AndThe merger of designer Bach Mai has been a wild ride lately. Rowing praised the 33-year-old Houston native calling him “an American couturier in the making” and Venus Williams, Tessa Thompson and Kate Beckinsale recently appeared on the red carpet in glamorous sculpted dresses from her debut collection.
It’s a pretty intoxicating thing for Mai, who grew up 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 Parsons School of Design and Paris, where he worked for. John Galliano at the Maison Margiela. In 2019, he returned to New York to launch his brand, which garnered rave reviews for its recent launch delayed by the pandemic.
“Fifteen years (later) and there they are Rowing”, Mai marvels with a mix of awe and perplexity over a 13-degree glass of wine while in Houston for a short vacation vacation with her family.
Mai’s new collection plays on the theme of “irreverent glamor”, with sculpted jackets with kimono band collars, bias dresses draped in lurex and voluminous low-rise prom dresses in luxurious moiré fabrics (her new label has the backing of Hurel, the leading French fabric company). While her work is full of references to her idol Galliano, the great American couturier Charles James and French couturier Cristóbal Balenciaga, among others, Mai says her biggest influence in fashion was her upbringing in Texas.
“I started making dresses for girls in high school, but I’m still dressing the Texas woman,” she says City of Paper. “This understanding of glamor is very Texan, because it’s not a once in a blue moon thing. Texas women always wear event dresses. There is a very real understanding of glamor and evening wear here that I think people of other origins don’t have.
“That’s why you see some evening wear designers from Texas: Brandon Maxwell, (Creative Director Schiaparelli) Daniel Roseberry, Tom Ford. This vision of American glamor is really easy to understand when you come from Texas because we live and breathe it.
“You can wear glamorous, cool and elegant clothes without taking it too seriously. It’s all about being able to go out after 5 and you don’t have to have a moment on the Met Gala red carpet every time you put on a dress. It’s about being beautiful and having fun. I think the women here understand this and have experienced it. And having grown up around it, I understand it too ”.
Mai’s love of couture-quality clothing began when he stumbled upon an online show from Galliano’s Egyptian Dior haute couture spring / summer collection in 2004 and was mesmerized by the fashion world.
“The fashion shows were just starting to go live online and I remember seeing that show on my little computer in the suburbs of Houston and thinking it was beyond anything I could ever imagine,” she says. “It was so incredible.”
Bach Mai’s modest beginning
Mai took sewing lessons at High Fashion Fabrics and started making dresses for her cousins and friends – “they weren’t couture quality,” she says with a laugh – and even organized a fashion show in the St. John’s School theater.
After working with Oscar de la Renta and Prabal Gurung after graduating from Parsons, Mai moved to Paris, where he earned a master’s degree from the Institut Français de la Mode and became Galliano’s first design assistant, with particular attention to the handcrafted couture of the Maison Margiela collections. In addition to learning the trade from his idol, Galliano taught him that each collection has a life of its own and that “you just have to let creativity manifest itself, give it space to breathe and let it give life to itself,” says Mai.
Mai’s first collection, scheduled for 2020, was delayed by considerations of COVID, which, looking back, she believes was a blessing in disguise because it gave him time to hone his thoughts on the collection and focus on the shapes.
“I didn’t have to run because I had time,” he says. “Plus the atmosphere has really become the right one. People were excited to get dressed again and that led to a wonderful atmosphere for the kind of clothes I make. “
The story of Bach Mai’s collection is a summary of her fashion journey so far, ranging from the iconic black and white photographs of 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 city that he can’t get out of his head.
“She wears a pink Oscar de la Renta dress and passes out at Lincoln Center with Baryshnikov and then they go to McDonald’s,” she says. “It’s such an example of irreverent glamor. It’s one of my all time favorite dresses, so I paid tribute to it.
“Fashion is such a lineage. That dress is Oscar’s homage to Balenciaga. Everything is so circular “.
Not only should a garment look good, Bach Mai believes it should feel good, so he makes a special effort on details, such as lining his garments with sumptuous fabrics.
“The lining is what touches your body. It should be the most luxurious thing, “she says.” With this digital age, the look, Instagram, the photo has become so important, but when you wear something that makes you feel incredible, it’s a power that clothing has really special.
“When you see a woman wearing it, she feels she can face the world. This is the most amazing thing a designer can do. I like to give women that feeling ”.
Mai hopes to continue her quick start with a second collection that will be unveiled at New York Fashion Week next month. And, of course, it will have a connection with Houston.
His current collection features organza fil coupé jacquards based on two works by well-known artist Cy Twombly: Triumph of Galatea and the Green paintings by Cy Twombly. Mai remembers visiting the Cy Twombly Gallery at the Menil Collection often when she lived in Houston and it impacted her life and work.
“The next collection is even more Cy Twombly,” says Mai. “There is always something related to Menil in my collections. If it’s not Cy Twombly, it’s Mark Rothko or a Magritte. “