Keep 'Em Glamoring For More

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By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 21, 2005

NEW YORK

Too much glamour killed a fashion company.

The designers Mark Badgley and James Mischka spent 17 years dressing members of the Hollywood elite in lushly decorated gowns, crafting one-of-a-kind inaugural dresses for Jenna and Barbara Bush, mounting glamorous runway shows, and accumulating press that almost unanimously proclaimed them the kings of American evening wear.

They built their reputations on crystal-studded showstoppers that evoke youth and elegance. Their evening dresses have the patina of age, as if the paillettes and crystals have been salvaged from authentic flapper dresses or from a Hollywood wardrobe department.

They launched their business in 1988 and a few years later acquired financial backing from Escada, the German sportswear company known for crested blazers and knitwear festooned with gold braid. Millions of Escada dollars flowed through their small company, allowing the designers to fly to Los Angeles during Oscar week to hand-tailor gowns on actresses accustomed to personal attention and free clothes. The stars received both from Badgley Mischka. The designers, tall and good-looking, consistently showed up at significant social events and in the party pages -- their jackets softly tailored and their Orbit smiles gleaming in the twilight. Badgley Mischka was a brand with a thick, high gloss.

"We became the go-to guys for a certain kind of glamour," Mischka says.

All that razzle-dazzle, however, obscured the reality that the company was a money loser.

In the fashion industry, companies routinely boast a public image that outshines their bottom line -- and not just by a little. What is unique about Badgley Mischka is that it was a high-end evening-wear company. The designers dealt solely in entrance-making frocks with an opening price of $3,000. They made no simple, widely accessible sportswear.

"It's impossible to make any money selling couture evening wear," says Neil Brown, chief operating officer of Amsale, a luxury bridal firm that also produces evening wear. "There's such a remarkable disparity between the presence of a designer in the press and the absolute stability of the business.

"Badgley Mischka survived because they were subsidized by Escada."

For almost two decades, Badgley Mischka was counting down to failure and the industry knew it.

In July 2004, the label finally shut its doors. Escada, with financial woes of its own, put Badgley Mischka up for sale. When there were no takers, the designers were left without money to produce a spring 2005 collection. They dismissed their staff. And people in the industry talked about what a shame it all was.


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© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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