High Priestess Mary McFadden's Lifetime in Couture
by Tony Phillips
One of the bullet points on a “Museum Manners” tip sheet distributed to visitors of the Allentown Art Museum reads, “There is no running, jumping, or shoving in the Museum.” It’s hard to imagine the subject of their latest exhibition didn’t have to engage in all three of these unseemly behaviors to make it to the top of the fashion heap. It’s also hard to imagine her doing so without a grace that would shame even the most prima of ballerinas.
Mary McFadden has edited Vogue, dressed Jacqueline Kennedy and presided over the Council of Fashion Designers. She won the Coty Award — twice — and has been inducted into their Hall of Fame. The handsome book she co-authored with Ruta Saliklis — Mary McFadden: High Priestess of High Fashion — to accompany her first museum retrospective defines her in its first few pages as a “design archeologist” and the title fits like one of the exquisitely tailored pieces from her more than sixty couture collections.
While most designers ransack distant cultures from the comfort of their Seventh Avenue headquarters, McFadden travels almost compulsively and steeps herself in exotic cultures with academic rigor. She’s even been known to engage in what any other industry — not to mention U.S. Customs — would label smuggling. This is a woman who could singled-handedly bring down the airline’s frequent flyer scheme.
Making her acquaintance more then ten-years ago, she spoke of her conversion to Islam and extolled the virtues of the island of Java as a high-impact moisturizer, practically in the same breathless breath. It’s been graceless running, jumping and shoving to get an in-depth interview ever since. But with her show successfully installed — the “Get rid of it, the horrid thing clashes!” command — barked at an unfortunate orange Degas tutu hanging from the ceiling — already congealing into the stuff of legend — McFadden extends an invitation to meet her at her ornate Byzantine palace on the Upper East Side.
“It’s a Scavullo,” she calls from the kitchen, somehow knowing the comment “This is gorgeous” is in reference to her catalog’s cover photograph and not the two centuries old Gandara bust in the foyer, or the 12th century Japanese mandala on the wall or the ivory door from an 18th century Rajasthan palace in the corner. McFadden is surrounded by gorgeous in this top to bottom gold leaf living room. She just has the good sense to realize it’s all about her.
Fresh from a morning visit to the Waldorf’s legendary Kenneth salon, her hair is a glossy black. Her skin is a perfect piece of porcelain and she is resplendent in an ivory garment she nonchalantly estimates at around $3,000. She’s quick to add, “I wear colors through the spectrum” and is most excited about a dress the designer Ralph Rucci recently sent over. “Size two,” she frets, “I haven’t put the dress on, but if I can fit into it I’m going to wear it. I have a big wardrobe here. When I’m in India, I wear the servants uniforms of the Maharajah, but if I were to wear that here, forget it!”
McFadden is a native New Yorker as is her mother. Her father was from Philadelphia, but the family headed south because they were in textiles and the South was where it was at — Memphis, to be exact, and a cotton plantation that she remembers fondly. “I had a donkey named Sylvester,” she recalls, “he was very belligerent and he loved salt licks. Once he got to a salt lick that was it. He wasn’t going to move from that salt lick,” she laughs.
But tragedy visited even the most bucolic Southern setting. Her father was killed in an Aspen avalanche when she was eight and the family returned to New York. A young McFadden began attending the Paris couture collections when she was 13-years-old. Three years later, she displayed an early savvy by trading diamond bracelets she received from her grandmother for artwork by Salvador Dali.
Her career in fashion has been just as charmed. “I won my first Coty after my second collection,” she remembers, “I won my second immediately after that and I was in the hall of fame three years after I started to design.” It hard to imagine it happening thusly for a young designer today. McFadden agrees and feels fortunate she “didn’t have that a period of anonymity.” Still, she doesn’t feel it would play out any different in today’s market. “I think it would be the same,” she imagines, adding, “it’s a very unique product.”
The “product” she’s referring to is her signature Mari pleating, which she claims “happened by chance.” She recalls “working on a very cheap fiber: China silk. Stephen Burrows had jersey — that was about two dollars — and I had China silk, which was also two dollars. What can you do with China silk? Pleat it, quilt it, hand-paint it. I did all three. But when I pleated it — because it was 100 percent China silk — it lost its pleating. In Australia, I found a polyester satin back that had a very nice thin transparency to it.” After coloring it in Japan and putting it through a heat process, viola, McFadden’s Mari pleating was born. “That was the basis of my business,” she laughs, “I was home free. We always thought, ‘They’ll never be another year that they’ll buy this stuff,’ but they bought it for 35 years.”
Somehow Mari pleating brings her around to J.Lo. “Don’t ever forget,” she chides, “J.Lo wore a Greek-style outfit to the Academy Awards. People still wear classical clothes,” she announces and one can’t help but notice the similarities between her classic Greek column dress Onasis wore in 1976 and the Aphrodite-inspired number Karl Lagerfeld whipped up for J.Lo for the 2001 Academy Awards.
But 2001 holds bigger fish to fry for McFadden. Though a follower of the mystical Sufi branch, she classifies herself as “somewhat of a fall away” from Islam, but adds, “Remember, once you have been initiated into the order, you always stay there.” The events of 9/11 had devastating personal repercussions for the designer. “It’s certainly affected business for me,” she explains, shuttering the couture end of her shop last year. ”I didn’t feel like the clothes I made for women were relevant after 9/11,” she confesses. And though she’s in a slightly better frame of mind these days, she’s still quick to ask, “If this building was attacked tomorrow, do you think people would go shopping? I think we’re the most vulnerable sitting target. You could hit Temple Emmanuel or Saint Patrick’s or the water supply. We’re sitting ducks.”
But before one draws the conclusion that she has been irrevocably altered, consider that the matter that’s actually consuming her today is that she was supposed to be on her way to Libya — a country that’s had a travel embargo in place for the last ten years — this afternoon. “For two month’s now I have not been able to get my visa,” she complains, “every other day it says confirmation is coming.” She estimates she’ll only need three days at the library in Tripoli and then one day a piece to photograph Leptis Magna, Cyrene and Sabrata for an upcoming lecture she’d like to give at the Ancient Near Eastern Division at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. “Because who has good photographs of Leptis Magna?” she asks incredulously.
She’s no less intrepid in the ways of love. Though she’s been married eleven times, she doesn’t not rule out number twelve. “Three of them are dead,” she allows, “but I just kept marrying. And that’s not to mention boyfriends.” But then she does just that. After estimating that most size zeros are starving themselves, she says, “The Hilton sisters are probably around a size zero, but they photograph very well. A lot of this has to do with the camera.” Other figures she’s excited about on the pop culture front immediately reduce the question to “who looks good?” She asks the question twice, ponderously, and then answers it by saying, “I happen to like Steve Byrne's looks, he’s the new Polo man. I think he’s gorgeous. I took him out with me to Montana for white water rafting. It was this big bash where there were 35 private planes at the airport. That was glamorous,” she laughs.
Glamorous? Not difficult? “Rafting?” she asks, “it’s very easy to do. It’s nothing.” So where hasn’t this globetrotter been that makes her list? ”I am going to Patagonia this year, and Buenos Aries, which I have not been to, and Chile. And I’m hoping to get to Vietnam this year.” She takes a beat before adding, “And I have not been to Libya! And it’s driving me up the wall. I should have been in Libya on Monday. And I’m sitting right here.”