At 85, Mary McFadden Talks Fashion, Playing Tennis and 11 Marriages

“Where in the world is Mary McFadden?”

That would be a fair question on any given day in any given year for the past 70 years or so for Mary McFadden. But the inveterate traveler and New York-grown fashion designer and artist is putting down roots by establishing the Mary McFadden Archive at Drexel University.

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Prior to the opening reception for the exhibition, “Modern Ritual, The Art of Mary McFadden,” on the Philadelphia campus, the 85-year-old spoke with WWD about her career, her 11 marriages and why she still believes in love. The show spotlights her hand-painted textiles, opulent beading, bejeweled embellishment and signature Marii pleating.

WWD: So many institutions must have wanted your archives. What made you decide on Drexel?

Mary McFadden: Yes, but Philadelphia is closest to my heart. My family comes from Philadelphia. They were in the cotton business. I was too young to remember. Also, the center of the cotton business then was in Memphis, Tenn. We were living there on a cotton plantation.

WWD: How did that influence your decision to go into fashion and design?

M.M.: It didn’t influence it at all. When you live on a cotton plantation, you’re pretty remote. I think I just grew into an interest in art, travel and fashion through my family’s lore and traces.

WWD: Was that through studying at Columbia University or La Sorbonne? 

M.M.: Going to Europe [to study at the Sorbonne] at 17 or 18 helped a lot. It was so impressionable.

WWD: That seems exotic for someone your age in the early 1950s.

M.M:. I had a few friends, who were, of course, older than I was, who were doing the same thing.

WWD: As someone who attended Columbia University, what do you make of what is happening now on campus with the student protests?

M.M.: I am so involved with that. I mean watching it carefully every day. I never had a situation like that when I was there. I hope it is resolved as soon as possible.

WWD: What made you go into fashion?

M.M.: That was inevitable; since I was born, I was always interested in how I dressed and the construction of things. [McFadden also studied at Ecole Lubec, The New School for Social Research and the Traphagen School of Fashion.]

Pearl Nipon
Mary McFadden, Oscar de la Renta and Pearl Nipon in 1982.

WWD: How many garments have you saved over the years and what are a few of your favorites?

M.M.: About 100 — all of them. You will see them and tell me which ones you like.

WWD: Did you enjoy working in public relations for Dior in New York in the 1960s?

M.M.: Of course; I met the heads of Dior at a cocktail party, and I told them I would like to come for an interview the next day.  And they accepted me. The whole time was very favorable.

WWD: Are you surprised that Dior is so omnipresent today and how it is so much a part of the culture today in that many people aspire to buy it?

M.M.: It wasn’t part of the culture at my time. It was very reserved. It’s better that it’s aspired to.

WWD: What was your experience of being in South Africa when your first husband Philip Harari worked for De Beers and later living there [in 1968 following their divorce]?

M.M.: De Beers was just starting in South Africa so you can imagine how simple everything was there — the mines, the life. I was there for five years and my job at South African Vogue was arranged by Diana Vreeland. She was a family friend to me, always helping me.

WWD: When you started your company in 1976, did you know it would be a success?

M.M.: At that time, no one knew anything would be a success. The backing of Diana Vreeland gave me the confidence to do it. She was just encouraging.

WWD: What do you like about your early designs?

M.M.: I think they are all terrible. They weren’t very good. That’s my feeling. They got better. They were bad adaptations, bad colorations, bad combinations. Everything was horrible.

WWD: It must have sold fairly well if you kept going.

M.M.: Well, I also was an editor at all of these different magazines [at different times] so I could put them in all the magazines.

WWD: Do you think that was fair or enterprising?

M.M.: I think that was fair, because I had the best stuff in the market.

WWD: What helped you become more agile or precise in your design work?

M.M.: I don’t know if the designs include that much. They started off that way.

WWD: But there is such an elegance to your work. Is that the influence of art, or years of practice?

M.M.: Competition.

WWD: Who were your chief rivals?

