Couple-turned-fashion moguls win Entrepreneur of the Year Award at Shenandoah University

B. Michael, left, and Mark-Anthony Edwards, co-founders of B. Michael America, were awarded the 2017 Entrepreneur of the Year by the Harry F. Byrd School of Business at Shenandoah University on Monday. Lewis Millholland/Daily

WINCHESTER – B. Michael and Mark-Anthony Edwards, co-founders of the fashion company B. Michael America and life partners, were presented the 2017 Shenandoah University Entrepreneur of the Year award at the Harry F. Byrd, Jr. School of Business on Monday.

Michael got his start designing millinery for the soap opera “Dynasty,” but pivoted to designing couture dresses and has built a star-studded line of clients, including Cicely Tyson, Phylicia Rashad, Whitney Houston and Beyoncé.

The brand targets the African-American luxury market while constructing a unique value proposition around developing close, personal ties with its customers.

“Not a lot of designers are able to do what they do, because they basically do custom designs,” said Montressa Washington, assistant professor of management, who worked with School of Business Dean Miles Davis to pick the Entrepreneur of the Year winner.

“One of their clients is Phylicia Rashad, and she’s an actress. Although she was of course famous from the ‘Cosby Show’ she’s currently on the TV show ‘Empire,'” Washington said. “(B. Michael America is) able to turn around products for her very quickly because it’s a client that they know very well, and because of the intimate relationship they have with their clients.”

As Michael and Edwards put it, they “open that door” with their clients. They get to know the family and the kids, and they’ve learned to block off at least two hours because their business visits have a tendency to stray into social visits.

“What’s funny is we actually become family members a lot of times. We get to know their kids, and their kids get attached to us … we actually do open that door,” Edwards said. “Sometimes we blur the lines. We’ve been to family functions and funerals, because you respect this person.”

This social component of these relationships translates into a trust for the brand, granting B. Michael America a key business advantage.

“If it’s someone that has had a long-standing relationship with us, and we know her well, she can call us and say, ‘I need this dress in two days. Do you think you can help?'” Michael said. “And they will also trust me. Because if that’s the case, then you’re not giving me a lot of dictation about what the fabric should be. I can say to you, ‘I can do this for you in two days,’ and typically they will say, ‘Whatever you think.'”

Blending personal relationships and business comes naturally to Michael and Edwards. The business collaboration between the two life partners ignited over dinner after a show during New York Fashion Week three years ago. Edwards noticed at the time that Michael seemed unhappy.

“This is an amazing thing. Why are you unhappy?” Edwards had asked Michael. “This year, at the pinnacle, you’re known, you’re designing for amazing people.”

“‘What I would love to see, long-term, is a legacy,” Michael said. “That when I’m gone, that my brand continues.”

In the American luxury market, there was no iconic African-American brand at the time. Michael wanted to establish his designs in that space, and to build a lasting, identifiable brand that could be handed down from generation to generation.

“What do you think we could do?”  Michael asked Edwards.

To Edwards, Michael wasn’t running his business as a business. He was running it as a fashion house. The creativity was there, but the brand was missing a business finesse.

“If I were you,” Edwards said, “I’d fire everybody that works for you, and hire a whole new team.”

And that’s what happened. The couple joined forces, cleaned house, and now Michael’s designs are worn by some of the top names in Hollywood.

Edwards only agreed to step in as CEO of B. Michael America on one stipulation: that the two “stay in our own lanes.” This was to keep the life partners from “killing each other,” but also to preserve the creative authenticity of Michael’s designs and the strategies of Edwards’ market plans. “I don’t tell him how to design, and he doesn’t tell me how to grow the business,” Edwards said.

That separation of roles worked for the couple. Talented people are a dime a dozen, Edwards said, but without a practical business strategy their visions go nowhere.

“Young people need to understand that when you’re done with design school and your portfolio is in hand, make sure you have a business plan and a financial model in the other hand,” Edwards said. “To say, this is how I’m going to execute my vision to make sure that this really comes to fruition for me. But just to have a portfolio is not smart.”

Today, Michael said he believes there is an iconic African-American luxury brand, and he believes that brand is B. Michael America.

“It’s about having a point of view in terms of the kind of women who wear our clothing. At times as a designer, you’re tempted to (design to industry preferences). You know, red-carpeting always wants razzle-dazzle or it’s got to be sexy in a very editorial kind of way that sexy might be described,” Michael said. “What I have learned is that you must be, as we are saying, true to yourself. And when you are authentic, the people who appreciate what you do will seek you out and they are loyal.

“Our vision is to build the kind of brand that will live long beyond the two of us, and that you will feel proud that your granddaughter is wearing a B. Michael dress.”

The event Monday kicked off Shenandoah University’s seventh annual Entrepreneur Week, a celebration of entrepreneurship in conjunction with the Kauffman Global Entrepreneurship Week. The Harry F. Byrd, Jr. School of Business will be hosting guest speakers throughout the week.