ve always loved about it,” Mark said. “I can’t be really stressed and thinking about work or designing an evening dress as I’m cantering down to an oxer; it’s a total escape.”
Mark made his dream of having his horses at home with him a reality when he and James bought a farm in Kentucky, but the commute to New York became too difficult and they now have a house on Long Island. “I ride with Mike Zuckerman and it’s awesome!” Mark said. “I commute from there — I ride in the morning and I can be in the office by nine, so it’s perfect.”
Michael Zuckerman’s Lynnewood Stables is within minutes of Mark and James’ home in Oyster Bay on Long Island. “Mike’s excellent with amateur riders who have careers outside of the ring,” Mark said. “I always know that during busy times at the office, I can arrive at a show or even for a lesson and my horse will be perfectly prepared. He has a real knack for that.”
Michael’s stable moves to Wellington and the Winter Equestrian Festival for the winter season and Mark is looking forward to showing his 9-year-old European Warmblood gelding By George in the Adult Amateur Hunters during the 2017 winter circuit. Michael will keep George ridden during the weeks when Mark is working and show him in the Pre-Green classes.
Mark acknowledged that the sport is a test of support, patience and understanding for everyone involved, and he said, “James is an amazingly supportive partner and my riding is certainly no exception.”
Because Mark is able to enjoy a mental break from stress — spending time in the saddle focusing on his horse’s strides to the fences — he’s able to return to his other passion of design refreshed and ready for the next challenge.
About the writer: Doris Degner-Foster rides with Harvard Fox Hounds in Tulsa, Oklahoma, when she’s not interviewing fascinating individuals in the horse sport or writing fiction. Soon to be available is a middle-grade series about teenagers who ride and solve mysteries, and a mainstream murder mystery where a horse appears strangely in peoples lives to help an ER doctor through a crisis.