Interview: Emerging Fashion Designer Stephen Mikhail On Designing For Celebrities, And The Trouble With Parsons

by Daniel Reynolds · January 25, 2012

    The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe was one of my favorite books growing up,” said fashion designer Stephen Mikhail, gazing up at the lamplights as he strolled through a snowy, Narnia-like Central Park in a self-designed plum, Astrakhan motorcycle jacket. “It made me believe in magic, which is so important to a, well, wardrobe like mine.” So does that make him the lion or the witch? “A little of both,” he answered, laughing mischievously.

    Mr. Mikhail is something of a wunderkind in the fashion world. Despite warnings from the Parsons faculty that he was moving too quickly, he threw caution to the wind, debuting his first collection at the precocious age of 19. The gamble paid off. In 2008, Miss Universe Dayana Mendoza was among the first celebrities spotted modeling a Mikhail, a list that has grown to include Olivia Wilde, Stephanie Pratt, and Lindsay Lohan.

    Now a twenty-three-year-old graduate, the young designer expressed frustrations with his Parsons experience. “I suffered miserably through school,” he admitted. “I had dreams they didn’t have. I didn’t want to be groomed to work for someone else. I wanted to create something of my own.” But was there any value to his education? “I learned what not to do,” he insisted. “And patience, which is vital in this industry.”

    Despite his youth, Mikhail is no greenhorn. Apart from the work required to start his own label, he undertook demanding fashion house internships at Alexander McQueen, Diane von Furstenberg, Catherine Malandrino, and Dennis Basso. It was at these houses that he learned how to run a successful business. “I have high expectations of myself, and I have these same expectations of the people I work with,” he said, referring to the dozen (give or take) employees he manages in the manufacture of his garments. “You need to lead by example, and communication is essential. All my clothes are manufactured in New York. Nothing is overseas, which is rare nowadays. But it’s something I strongly believe in. I deal with people personally.”

    His apartment, a slender walk-up nestled between high-rises in Hell’s Kitchen, is something of a makeshift studio. Colorful ostrich-skin purses perch next to athletic sneakers, while kitchen chairs are draped with exotic furs and even a swath of bright red crocodile skin. “I made Lindsay [Lohan] a bracelet from this,” he said, holding up the red croc. “I have a big personality, so I like dressing celebrities who also have big personalities. Despite what people say, I got to see a side of her that was incredibly sweet and kind. The world takes out their frustrations on people like her. I appreciate the path she’s taking. It takes a lot of bravery to live a life so public."

    Does he desire celebrity? “I want to be recognized for hard work,” he emphasized. “Celebrity, unfortunately, is an abused term these days. It used to mean something special. Something glamorous. Now you have the Kim Kardashians of the world, people looking for a shortcut to fame through gimmicks and reality television. It cheapens the brand. But I strongly believe that cream rises. I know if I work hard enough, I can succeed without cheating.”

    He gestured to black and white portraits of Marlon Brando and Lauren Bacall hanging near the front door. “Them. They’re my inspirations. I used to watch their films with my grandparents when I was a kid. Bacall especially. She has this strength, this independence, which makes her so sexy. But she has class. She knows how to be a lady.”

    So how does this influence his fashion? “I love glamour, especially the Golden Age of Hollywood. But my Spring/Summer line was actually inspired by Bettie Page. There’s something so sexy about a pinup girl, how soldiers would romanticize their pictures during the war. They walk a fine line between ‘lady’ and ‘tramp’ that I love to tread in my clothes. So, you know, I’d have a model walk the runway in a trench coat paired with a sheer, fluttery, chiffon skirt. I called it ‘Bettie Page and Polynesian,’ but I usually avoid formal titles for a collection. I don’t want to influence my audience.”

    Admittedly, Mikhail feels more in his element designing his Fall/Winter season. “I love black,” he asserted. “And I love layering. There’s romance in everything I do. Artists like Alexander McQueen and John Galliano have been such an inspiration to me. They’re so wonderful at metamorphosis, at finding beauty in the darkest places. When I design clothes like a dark, floor length dress—it’s not melancholy. It’s always a celebration.”

    Mikhail favors Italian designers over the French, citing favorites like Donatella Versace and Dolce & Gabbana. “I love the Italians. They have this perfect balance between practicality and fantasy. The Paris shows seem more, ethereal, you know? The clothes are so beautiful, but it’s hard sometimes to picture an actual girl wearing them on the sidewalk. Angelina Jolie—she stole the show at the Golden Globes in that Versace dress. Though I did see some puckering. I was shocked Donatella missed that…”

    So what’s next for Mr. Mikhail? “I started designing jewelry,” he told me, flashing a smile and a large sapphire ring. “I get bored easily, and I’m always on to bigger things. It’s part of surviving in New York, I guess. It’s such a clusterf*ck of a city. But you know, there’s beauty in that, too.”

    For more information and to view Stephen Mikhail's collections, go HERE.