Fashion / Style

Houston Designer Emerges as Fashion’s Next Big Thing — Why Vogue and Celebs Can’t Get Enough of Bach Mai

St John's Schooled and Very Texas Influenced

BY // 01.11.22

Emerging fashion designer Bach Mai has been on a wild ride lately. Vogue has praised the 33-year-old Houston native as “an American Couturier in the Making” and Venus Williams, Tessa Thompson and Kate Beckinsale all recently appeared on the red carpet in glamorous sculpted gowns from his debut collection.

It’s pretty heady stuff for Mai, who was raised in West Houston as the son of Vietnamese immigrants and graduated from St. John’s School in 2007 before heading to New York to study at the Parsons School of Design and Paris, where he worked for John Galliano at Maison Margiela. In 2019, he returned to New York to launch his own brand, which has won rave reviews upon its recent pandemic-delayed launch.

“Fifteen years (later) and I’m in Vogue,” Mai marvels with a mix of wonder and bemusement over a glass of wine at 13 Celsius while in Houston for a brief holiday visit with his family.

Mai’s new collection plays on the theme of “irreverent glamour,” featuring sculpted jackets with a kimono band collar, lurex draped bias dresses and voluminous drop waist ball gowns of luxurious moiré fabrics (his new label has the backing of Hurel, the preeminent French textile company). While his work is filled with references to his idol Galliano, the great American couturier Charles James and French couturier Cristóbal Balenciaga among others, Mai says his greatest fashion influence was his Texas upbringing.

“I started making clothes for girls in high school, but I’m still dressing the Texas woman,” he tells PaperCity. “This understanding of glamour is very Texan, because it’s not a once in a blue moon thing. Texas women wear event clothes all the time. There’s a very real understanding of glamour and evening wear here that I think people from other backgrounds don’t have.

“That’s why you see quite a few evening wear designers from Texas — Brandon Maxwell, (Schiaparelli creative director) Daniel Roseberry, Tom Ford. This view of American glamour is really easy to understand when you’re from Texas because we live and breathe it.

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“You can wear glamorous, amazing, elegant clothes without taking it too seriously. It’s about being able to go out after 5 and you don’t have to have a Met Gala red carpet moment every time you step into a dress. It’s about looking beautiful and having a great time. I think women here understand that and have lived that. And having grown up around it I understand it as well.”

Bach Mai Look 27
Bach Mai frost gray moiré strapless sculpted volant gown. (Photo by Dimitri Hyacinthe)

Mai’s love for couture-quality clothing began when he happened onto an online showing of Galliano’s spring/summer Dior haute couture Egyptian collection in 2004 and became mesmerized by the world of fashion.

“Fashion shows were just starting to be posted online and I remember watching that show on my little dial-up computer in the suburbs of Houston and thinking it was beyond anything I could ever imagine,” he says. “It was so  incredible.”

The Modest Start of Bach Mai

Mai took sewing classes at High Fashion Fabrics and started making clothes for his cousins and friends — “they were not couture quality,” he says with a laugh — and even staged a runway show in the St. John’s School theater.

F0llowing stints with Oscar de la Renta and Prabal Gurung after graduating from Parsons, Mai moved to Paris, where he received a master’s degree from the Institut Français de la Mode and became a first design assistant to Galliano, with a focus on Maison Margiela’s artisanal couture collections. In addition to learning the craft from his idol, Galliano taught him that every collection has a life of its own and “you just have to let the creativity happen, to give it room to breath and let it give life to itself,” Mai says.

Mai’s first collection, planned for 2020, was delayed by COVID considerations, which looking back, he believes was a blessing in disguise because it gave him time to refine his thoughts about the collection and concentrate on the shapes

“I didn’t have to rush because I had the time,” he says. “Also the mood became really right. People were excited to dress up again and that led to a wonderful atmosphere for the kind of clothes that I do.”

Bach Mai Look 9 10
Bach Mai celadon metallic foiled lacke and gray silk organza babydoll volant dress. (Photo by Dimitri Hyacinthe)

The story of Bach Mai’s collection is a summary of his fashion journey thus far, ranging from the iconic black-and-white photographs by Richard Avedon and Irving Penn that Mai fell in love with as a teenager to an image of Sarah Jessica Parker from an episode Sex and the City that he can’t get out of his head.

“She’s wearing a pink Oscar de la Renta dress and she faints in Lincoln Center with Baryshnikov and then they go to McDonald’s,” he says. “It’s such an example of irreverent glamour. That’s one of my favorite dresses of all time, so I paid homage to it.

“Fashion is such a lineage. That dress is Oscar’s homage to Balenciaga. Everything is so circular.”

The Details Matter

Not only should a garment look good, Bach Mai believes it should feel good, so he makes a special effort on the details, such as lining his garments with sumptuous fabrics.

“The lining is what touches your body. That should be the most luxurious thing,” he says. “With this digital age it’s become so much about the look, the Instagram, the photo, but when you put something on that makes you feel incredible, that’s a power that clothing has that is really special.

“When you see a woman put it on, she feels like she can take on the world. That is the most amazing thing a designer can do. I like to give women that feeling.”

Mai hopes to build on his fast start with a second collection to be unveiled at New York Fashion Week next month. And, naturally, it will have a Houston connection.

His current collection features fil coupé organza jacquards based on two works by noted artist Cy Twombly: Triumph of Galatea and the Green Paintings by Cy Twombly. Mai recalls visiting the Cy Twombly Gallery at the Menil Collection often when he lived in Houston and it had an impact on his life and his work.

“The next collection is even more Cy Twombly,” Mai says. “There’s always something in connection with the Menil in my collections. If it’s not Cy Twombly, it’s Mark Rothko or a Magritte.”

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