Designer Bach Mai is Houston-born St. John alum and red carpet darling

Fashion designer Bach Mai had his 13th birthday party inside Neiman Marcus at the Galleria. He recalls walking down the aisles, admiring all the clothes.

Today, some of the dresses hanging on those racks are his. The Texas-based retailer sells Mai’s designs in its Houston, Dallas and Beverly Hill outposts; they are also available at Bergdorf Goodman in New York, where Mai currently resides and designs.

In November, the Galleria location hosted a reception for the launch of his collection in stores — a full circle moment for the Houston native.

“I remember walking in and seeing my clothes there for the first time,” Mai said. “There was a window dedicated to Bach Mai.”

Dozens of family members and friends flooded the department store’s designer floor for the occasion. Among them were Mai’s parents, both Vietnamese immigrants; Duyen and Marc Huynh wearing his designs; and a gaggle of students from St. John’s School, his alma mater.

Mai can pinpoint the exact moment he fell in love with fashion: John Galliano’s spring/summer 2004 collection for Christian Dior.

“I remember sitting there at my dial-up computer and just being so mesmerized,” he said of the Egypt-inspired show. “Even before I saw that show, I was already interested in fashion. I started making clothes when I was 15 for my friends and my cousin. My aunt helped; she taught me how to sew.”

Inspired by Galliano, known as the “king of bias cut” in design circles, one of Mai’s first dresses attempted the challenging silhouette in cranberry red. Still a teenager, he applied what he’d learned in his high school geometry class to get the shape right.

Even back then, he adds, there was a through-line to his sartorial aesthetic. The woman who wears Bach Mai appreciates irreverent glamour and is unabashedly feminine. 

“At our core is a rejection of this idea that women have to adopt masculine forms of dress to appear strong,” Mai explained. “A bow, pink can be an armor.”

After graduating from St. John’s, he studied at the Parsons School of Design in New York and was promptly nominated for Womenswear Designer of the Year. Stints at Calvin Klein and Oscar de la Renta followed. Then came the life-changing move to Paris, where Mai earned a master’s degree from the Institut Francais de la Mode and worked under Prabal Gurung before joining the team at Maison Margiela, then led by Galliano.

At last, the opportunity to learn from his idol. And to study true haute couture.

“To work for Mr. Galliano and to be mentored by him was a dream I could have never dreamt,” Mai said. “I always wanted to go to Paris. The tradition of couture isn’t as prevalent in the U.S. I wanted to really learn the craft, then come back and be an American designer.”

Which is pretty much what happened. He returned to New York in 2019 and founded the brand Bach Mai two years later.

For the 80th annual Golden Globes in January, “Severance” actor Britt Lower walked the red carpet in a strapless Bach Mai. Her stylist previously tapped the designer for an Emmy Award event outfit.

“We had just released our latest collection for pre-fall. Britt’s gown wound up being the finale look, and her stylist just needed to have it,” Mai said. “She knew it was the one.”

His references were a play on 1950s couture and Balenciaga’s sculpted silhouettes. Similar versions of the gown are available on neimanmarcus.com.

Gabriella Sarmiento Wilson, the recording artist known as H.E.R., wore Bach Mai to the 65th annual Grammy Awards in February. Days out from showing his 2023 fall/winter collection at New York Fashion Week, Mai accepted the back-to-back red carpet placements as a good omen.

At the moment, light is his muse. He’s exploring how it behaves, reacts and can pierce through water. After the runway show, some of the pieces should land at Neiman Marcus next summer, giving Houston and Dallas clients an advantage.

“It doesn’t have to be a Met Gala moment every time you leave the house, but so much of our ethos was informed by my growing up in Texas,” Mai said. “Some of these women are going to events three nights a week, or more. We live, eat and breathe fashion.”

 

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