M.M.: I don’t have any rivals. I didn’t have any competitors at that time. The competition was to stay in business, to be profitable and to be successful.

WWD: What’s the trick to succeeding in fashion design?

M.M.: Having a good dress that people want to buy.

Lazaro Arias and Mary McFadden at the Fashion Follies.
Lazaro Arias and Mary McFadden at the Fashion Follies.

WWD: Do you have one favorite?

M.M.: I wear everything in sight in my closet.

WWD: Did you enjoy being in charge of the CFDA in the early 1980s and being involved with it today?

M.M.: Of course.

WWD: But it must have been tricky, because there were so many strong-willed personalities, no?

M.M.: I never noticed that.

WWD: What makes you hopeful about fashion design today?

M.M.: It’s inevitable.

WWD: What do you think your greatest accomplishment is so far?

M.M.: I don’t know what it could be.

WWD: How would you summarize how people are dressing on the streets today?

M.M.: It’s up and down. Some people look great, and others don’t.

WWD: What’s making people shop or spend?

M.M.: Vanity. That’s always the case.

WWD: Where are you traveling to next?

M.M.: My next trip is going to be to Mexico City. I try to see the world. Hopefully, I will see the art and everything in Mexico City. Of course, I have been before.

WWD: Some travelers are concerned about safety there. Are you?

M.M.: I hadn’t thought about it.

WWD: Have you been to more than 60 countries?

M.M.: Of course. My family [members] were all travelers and I inherited the gene from them. They were famous explorers. My great-uncle Charles Suydam Cutting was the first [Western] man into Tibet [in 1935-37]. That seemed otherworldly — no one had ever been to Tibet. [Some of the remnants from his expeditions can be found at the American Museum of Natural History and the New York Botanical Garden.]

Mary McFadden
Mary McFadden

WWD: How do you stay so vibrant and keep your health up?

M.M.: Well, I was born that way. I haven’t had any problems yet.

WWD: Are you meticulous about diet, sleep or walking?

M.M.: No, no.

Mary McFadden gown with uncut 19th century Chinese robe.
Mary McFadden gown with uncut 19th century Chinese robe.

WWD: What is your greatest indulgence?

M.M.: I would guess going to parties. I enjoy cocktail parties, dinner parties, all parties. It’s the conversation, the fashion, the ambience — everything.

WWD: What do you hope people will think of when they hear your name?

M.M.: They will think of my dresses of course. And that I am a good tennis player. And I am.

WWD: What would you like to do that you haven’t had the time to do?

M.M.: I’ve done pretty much everything that I want to do.

WWD: What’s your view on marriage?

M.M.: It’s a very dicey operation.

WWD: Are you glad that you married 11 times?

M.M.: Of course. Each person was a different experience.

WWD: Is there one that you would single out as your greatest love?

M.M.: Several.

WWD: Is there anyone you would like to name?

M.M.: No.

WWD: Are you in love now?

M.M.: Distantly, they just are not living here in New York at the moment.

WWD: Are you open to a twelfth marriage?

M.M.: Surely.

WWD: Are you happy when you are in New York?

M.M:. I love New York. The shine never wears off the city — the robustness. It is always there for me. I love the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I think the Met Gala is great — anything that you can do to get people in to see the museum.

WWD: Are you still doing your own art?

M.M.: I’m not painting any longer. I don’t miss it all. I don’t regret doing it.

WWD: What do you do that you find most enjoyable or entertaining?

M.M.: I like playing tennis both indoors and outdoors.

WWD: What is your strong suit — serve, forehand, backhand?

M.M.: I would say my strong suit is my entire game. I prefer to play singles. Of course, I play with Stan Herman. He’s a nice guy.

WWD: Did you design your own outfit or do you wear a brand?

M.M.: I have my Marii pleated costumes, Fortuny-esque pleats that require a six-step heat treatment that she created in 1975.

WWD: What do people not understand about you or that you wish they knew?

M.M.: I have no problems about that.

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