At 95, Mary McFadden talks fashion, tennis and eleven weddings

“Where in the world is Mary McFadden?”

That would be a fair question for Mary McFadden on any given day in any given year for the past seventy years. But the inveterate traveler and New York-raised fashion designer and artist is establishing himself by founding the Mary McFadden Archive at Drexel University.

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Ahead of the opening reception for the “Modern Ritual, The Art of Mary McFadden” exhibit on the Philadelphia campus, the 95-year-old spoke with WWD about her career, her 11 marriages and why she still believes in love. The show highlights her hand-painted textiles, lush beading, jeweled embellishments and signature Marii pleats.

WWD: So many institutions must have wanted your archives. Why did you choose Drexel?

Mary McFadden: Yes, but Philadelphia is closest to my heart. My family is from Philadelphia. They were in the cotton business. I was too young to remember. Furthermore, the center of the cotton trade at the time was in Memphis, Tennessee. We lived there on a cotton plantation.

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

M.M.: It didn’t affect it at all. When you live on a cotton plantation, you are quite remote. I think I just became interested in art, travel and fashion through the knowledge and traces of my family.

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 fifties.

M.M.:. I had some friends, who were obviously older than me, who did the same thing.

WWD: As someone who attended Columbia University, what do you think about what’s happening on campus right now with the student protests?

M.M.: I’m so busy with that. I mean you have to look at it carefully every day. I never had a situation like that when I was there. I hope it gets resolved as soon as possible.

WWD: What made you get into fashion?

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

Pearl NiponPearl Nipon

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

WWD: How many pieces of clothing have you collected over the years and what are some of your favorites?

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

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

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

WWD: Are you surprised that Dior is so ubiquitous these days and such a big part of contemporary culture that many people aspire to buy it?

M.M.: It wasn’t part of the culture in my day. It was very reserved. It is better that it is strived for.

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

M.M.: De Beers had just started in South Africa, so you can imagine how simple everything was there: the mines, 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 and always helped 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. Diana Vreeland’s support gave me the confidence to do it. She was nothing but encouraging.

WWD: What do you like about your early designs?

M.M.: I hate them all. They weren’t very good. That’s my feeling. They got better. They were bad adjustments, bad coloring, bad combinations. Everything was terrible.

WWD: If you kept going, it must have sold quite well.

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

WWD: Do you think that’s fair or enterprising?

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

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

M.M.: I don’t know if the designs contain that much. That’s how they started.

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

M.M.: Competition.

WWD: Who were your main rivals?

M.M.: I have no rivals. I had no competitors then. The competition was to stay in business, be profitable and be successful.

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

M.M.: Have 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.

Lazaro Arias and Mary McFadden at the Fashion Follies.

WWD: Do you have one favorite?

M.M.: I wear whatever is visible in my closet.

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

M.M.: Naturally.

WWD: But it must have been difficult because there were so many strong-willed personalities, right?

M.M.: I never noticed that.

WWD: What makes you hopeful about fashion design today?

M.M.: It’s inevitable.

WWD: What would you say is your greatest achievement to date?

M.M.: I don’t know what it could be.

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

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

WWD: What makes people shop or spend money?

M.M.: Pride. That is always the case.

WWD: Where are you traveling next?

M.M.: My next trip is to Mexico City. I try to see the world. Hopefully I’ll see the art and everything in Mexico City. Of course I’ve been there 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.: Naturally. 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 to 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 McFaddenMary McFadden

Mary McFadden

WWD: How do you stay so vital and maintain your health?

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

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

M.M.: No no.

Mary McFadden dress with uncut 19th century Chinese mantle.Mary McFadden dress with uncut 19th century Chinese mantle.

Mary McFadden dress with uncut 19th century Chinese mantle.

WWD: What is your biggest indulgence?

M.M.: I think I’ll go to parties. I enjoy cocktail parties, dinners, all parties. It’s about the conversation, the fashion, the atmosphere – everything.

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

M.M.: Of course they will think about my dresses. And that I am a good tennis player. And I am.

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

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

WWD: What is your view on marriage?

M.M.: It is a very risky operation.

WWD: Are you happy that you’ve been married 11 times?

M.M.: Naturally. Each person was a different experience.

WWD: Is there one you would choose as your greatest love?

M.M.: Multiple.

WWD: Is there anyone you’d like to mention?

M.M.: No.

WWD: Are you in love now?

M.M.: In the distance, they just don’t live here in New York right now.

WWD: Are you open to a twelfth marriage?

M.M.: Certainly.

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

MM:. I Love New York. The shine never fades from the city – its robustness. It’s always there for me. I love the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I love the Met Gala: anything you can do to get people to the museum.

WWD: Are you still working on your own art?

M.M.: I don’t paint anymore. I don’t miss it all. I don’t regret doing it.

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

M.M.: I like to play tennis both indoors and outdoors.

WWD: What is your strong point: serve, forehand, backhand?

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

WWD: Have you designed your own outfit or are you wearing a brand?

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

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

M.M.: I have no problem with that.

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