There’s Nobody Like Mary—Part One

Designer Mary McFadden

It wasn’t even much of temptation to call this piece There’s Something About Mary because not only would that be cliché, it would be inadequate to describe the force of nature who has been one of my best friends for most of my life at this point.  In honor of the release by Rizzoli of her visual autobiography Mary McFadden by Mary McFadden, I thought I’d allow myself to remember some of those years together, particularly seeing as I worked on a very early iteration of that book twenty years ago, which I called Opus, but Mary didn’t, preferring the simpler “my book” instead.

Maybe at some point I’ll explain why that version of the book was abandoned; it is appropriately dramatic, so much so that perhaps Opus fell short, and Grand Opera would have been more on the mark.  But the collapse of that project was quite a few years after the beginning of our relationship.  I’m certainly glad it has finally seen the light, and apparently been given the full Rizzoli treatment worthy of one of our National Living Treasures.

Before I met Mary in person, I encountered her through her designs.  As an Ameropean raised firmly with the belief there was no such thing as American fashion—or if there was it was vaguely tacky and/or deadly boring (hasn’t really changed, to be honest, it’s just more hyped now and branded by Mercedes Benz)—I paid no attention to “our” designers.  Even though I worked at a women’s fashion magazine, I was the sort of short-lived features editor who did everything to masculinize his job by steadfastly ignoring what women might want to read and running articles about falconing, or suits of armor.  What saved my neck issue after issue of the nonsense filler I ran, which nobody read anyway, were the celebrity photoshoots and interviews, which transcended gender and appealed to everyone.

Mary McFaddenI was at a black-tie event at the Metropolitan Museum one night chatting with my childhood friend Sarah Nolan, who worked at Vanity Fair and freelanced for me occasionally.  Sarah went on to marry the groundbreaking creative director Peter Arnell, who first broke out with the DKNY ads that still run today.  I’ll never forget the dress she was wearing that night because it was so remarkable, like nothing I’d ever seen before, or maybe like everything I’d ever seen in a museum collection from antiquity, but never actually on a woman.  Sarah resembled one of those statue columns from The Erechtheum Temple in the Acropolis in Athens, a long pillar of pleats hand-dyed in so many audacious hues that it made a normal rainbow look monochromatic.  Rather than looking anything like a roll of Lifesavers candy, which it very well could have, the dress worked, especially on Sarah because she’s a very tall woman.  “It’s by Mary McFadden,” she explained when I asked.  And to my never-heard-of-her shrug, she replied, “She’s a very famous American designer, you should check her out.”

And it was one of those things, you know, when someone points something out that you’ve never heard of before, and suddenly it’s all over your life.  I saw pictures of Mary’s clothes in magazines, and our own fashion department started to pull in items of hers from time to time, even though Mary McFadden was by 1987 at least ten years past the peak of her fame, but she didn’t care; she was above trends and kept designing as she pleased for years with absolute disregard for what was in or what was out.  As one of the few real American couture designers, her price range made her somewhat niche, which meant she never became as big as Calvin Klein, or Halston, or her friend Oscar de la Renta.  And her marketing and brand development was always willy-nilly, perhaps capricious, which works in Europe, where they are fiercely loyal to their eccentric talents, but in the arid, Spartan arena of corporatized America it can spell death to a label, which eventually it did for Mary McFadden Couture.

Like Oscar de la Renta and Carolina Herrera, Mary comes from the upper class and tailored her gowns for the upper class almost exclusively.  Whereas Oscar and Carolina are South American transplants to New York City, Mary is local, from a true WASP background, i.e., the sort of place where the word WASP is seldom used; what’s the point of defining oneself to one’s own people?  The moniker is a recent invention, in any event.  By WASP I mean it in its truest sense, as a socio-cultural group, which is more about the schools you went to, the churches and clubs you belong to, and, most of all, how entrenched you are in the Northeastern establishment.  It has very little to do with being Anglo-Saxon or Protestant.

