NEW YORK — Where’s Mary?
This story first appeared in the August 16, 2002 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
Mary McFadden, already one of Seventh Avenue’s most mysterious designers, might have pulled a final disappearing act, according to company insiders who arrived at her 39-year-old company this week and found they not only had been shut out of her showroom, but that the offices had been picked clean.
What’s more, nobody — not top retailers, McFadden’s close pals in the business, her licensees or employees — seems to have a clue as to the whereabouts of the globetrotting designer, who reportedly pulled the plug on her high-end collection on Monday. One person familiar with the scene said McFadden’s staff showed up for work and found the offices bare.
Several calls to McFadden’s offices at 240 West 35th Street, known as the Mary McFadden building because of the designer’s longtime presence there, and calls placed to her home on the behalf of WWD this week were not returned. A security guard at the building would also not discuss the apparent desertion when approached by a reporter on Thursday.
Based on her frequent travels around the world to find inspiration and unusual textiles, as well as unusual romances, some store executives theorized McFadden might have taken off to a remote corner of the globe. Her sudden disappearance has quickly spawned into mass speculation on what has become of the designer, considering her strongly opinionated personality, severe black haircut and milky white skin have only contributed to an aura of the unusual that has captivated the industry for decades, as well as having drawn an international clientele willing to come along for the travelogue.
McFadden, who is 64, grew up on a cotton plantation near Memphis and first got into the fashion industry working as director of public relations for Christian Dior from 1962 to 1964, when she met an executive of the DeBeers diamond firm, married him and moved to Africa. There, she became editor of Vogue South Africa also contributing to the French and American editions, as well as penning social columns for The Rand Daily Mail. She remarried in 1968 and moved to Rhodesia and founded a sculpture workshop there.
In 1970, she returned to New York and went to work for Vogue as a special projects editor and, using some of the African and Chinese silks she had collected during her travels, McFadden designed a few tunics that were featured in the magazine and were bought by Henri Bendel. She founded her company in 1973 and had won her first Coty Award in 1978.
Her collections over the decades have been inspired by various world cultures, using opulent fabrics that have resulted in extravagant prices in her “Mary McFadden Couture” collection, but also spawned a host of licensed moderate, better and bridge collections as well as bridal, fragrance and home furnishings.
While her fashion designs have captured global attention, her personal life has also been the subject of much discussion, considering she has been married at least seven times, including her 1996 wedding to Italian director Vasilis Calitsis, who was then 31, when a passerby was plucked from the street to act as a witness. In 1991, her fourth marriage, to a student at her alma matter, Columbia University, ended nastily after three years: Joel David (Kohle) Yohannan, then 23, said McFadden was an aging alcoholic who tried to use him for kinky sex. She countered in divorce court that Yohannan was just a “cheap boy toy.”