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'1 Mind in 2 Bodies' Is One Hot Duo : Designers: The name--Badgley Mischka--makes some say, 'Huh?' but the fashions don't. The team is earning rave reviews.

August 06, 1993|JILL GERSTON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

NEW YORK — It's a tongue-twister of a name and until fairly recently, people thought Badgley Mischka was some fledgling Russian designer who immigrated to Seventh Avenue.

"Everyone always assumes we're one person, even the dry cleaner," says James Mischka with a grin, as he pulls up a chair beside his partner, Mark Badgley, in their sun-dappled showroom. "They're just now figuring out we're two American designers with weird last names."

The days of mistaken identity are over for the pair whose reputation has been quietly growing as a gifted young design team with staying power in an industry littered with stars who burned out after a few hot seasons.

"It's very dangerous to become a big press sensation without the clothes to support the hype," says Mischka, who, like his partner, is 32. "You can get tons of press, but do no business. It's not that we shun publicity, but we'd rather have our clothes on someone's back than a picture in a magazine."

Among the backs Badgley and Mischka have covered in cut velvet and silk plisse are those of Jodie Foster, Chynna Phillips, Susan Lucci, Diane Sawyer and Tina Brown, not to mention a flotilla of chic, willowy fortysomethings who subscribe to the designers' philosophy of subdued glamour.

Although their reputation has been percolating for awhile, it was their recent fall collection that sent their star shooting into the fashion firmament. They made the front page of the industry bible Women's Wear Daily, which hailed their clothes as "a breath of Nineties fresh air." Editors from Vogue, Harper's Bazaar, Vanity Fair and Elle, among other glossies, converged on their Seventh Avenue showroom in search of samples to photograph. Saks Fifth Avenue recently showcased their clothes in its New York windows as did Bloomingdale's, which just opened a Badgley Mischka boutique.

And unlike other promising young designers who are heaped with praise but must scramble for backers, Badgley and Mischka last year entered into a partnership with Escada USA, a subsidiary of the giant German apparel manufacturer, giving them a solid financial base.

"I expect they'll be around a long, long time," says Kal Ruttenstein, senior vice president of fashion direction for Bloomingdale's. "They take a modern, sportswear approach to evening. They're not about that '80s over-the-top richesse."

Nor are they part of the brat pack of trendy young designers like Anna Sui and Byron Lars, whose hip, downtown creations are all the rage with the MTV crowd.

Rather, Badgley and Mischka clothes are elegant, not the sort of painstaking elegance of the Duchess of Windsor, but a modern, freewheeling style that incorporates spare designs, deep colors such as charcoal and midnight blue and touches of beads or lace. Although understated evening clothes are their specialty, they have recently expanded into sleek, softly tailored daywear as well.

"Our philosophy is, 'One zip and you're glamorous.' You can get dressed for a gala while the taxi waits downstairs," says Badgley. "We can't stand anything that looks fussy or that you have to fuss over."

Which is why their evening shawls are pre-draped and tacked to their slender dresses and their silk sarongs are pre-tied so that the wearer isn't fiddling in front of the mirror for an hour. They eschew cardboard-stiff fabrics in favor of fluid materials--wool gauze, crepe and matte jersey. And when they add a touch of glitter, it's usually just an edge of jet beads or a few cut glass buttons.

"If we did sequins, they would be navy, not gold," says Badgley.

Shy, soft-spoken and casually dressed in khakis and T-shirts, Badgley and Mischka come across not unlike their clothes: self-confident in a low-key way. Although they have been dubbed by a department store executive "the Oscar de la Renta and Bill Blass of the '90s," they are rarely glimpsed at society wingdings or chic East Side watering holes.

"We're both pretty boring," Badgley says with a smile. "There are no screaming matches or arguments over who does what. In the beginning, James, whose background is menswear, did the tailored stuff while I did the draping and softer pieces. But now it's all meshed. We're like one mind in two bodies."

The two met 10 years ago when they were students at Parsons School of Design in New York. Mischka, a New Jersey native, transferred to Parsons from Rice University in Houston; Badgley, an Oregonian, transferred from USC.

After graduation in 1985, Badgley worked for Jackie Rogers and Donna Karan while Mischka designed menswear for Willi Smith and Yves Saint Laurent.

Three years later, they decided to start their own company with seed money borrowed from their families. They did everything themselves, working out of a cluttered loft in the Hell's Kitchen area of Manhattan and using Badgley's twin sister as a fitting model.

Word of mouth sent them a trickle of buyers, and within a year a smattering of their clothes was hanging in Bergdorf Goodman, I. Magnin and Barneys.

In 1989 they won the Mouton-Cadet Young Designer Award, and the ensuing publicity brought them more retail outlets--including Neiman Marcus and Saks Fifth Avenue--and spreads in major fashion magazines.

Last year their sales hit about $5 million and should increase sizably this year, Mischka says. Prices range from $500 for dresses to about $1,000 for suits.

Currently working in a spacious, new Seventh Avenue showroom, Badgley and Mischka have been busy putting the finishing touches on their holiday line, choosing fabrics for their spring collection and preparing for several fall trunk shows around the country.

"We'd love to do shoes, perhaps jewelry and even a line of menswear, but we don't want to explode onto the scene and then disintegrate," says Mischka. "We plan to take our time and be in this for the long run."

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