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Last fall during New York Fashion Week, the emerging fashion designer Bach Mai unveiled his Spring/Summer 2023 collection. For his third eponymous line and second-ever show, a presentation on models was seen for the very first time. Guests drifted between rooms, created by thick plastic tarps and glowing fluorescent light sticks Mai grabbed from Home Depot that morning, while models moved in slow motion. An ethereal glow bounced from their slicked-back hair and shimmering faces, many of which Mai dolled up himself. Trapeze shapes hung from the body, derived from historical Yves Saint Laurent for Dior silhouettes; Hurel fabrics woven with metallic Lurexand iridescent organza recalled pipes and oil slicks Mai’s father regularly saw at work in a Texas chemical plant; and construction harked back to his time working under John Galliano at Maison Margiela in Paris. Just two days later, Mai was nominated for the 2022 CFDA American Emerging Designer Award.
Whitewall spoke with the New York–based designer about how the great fathers of couture, as well as his own father, impact the label he launched just last year.
WHITEWALL: When did your interest in couture begin?
BACH MAI: I fell in love with couture because of John Galliano’s Spring 2004 Egyptian collection and started making dresses for my girlfriends when I was in high school. Most were for my cousin, my most patient muse. My aunts taught me how to sew, and my dad would drive me to the fabric store every weekend. My high school allowed me to create an independent study project and study fashion—the history of couture—as part of my curriculum. I had my first fashion show when I was a junior, and my first internship was in the Houston Ballet’s costume atelier when I was about 15.
I moved to New York and studied fashion at Parsons before working at Oscar de la Renta. Then I went to Paris, because that was always my dream, to learn the craft, come back, and be an American designer. I went to the Institut Français de la Mode for my master’s degree, did shoes for Prabal Gurung, and joined the team at Maison Margiela for Spring/Summer 2015. It wasn’t even a dream come true, because I never dreamed that was going to happen. I worked with John Galliano, who was my idol, and quickly became his first assistant. I worked with him every single day, day in and day out. He’s helped me more than I could possibly imagine. He taught me things I’m still realizing every day.
WW: You launched your label in October 2021 in partnership with the prestigious French textile company Hurel. How does that partnership impact what you make?
BM: It’s wonderful, as a young designer, to have access to such incredible textiles. They’ve worked with every couture designer you could imagine. It was actually at the urging of Coco Chanel herself that Hurel started a textiles branch, because before, they were purely embroidery. Everyone that I have admired historically has worked with Hurel—like Cristóbal Balenciaga, Hubert de Givenchy, Karl Lagerfeld, and even John Galliano when I was at Margiela. Working with them on custom developments and accessing amazing artisans that have been doing special couture textiles for generations is absolutely incredible.
In this last collection, we used one of my favorite fabrics—a silver Lurex velvet. There’s only one loom in the world that can weave that fabric. If it were not for the urging of Hurel to speak to those weavers, they wouldn’t have woven that fabric for me. It had to be custom-woven on this very finicky loom that’s over 100 years old. These special textiles allow me to explore the couture world, and that’s probably the most couture aspect of what we do just because of that relationship with Hurel.
WW: Did growing up in Texas impact your idea of fashion?
BM: My understanding of glamour really comes from having grown up in Texas. This idea of unabashed femininity, that it’s not something to shy away from. It can be strong and represent strength, because femininity is strength. The idea of irreverent glamour is very important to me—that you can wear what’s considered glamorous and not take it so seriously. These women live their lives in it for social seasons for events three or four nights a week. It’s a part of life down there. They live, eat, and breathe glamour in a way that’s very real in Texas. It’s interesting that so many evening wear designers— like Brandon Maxwell, Tom Ford, and Daniel Roseberry—come from Texas. There’s something in the water down there.
WW: Can you tell us about the process of creating your Spring/Summer 2023 collection, inspired by your father?
BM: Every single day, he would wear these coveralls to work at an oil refinery—a chemical plant in Deer Park. Look number two is a full blue look, and is made of twill. We wanted to explore the use of twill, and take durable, common textiles—cotton, wool, twill—and transform them into couture-influenced shapes. Whether it be dresses, gowns, our silk Balenciaga-influenced sculpted-back bomber jackets, we wanted to play with that tension.
Then, the moiré. French moiré is made by rubbing a fabric that usually has a ribbed texture against itself with these wooden sticks. They create the pattern. This time to develop it, we used this Lurex-based fabric to get that beautiful metallic moiré. It’s incredible and reminded me of steel. We had these iridescent organzas that I fell in love with years ago, and we finally used them. I think the shine is so incredible. It reminded me of oil slicks or gasoline.
Shapes this time were much more relaxed—first coming from those coveralls. But then we have these two lovely trapeze gowns, worn over a bustier, and these little shorts that are cut in cotton twill underneath, instead of a more traditional underpinning. There’s a lot of femininity without needing to accentuate the waist. There’s a bit of regency in there, a bit of Belle Époque. And then there’s a bias gown. There’s always an homage to John [Galliano] somewhere, my forever mentor. The bias gowns this season were cut very loosely, away from the body, and then with a sheer panel to add a bit of sexiness to it. That was something I really enjoyed.