Why one would even want to be associated with WASP culture is a subtextual issue that Mary and I bonded over without ever discussing it directly, now that I think about it.  Ours has to be the dullest, most boorish of upper-class groups of any country in the world, so it’s not a subject that would engage either of us.  I guess the whole Ralph Lauren illusion appeals to people, somehow.  And I guess she and I know better, or unconsciously feel we do; we have both spent a great deal of effort scrubbing our origins off ourselves to make room for other, more complex and exotic influences.

Mary McFadden

Had I known the first time I actually met Mary in person that this woman would change my life perhaps more than anyone else, had I seen all the complex passages and twists and turns that she would lead me down, had I seen the India of it and all that country would come to mean to me and to both of us in that moment when I shook her hand in the garden of the Museum of Modern Art at yet another event, this time not black tie, I wonder if I would have tried so hard to charm her.  Perhaps I would have tried even harder.  Perhaps I would have see our future together and said, “Fuck, yeah! What a kicker that’s going to be!”  That she welcomed the friendship so openly is something for which I think we’re both grateful.

With my celebrity interviews, I was sometimes in charge of shooting the back cover of the magazine; we had two covers, front and back, a folly that cost the publishers a great deal in advertising revenue, but it was sort of cool.  I’ve told this story in these pages before, but shooting Mary for the cover of the magazine was the second time I met her.  I selected a quirky Norwegian photographer named Knut Bry—tall, lanky guy, who used a lot of colored filters on the lens, and shot mainly portraits, celebs, rock bands and the like.  In hindsight, I could have done better with my selection, but I was in my early twenties, I had way too much responsibility with way too little training, and being weird was far more important than being any good.

To enter Mary’s world is to be sucked into a parallel universe.  She takes the most precious and beautiful objects and styles from every culture in the world and reassembles them as a part of the particular jewel box she inhabits, which is uniquely her own.  In many respects, she’s a type of fashion fairy, a magical being who flits among the rest of us, but can never really be an integral part of us because of her innate otherworldliness.  I’ve always felt sad not that Mary was so apart from the mundane world—something so pedestrian and prosaic as inclusion would never overly trouble her—but that the world she had to live amidst, when it wasn’t museums and art openings or maharaja’s palaces, was so jarringly ugly compared to her jewel boxes.

Mary McFadden Taxi Magazine

The cover I art directed. (Ph: Knut Bry)

In those days, years before her label closed down, Mary had two jewel boxes, one she lived in and one she worked out of, her studio.  You literally entered Mary McFaddenland when you crossed the threshold of The Mary McFadden Building at 240 West 35th Street in the heart of the “schmatta” district.  And that was a daunting thing.  It was one thing to be buzzed on drugs and alcohol at some Museum of Modern Art event and charm a talented, famous person in the garden, quite another to be twenty-three and probably hungover from an event just like that the night before, and march in with a photography crew to shoot that famous person, who now appears to have an entire building Midtown named after her.  Rockefellers have buildings Midtown named after them, but because they built and paid for them, not because they so influenced a trade and art form that the structures were named in honor of them when they were still in their early forties, as was the case with Mary.

I’ve been in and out of Mary’s jewel boxes so many times since that I’m completely used to it, although they never cease to strike me as being a parallel reality.  But when you go in for the first time, it is bewildering.  In those days I was as glib as any New York street kid, but I remember being at a loss for words during the shoot.  At a certain point, Mary looked over Knut’s camera, blinked with those large kohled eyes of hers and said, “You should shave off those sideburns and dye your eyebrows black.  All the men are doing it.”

Now that I am the age she was when she met me, now that I do dye my eyebrows from time to time because plucking the white out is such a drag, not to mention painful, I get the context: men in her age group were dying their eyebrows.  But back then I thought that was with wackiest thing I’d ever heard, which is why I remember it to this day.  And that meant Mary, from that moment forward, had to become my primary Auntie Mame.

To be continued.

Comments: 2

  • Justine July 31, 201211:25 pm

    Great piece James. Such a wonderful racounter style u have :-) Can’t wait to read more.

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