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NEW YORK — “I don’t wish to discuss it, thank you very much.”
This story first appeared in the August 19, 2002 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
That’s just about all Mary McFadden would utter when WWD caught up to her on Friday morning.
While her shut-out staff and friends haven’t heard from the eccentric designer since last weekend, leading to speculation that she had skipped town, a disheveled McFadden finally opened the door after about a five-minute wait and dashed from her stripped-down West 35th Street showroom, laden with bags and politely dodging questions about her suddenly shuttered business. An unidentified man hovered in the background of the office’s reception area.
McFadden wouldn’t even confirm that the 39-year-old business was closed during an elevator ride down from her former 17th floor showroom at 240 West 35th Street, around 10:30 a.m. With her black hair pulled back and wearing her customary ensemble of a long embroidered gold tunic, she repeatedly refused to answer several questions raised last week by some of her employees, who said they arrived at work to find the locks changed and the company picked bare.
A couple of abstract metal sculptures remain in the lobby of her headquarters, but her name has been stripped from its entrance, although the silhouette and peaks of the mountainous script of her logo remain visible on the wall.
The only question McFadden would answer was where she was going, “to St. Petersburg,” although she didn’t specify whether she meant the city in Russia or in Florida.
According to a couple of her friends, the globetrotting McFadden has in recent weeks told them that she had just been in Russia, and that she had suffered a cut there and had contracted a rare blood disease. They speculated that she might be going back for treatment.
However, another designer who recently spoke with McFadden said she might be headed to Florida to explore a move to competitor HSN, the Home Shopping Network, which is based in St. Petersburg, Fla. McFadden sells a line of accessories on QVC but hasn’t made a recent appearance on that network.
A spokesman for QVC said he was unaware of any changes expected in selling McFadden products on the network, which is based in West Chester, Pa. HSN officials did not return calls.
Meanwhile, the mystery of what’s going on with McFadden’s signature collection, which has spawned numerous licensing deals, only grew deeper on Friday.
“All I know is that she’s leaving,” said Alan Kahn of Alan Kahn Associates, the managing agent and part-owner of 240 West 35th Street, which is also known as the Mary McFadden Building. Putting her name on the building’s exterior, located between Seventh and Eighth Avenues, was part of McFadden’s deal to rent space on its 12th and 17th floors, struck in 1986.
“Her lease is not up, but she’s moving out,” Kahn said. “Tenants are allowed to do that.”
Her friends, too, were confused and unaware of the closing of the company, considering the designer hadn’t let on that anything was unusual in recent conversations. One of her regular tennis partners — McFadden is an avid player, hitting the courts almost every morning — said the designer had unexpectedly canceled a date last weekend owing to her “blood disease,” but had not mentioned any problems with the business.
Then again, jewelry designer Kenneth Jay Lane, a close friend of McFadden’s, said he saw her last weekend in Newport, R.I., “having a lovely time,” he said. “She seemed absolutely fine.”
While McFadden’s once powerful ready-to-wear collections have lost some of their luster in recent years and haven’t been shown in a runway format for at least four years, the designer still operated a healthy trunk-show business at stores around the country. Few retailers continue to carry stock of her collection, but her appearances generally result in notable sales, some buyers said, considering the weight of McFadden’s personality. She’s well-known for her hyper-specific analysis of the inspirations for her collections, such as this description of her fall 1998 collection: “Last summer, I flew to Lhasa, following the footprints of my great uncle, Suydam Cutting, who made his first trek through Tibet in 1935. Photographs of his trips are on display in the Tibetan Galleries of the Newark Museum, where there is a famous photograph of the 13th Dalai Lama taken during his exile in Darjeeling in 1911. From the bazaars and Buddhist paintings, architectural fact and fantasy, I have recreated the color palette. The fantastic tantric gilt bronzes are symbolically woven into my fabric design.”
Saks Fifth Avenue has McFadden appointments booked in Palm Beach, New Orleans and New York for November, but a spokesman there said the store was unaware of any change in the designer’s plans.
If such events are canceled, those who are intrigued by McFadden’s frequently quirky behavior or by her affinity for younger lovers — considering at least two of her seven marriages have been to men of less than half her age — can take heart in her famous dedication to routine. It is not uncommon, for instance, to find her each morning at the Tramway Coffee Shop on Second Avenue, where she’ll stop in between 7 and 9 a.m. for a glass of wine, “and sometimes a piece of cheesecake,” said a manager who answered the phone there on Friday. “Although she hasn’t been in for a while.”