NEW YORK — Mary McFadden’s home is an ordinary place, at least for her.
The historically inspired designer has converted an Upper East Side one-bedroom apartment into an ornate tribute to a Byzantine palace, its walls and ceiling stenciled in gold, so stuffed with relics of the great civilizations of the world that an art history course could be taught there.
At the entrance to her living room is a Gandara bust, 1,800 years old, its classical Greek lines demonstrating the influence brought by Alexander of Macedonia into ancient Afghanistan and Pakistan. A 12th-century Buddhist mandala painting from Japan and other examples from Korea adorn one wall, flanked by a funeral sculpture that’s nearly 2,000 years old.
An entire table, dedicated to McFadden’s “gold collection,” is covered with a pre-Columbian crown, a classical Greek poet’s wreath, a Scythian gold tomb belt engraved with animals from 2000 B.C. and a leaf torn from a Chinese money tree. There’s also a bronze Buddha from Tibet, a calendar icon from the Ukraine, an ivory door taken from an 18th-century palace in Rajasthan, India —?McFadden can rattle off provenances of nearly everything without batting an eye.
There has always been something about the eccentric McFadden that made her seem more like an archaeologist than a fashion designer — part Cleopatra, part Indiana Jones. While many designers take inspiration from time to time in foreign lands, mining ethnicities whenever they become trendy — from African tribes to the Egyptian pharaohs — McFadden is truly versed in the history of ancient lands, a constant traveler whose fashion career can be traced by the stamps on her passport.
“I’ve done 60 collections, each based on an ancient civilization, and I went to all those places,” McFadden said. “Over the years, you accumulate a lot of pieces.”
How anyone could come to possess such a remarkable array of artifacts is something of a mystery upon which McFadden sheds little light. She once admitted to being in Hong Kong in 1997 at the time of its handover to China, when she acquired a trove of pieces from the Ming Dynasty, now the basis of her Buddhist collection, from anxious dealers at a price, then smuggled them back into the U.S. in her luggage.Some pieces come from her many husbands — the JAR jewelry is from her first marriage to Philip Harari, an executive with De Beers who brought her to South Africa in the Sixties, where she ran an arts foundation and edited South Africa Vogue. Much of the African art came from husband number two, Frank McEwan, then the director of the National Gallery in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), where McFadden started a Vukutu sculpture workshop for African artists. There were at least nine other husbands.
Her approach to art collecting could be considered unorthodox but, then, so is McFadden, who has rarely failed to captivate the press with her dalliances with younger men, her ethereal appearance and the occasional outlandish remarks about her sexual encounters.
When McFadden closed her high-end ready-to-wear business in August 2002, it was also cloaked with intrigue, as she vacated her offices at 240 West 35th Street here, still known as the Mary McFadden Building, without comment, then disappeared for several weeks. It was an odd way to end a 30-year career that holds a significant spot in American fashion history, considering that McFadden’s innovative draping and pleating techniques, her opulent focus on ethnicities and turning polyester into a luxury fabric have influenced a range of designers over the decades. She also directed the Council of Fashion Designers of America as its president from 1982 to 1983.
But now she’s ready for her comeback.
On June 20, the Allentown Art Museum in Allentown, Pa., will host the first Mary McFadden retrospective, having worked with the designer for the past year sifting through her archives and historic textile collection. The museum will incorporate some pieces from its well-regarded Kate Fowler Merle-Smith textile collection and there are also plans to take the exhibit on tour after it closes there on Oct. 3. A second venue was just added in McFadden’s hometown of Memphis, where she lived on a cotton plantation until she was eight, then moving to New York with her mother, Mary Josephine Blair, who married the J.P. Morgan banker Watson Blair. McFadden’s father, George, was killed in an avalanche while skiing in Aspen in 1946. The Dixon Gallery & Gardens in Memphis is planning to show the exhibit from Sept. 25, 2005 to Jan. 8, 2006.Along with the shows, Bunker Hill Publishing has produced a book on the designer’s career called “Mary McFadden: High Priestess of High Fashion,” written by Ruta Saliklis, curator of textiles at the Allentown museum.
“There are so many parallels between the things that Mary has been influenced by over the years and the things we have in our collection, especially our pieces from Mariano Fortuny,” said Saliklis, referring to the designer whose pleated textiles were a hallmark of McFadden’s work. “She was a natural fit and a perfect match for the museum, so we were able to put together in a relatively short amount of time an exhibit of her work.”
After a short hiatus, McFadden has been making frequent appearances on the New York social scene and in much better spirits than when she closed her firm — although she has yet to explain the exact circumstances behind that decision. She remained cordial during two recent interviews in her apartment, first in a customary black and gold floor-length robe, her hair done up in elaborate black braids pulled back from shockingly white skin, the second time in a black velvet Puma warmup set over white sneakers, her hair in bobby pins, having just returned from the squash court.
“I’m never going to bring back the couture again,” said McFadden, referring to her rtw line. “It’s too time-consuming and service- oriented, and I basically wanted to fly and not have to deal with the problems of a factory any longer.”
At 65, McFadden continues to delve into fashion with a licensed collection for her moderate range, the Mary McFadden Collection,as well as looking for deals to get her face back onto a home-shopping channel since she left QVC. While touring her apartment, however, she revealed she has another intention — to launch a mass-market business called Civilizations based on all the pieces she has collected over the years, from plates and cutlery to jewels and wall coverings.
“I want to sell the total package — the Japanese Amari plates, the Thirties’ Italian glasses, the pieces from Japan, Russia and Germany that you really can’t find anywhere else,” McFadden said. “My thing is to take the very best of the ancient world and the very best of the modern world, and make them affordable. Everything here I can knock off.”McFadden is working with Earthbound LLC, the company that pitched Isaac Mizrahi’s line for Target, to land a similar deal, and she’s hoping for a similar rollout at a store like Target, Wal-Mart or Kmart.
“It’s never going to be like the original, but Leonardo Da Vinci is never going to happen again,” McFadden said. “No one has the concentration any more to produce such quality. They just push a mouse all day and that’s it.”
Well, not McFadden. She’s still out living her life by her own rules, playing tennis or racquetball almost every morning, sometimes with partners such as David Dinkins, the former mayor of New York. She drinks white wine or champagne as early as she likes, eats very little —?a self-imposed 600 calories per day for as long as anyone can remember — and weighs 105 pounds.
Reflecting on her career, McFadden described the depth of research that went into each collection, such as one that was based on the Ming Dynasty that incorporated religion and sociological interests, as well as the obvious motifs found on porcelain statuettes. The resulting collection featured some of the most intricate handwork and production requirements of McFadden’s career.
“She is right up there with some of the finest of the 20th-century fashion designers,” Saliklis said. “She is often lumped together with Carolina Herrera or Geoffrey Beene, but the difference with Mary is that she didn’t rise through the fashion ranks or go through the schooling a lot of fashion designers go through. Her background was really in art, then she shifted over into fashion design, which means she approached it a little bit differently. You can compare her, but she somewhat stands apart in the way she approached things.”
While she has no regrets for the way she closed her business, noting her employees were all given severance pay, McFadden said she’s ready to move on. She seemed quite satisfied that several pieces of art from her home collection will travel along with the fashion exhibit. Yet, in spite of all the treasures and gold that fill her apartment, the only thing that seems to be missing from McFadden’s life these days is a man.“I was tempted about three months ago, but I decided against temptation,” she said. “He lives in another country. You wouldn’t know him.”
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