Mary Adams designs and creates party and wedding dresses in her New York City studio. Her creations have been featured on the "Good Morning America" television show, in New York magazine, and in many other publications. She also recently published The Party Dress Book, a great guide for do-it-yourselfers and others that's filled with easy instructions and terrific illustrations.
Mary studied art and painting but ended up becoming a dress maker instead. Here's more of what I learned about her background, her influences, her approach, and her interest in teaching others.
Mary at the sewing machine she has used for 25 years. She describes it this way: "It's just a basic industrial machine and I have no idea how long it existed before I got it. The straight stitch is all I use with my handy ruffle attatchment, hemmer foot and of coarse, a zipper foot ...that's all I need!"
I'm struck by your mother and grandmother being such strong influences on your love of design and sewing. Can you tell me something about them?
My relatives were actually pioneers; they knew how to do lots of things and everything was passed down the line through generations. Sewing was a basic skill most women learned while growing up, as was the case with my grandmother who was an excellent seamstress. During the Depression, she used floral-print feed sacks to make dresses for her little girls and then later on she re-cut them into quilts for her grandchildren.
I loved listening to my grandmother, aunt and mother talk about all the different dresses they had made and for what event and about the fabrics they had used and where they found it. It was definitely a bonding experience for them as it has been for millions of women in the past, and they collectively passed their knowledge down to me.
Do you work out of a store today as you did in the past? I see that you're now on East 32nd Street.
I no longer have a store. After 25 years on Ludlow Street on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, I had to give up my store in 2008. This was due to Mayor Bloomberg’s support of a real estate tax increase for building owners that was passed on to the small business owners that occupied their store fronts (putting most of them out of business). Since that move, I've been working out of a studio off of Madison Avenue and 32nd Street where I started The Party Dress Book. I love my new studio, where I work by appointment only.
Would you please describe some of your typical customers - in general terms? Who are they and what kinds of pieces might you make for them? Is all your work custom?
I have all kinds of customers from all walks of life. Just recently, I finished a ball gown for a detective lady who was attending a masquerade ball in Venice, Italy. Right now, I’m working on a wedding dress for a public school teacher.
I love the diversity of my customers. I am always making things so customers can buy my one-of-a-kind pieces off the rack in my studio. Or, they can find inspiration to have something custom made.
Your party dress book seems to be especially well-timed from a market point of view. Are dresses - glamour - making a come back? It seems to me that women are getting more dressed up than they have in recent years.
Thank God women are dressing up more - wearing dresses, skirts and nice blouses!! The last several years have had a horrible effect on women's style of dressing. I don't know how much more we could have taken of seeing mid-rise jeans, bare bellies, pierced belly buttons and baggie blouses. Whose idea was that anyway?
I love fitted garments or garments that follow the lines of the body in a graceful way, like a shift dress. I've always been a dress person and I love wearing nice cotton dresses and skirts. They are always so flattering to the female shape.
You're fond of working with a 'big mess of scraps'. Is this because you are supportive of eco-friendly practices? Where do you get your scraps?
“Back to Nature” was the term we used in the sixties. I've been collecting fabric since I was 18, from small pieces to yardage from garage sales or anywhere else I happened to see something I liked.
I work much like a painter and am always adding and subtracting as I go. Scrapping is one of the oldest forms of putting things together. I use it as a creative tool. I have always liked the idea of creating something new from what you have on hand. It forces you to make different design decisions, which is something that has always had a strong emphasis in my work.
You describe so many techniques in your book. What are your favorite techniques and/or materials and why?
Right now I’m particularly fond of the bias strip technique that I've been developing over the last couple of years, and I'm looking forward to doing a pictorial scene in the future.
My other favorite at the moment is “Crazy Appliqué,” a term I coined for this particular technique which uses scraps directly out of the scrap box with a 'no cutting' rule. Both of these techniques give me a lot of creative freedom to create surface designs working with color and patterns to make my own fabric while enhancing the silhouette.
What advice might you offer to aspiring fashion/indie designers?
Don't wait for other people to tell you what you can and cannot do. Don't forget your creative side. Too often I see this side of designers being buried for the sake of fame and fortune.
When I think about the sixties or the eighties, which were both very creative resourceful times, our only concern was doing what we wanted, how we wanted, any way we could. Whether we had the money or not, we found ways to express ourselves without waiting for someone to tell us if what we were doing was cool or going to make a million dollars.
What's coming up for you this year? Any special shows, lectures, etc.?
I am starting “Couture Camp” this year, which is a summer camp in the city at the Lower Eastside Girls Club, where I will be teaching girls how to sew. I'm hoping to set up a permanent sewing room for the Lower Eastside Girls Club on Avenue D so that the girls can always have access to a sewing room filled with everything they need for an after school or weekend sewing project!
I'm also interested in doing creative sewing workshops around the country. I am doing one in April at Josephine's Dry Goods in Portland, Oregon and one in the fall at the Art Institute, also in Portland. My workshops are about taking basic sewing skills and applying them in new ways.
Of course I will continue to do what I love in my studio playing around with fabric making unique one-of-a-kind pieces for that certain person that enjoys dressing like an individual.
I really got a kick out of speaking with Mary. She's a true artist, with a generous heart. I hope that she continues to inspire young people to enter the field, just as her family inspired her decades ago.
For more information about Mary's workshops and to set one up for your community or school, please contact Mary directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.
All photos are courtesy of Mary Adams.