If fashion designer Mary McFadden based a collection on Memphis, it would "certainly have the greatest cotton textiles in the world," she says.
And, despite what some Memphians might think, that wouldn't mean blue jeans, T-shirts, or hoodies.
"Cotton can be quilted. It can be pleated. I can embroider it. I can design it flat," she says. "I can do anything I want with it."
One gets the sense that McFadden can do pretty much anything she wants with anything. She speaks fast -- her tone no-nonsense. Though in her late 60s, she has just come from playing tennis and is now dressed in a lime-green and ivory gown of her own design. A Memphian until she was 8, McFadden eventually spent over three decades in haute couture, from 1969 to 2002 when she closed her New York-based studio.
But those who might miss her work in Vogue or Women's Wear Daily can see an exhibit of 60 McFadden gowns at the Dixon Gallery and Gardens' "Mary McFadden: High Priestess of High Fashion" starting September 18th.
In a world where everyone seems obsessed with everything new, McFadden's inspiration draws from everything old. Her designs have been influenced by civilizations that run the gamut: Egyptian, Celtic, Byzantine, Greek, Japanese, and Afghani, to name a few.
"I was married to the director of the National Gallery in Zimbabwe, and he was interested in ancient civilizations," she says. "That was during a formative period of my life, and I just pursued it."
McFadden has been called a design archaeologist, reviving the colors and shapes of clothing from the past. As a teenager, she spent summers in France with her grandmother, thus beginning a life of worldwide travel. The resulting collections might spark wanderlust in some, wearinglust in others.
McFadden, however, hopes that people will take an appreciation of textiles from the exhibit. In addition to her designs, the exhibit will also include 20 pieces of ethnographic textiles and jewelry from McFadden's personal collection, as well as textiles from the Allentown [Pennsylvania] Art Museum's Kate Fowler Merle-Smith collection.
"The textiles they made then we certainly can't achieve today," she says. "No matter what the techniques are. If you look at 16th-century Japanese textiles, we are incapable of copying them. We don't have the talent to do the embroidery or the lacework."
While that may represent the death of an art, textiles today have also become more sophisticated. McFadden credits her success, in part, to man-made fibers. "They have the same properties as natural fibers. They're soft, they hang well on the body, but they're indestructible," McFadden says.
"For instance, we simulate linen now. Linen is a difficult product, because it creases so badly. Now we have one that's identical to the original only it never creases and it's indestructible."
One of the trademarks in McFadden's work is "Marii," a pleated polyester fabric she's used since 1975. She had been working with China silk originally and decided to pleat it.
"Of course, the pleat wasn't permanent. I was selling a lot of these impermanent products. They were so pretty and everybody loved them," she says, "but I thought I'd better find a fiber that would have the same properties."
She found that fiber in Australia, a very thin, transparent polyester with a satin back finish, and took it to Japan to convert and color it.
"That was really the secret to my business," she says. "I was able to produce permanent pleated products that looked like ancient China silk. You could throw it in the bathtub and it was indestructible. Any wine got on it and a glass of water would take it right off."
Of course, just because something is durable doesn't mean it's wearable. And McFadden acknowledges the double-edged sword: Consumers might like that your dresses are built to last, but then how many do they need? If McFadden had been a trendy designer who followed seasons and the rising and falling of hemlines, it might have been a different story. But then she probably wouldn't have her own retrospective, either.
"If people have 10 of my dresses, they certainly don't need any more," McFadden says. "Ten is enough for a lifetime. They're classical. They don't go out of style."
Slides and lecture by Mary McFadden at The Dixon Gallery and Gardens, 2 p.m. Sunday, September 18th; "Mary McFadden: High Priestess of High Fashion" at The Dixon Gallery and Gardens September 18th-January 8th