Born in New York City in 1938, Mary McFadden spent her childhood on a cotton plantation outside Memphis, Tennessee. She moved to Paris to study at the École Lubec from 1955 to 1956 and the Sorbonne from 1956 to 1957, returning to New York to study fashion at the Traphagen School of Design in 1956. McFadden went on to study sociology at Columbia University and the New School for Social Research from 1958 to 1960.
Dior Public Relations
In 1962 McFadden began working as the director of public relations for Dior New York, until 1965 when she married Philip Hariri. He was a diamond merchant, so the marriage meant a move to South Africa, where McFadden worked as a journalist for Vogue South Africa and the Rand Daily Mail.
Special Projects for Vogue
As special projects editor for American Vogue in 1970, her individual and idiosyncratic style and love of handcrafts made McFadden an influential figure. She initially designed clothes for herself, which were made to her own specifications from fabrics she had found during her extensive travels, creating an eclectic look that combined designer pieces with "ethnic" garments. When Vogue featured McFadden's tunic ensembles, simple shapes showing her characteristic love of color and print, Geraldine Stutz, president of Henri Bendel, bought them for the store. It was possible at that time for designers to launch their careers by creating a tiny collection and selling it to a single store, and this initial success prompted McFadden to start her own designing and manufacturing business in 1973. She formed Mary McFadden Inc. in 1976 and began designing evening gowns in pleated silk using a unique "Marii" technique, resembling that used by Mariano Fortuny, which she patented in 1975. She combined this innovation with elements of hand-painting, quilting, beading, and embroidery, culling ideas and inspiration from diverse ancient and ethnic cultures. Details of the clothes were handcrafted and used passementerie and beaten brass for fastenings. Since they were made with satin-backed polyester and did not crease, these dresses were ideal for her wealthy, much-traveled customers. Her less expensive clothes, produced in the late 1970s, were still noteworthy for their use of embellishment and mix of luxurious fabrics. Later she marketed her designs on QVC, the shopping channel, where she experienced particular success with accessories. She oversaw numerous licenses of her designs for womenswear, sleepwear, footwear, eyewear, neckwear, and home furnishings.
Awards and Achievements
McFadden's many career accolades include two Coty Awards and induction into the Coty Hall of Fame in 1979. In 2002 she received a Lifetime Achievement Award from Fashion Week of the Americas. She was the first non-Hispanic recipient of this tribute.
Mary McFadden has always designed her clothes to be relatively independent of trends. Her designs are concerned with an eclectic appropriation of the past and decorative elements from other cultures, which she transforms into "wearable art."
Milbank, Caroline Rennolds. New York Fashion: The Evolution of American Style. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1989.