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High Priestess of High Fashion: Mary McFadden
Mary McFadden, Dress from the "Cult of Osiris Collection," 1995.

MEMPHIS, TENN.- Mary McFadden is one of the most exotic, unconventional fashion designers in the United States today. She draws her inspirations almost entirely from the artistry of ancient civilizations. McFadden's luxurious, uninhibited creations showcase gleaming royal colors, rich fabrics and detailed embroidery inspired by ancient Near Eastern, African, Classical Greek, Javanese and Korean cultures. The art of these civilizations is literally woven into her fabrics. The Dixon Gallery and Gardens is pleased to present the first retrospective exhibition of this American fashion icon, "Mary McFadden: High Priestess of High Fashion," from September 18, 2005 through January 8, 2006. More than 60 of McFadden's haute couture gowns, clothing ensembles, costumes, textiles and articles of jewelry designed between 1969 to today will be on display. Having closed her New York showroom in 2002, the exhibition is an exploration of McFadden's role as "design archeologist."

"Today, as we debate the benefits and drawbacks of globalization, we must remember that the drive to enfold new lands and experiences is part of the human condition," says Dixon Director Jay Kamm. "Mary McFadden's fascination with foreign lands and ancient civilizations reveal an intense curiosity and fertile imagination. These qualities not only lie at the core of her being, they inspire her work," Kamm continues, "The importance of this designer's vision lies in her respect for and reverence of the traditions of the past and her understanding of what is timeless in fashion and design. We are honored to welcome Mary McFadden back home to Memphis and the Mid-South."

McFadden was born in New York in 1938 and spent her early childhood on her father's cotton plantation near Memphis, Tenn. She was born into a family of influential cotton brokers. In the late 1800s, her paternal great-grandfather, George H. McFadden, owned a cotton brokerage firm called George H. McFadden and Brothers near Philadelphia. Her family owned plantations in Memphis and it is said they controlled the market price of cotton for decades following the Civil War until after World War II. The McFaddens were also art collectors, specializing in British landscape paintings by artists such as George Romney, Joseph Mallord William Turner and John Constable.

When McFadden was eight years old, her father died in a skiing accident in Aspen and she and her mother moved back to the family home in Westbury, Long Island, New York. From the age of 13, McFadden spent summers in France where she attended couture shows with her grandmother. When McFadden turned 16, her grandmother gave her three diamond bracelets. Interestingly, McFadden had little enthusiasm for diamonds at the time and exchanged the jewels for artworks by Salvador Dali. "I didn't know much about diamonds at that point. I was a bit of a tomboy, and didn't care much about I decided to trade them in and start my own art collection," explained McFadden.

McFadden returned to the States and graduated from the Foxcroft School in Middleburg, Virginia, in 1956. She attended the Traphagen School of Design in New York, and Ecole Lubec and the Sorbonne in Paris. After returning to New York in 1959, she studied sociology and anthropology at Columbia University and took night classes at the New School for Research. From 1962-4 she worked as a publicist for Christian Dior-New York. She volunteered to work for free the first three months and if things worked out, all she requested was 50 dresses per year from either Dior-New York of Dior-Paris.

Prior to designing her own collections, McFadden traveled the world, wrote for Vogue South Africa and other publications, started a sculpture workshop for African artists and marketed their products to more than 29 countries, and exhibited her extensive and eclectic art collection at the National Gallery in Southern Rhodesia in the late 1960s. She has lived in South Africa and the United States.

During her many travels, McFadden collected examples of traditional ethnographic clothing. In fact, she often preferred to wear traditional clothing - African robes, Japanese kimonos and Romanian folk costumes - to dinner parties rather than designer dresses. She was a style-maker. After a trip abroad, McFadden fell in love with the hand-woven and printed silk fabrics from Madagascar and China.

Upon returning home to Johannesburg, McFadden draped the fabric around her body to see how they would look as clothing. She made simple togas, which could be worn alone or over pants. After wearing a creation to the New York Vogue office in the early 1970s, they insisted she model her unique clothing for the magazine. One hitch - they needed to inform readers where they could buy such remarkable pieces.

McFadden went to Henri Bendel in New York and they immediately bought 20 of each design. This was problematic since she did not have any training or experience in garment manufacturing. She sold some of her art collection to Sotheby's in New York to finance her new business. Hence, 1973 marks the birth of the American fashion icon Mary McFadden as we know her today.

McFadden created her own signature fabric, "Marii" pleated polyester in 1974 and has been using it since 1975. "The fabric," says McFadden, "is where it all begins. Depth of pattern and texture...fabric that you can look into and see layer after layer like the sunlit waters of Aegean...that is what I'm looking for. Fabric that looks ancient, fabric with a complex personality."

McFadden has been honored with the induction into the Coty Hall of Fame, the Best-Dressed List Hall of Fame and Fashion Week of Americas - Lifetime Achievement Award. Additionally, her work has been recognized with two Coty Awards, the Neiman Marcus Award of Excellence, and the President's Fellow Award from the prestigious Rhode Island School of Design.

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