Mary McFadden was born in New York City in 1938 and raised on a cotton plantation near Memphis, Tennessee. In the mid- to late 1950s she studied in Paris and New York City, primarily fashion and sociology. She was the Director of Public Relations for Dior New York for a few years in the early 1960s before marrying Philip Harari, who ran a diamond mine in South Africa, in 1965 and moving with him to Johannesburg, where they had a daughter, Justine.
That marriage soon ended in divorce, but McFadden remained in South Africa, working as a journalist at South African Vogue and Rand Daily Mail. Another marriage and divorce later (1968-1970, to Frank McEwan), she returned to New York City, working first as an editor at Vogue and then, in 1973, starting her fashion label. She had begun making her own clothes in South Africa, inspired by ancient art and the ethnic cultures she had encountered, and these distinctive, colorful designs, which often used African or Asian prints and styles, proved popular.
In 1975 McFadden patented her “marii” fabric, a synthetic charmeuse fabric that was hand-dyed and then machine-pressed to form permanent pleats. The polyester fabric draped over the body naturally, creating simple yet elegant evening gowns; these fashionable garments offered no constriction and were embellished with hand-painting, quilting, beading, and embroidery. The following year she formed Mary McFadden Inc. and received her first (of three) Coty American Fashion Critics Award; she would later enter the Coty Hall of Fame and receive other awards, including the Neiman Marcus Fashion Award in 1979.
Book cover: Mary McFadden, High Priestess of High Fashion
Besides women’s clothing, McFadden also designed jewelry, sleepwear, neckwear, home furnishings, and more. Her perfume, launched in 1979, didn’t sell particularly well, and her attempt in the early 1980s to produce cheaper women’s dresses wasn’t successful, but her other designs, especially for accessories, were often licensed commercially. In 1982 she was elected president of the Council of Fashion Designers of America, and her collections continued to appear on runways in New York, London, and Tokyo as well as in Russia and India and across South and Central America. She married twice more in the 1980s (Armin Schmidt in 1981 and Kohle Yohannan in 1988), though both ended in divorce. Her business closed in the early 2000s.