Portrait of the Artist: Mary Jaeger

“Portrait of the Artist” is a series by photographer Claudine Williams. The Q&As are with people in the arts and culture industry — actors, musicians, painters, writers — with photos to suit each artist.

Mary Jaeger is a textile and clothing designer who works from her atelier in Brooklyn, and you can see and purchase her work here. She lives in Tribeca with her husband, Stuart, and daughter, Edie.

Claudine: What do you do for a living and how did you get started in that business?
Mary: I design a collection of accessories and clothing with a focus on hand-manipulated and dyed natural fiber (silk/wool/cashmere/cotton/linen) textiles. I want people to think of my garments as soft sculptures for the body that can be layered and draped in a multitude of ways, playing with shape/volume/texture/color. My inspirations come from a mind-spring of technical textile work, studies and historic knowledge of textiles and fashion.

I started hand-sewing when I was 4 years old, sitting next to my mom as she mangled (ironed) my dad’s dental hand towels. I started sewing my own clothes when I was in first grade. I designed clothes for friends in high school made from my grandfather’s farm overhauls. Years of study and corporate design work in New York City and abroad in Japan, South-East Asia and Europe pushed me to develop my own business.

Tell me about the award you received from the Smithsonian.
I received the Smithsonian’s “Honoring the Future” Award for my collection of Personalized Shirts and the “Unfolding Project: Accordion Silks.” The work involves reconfiguring my studio post-production silk fabric remnants and men’s used/old cotton tailored shirts and is propelled by my desire to save them from becoming third world landfill. By deconstructing, dyeing, stitching and adding layers of mosaic patchwork and embellishments, the non-gender specific shirts are fresh, imaginative and desirable again, ready for new lives.
Inspired by the collection of fabric remnants in my atelier, I have created 30 pleated dusters and 113 Accordion BonBon neckwraps. The garments in the initial collection were exhibited at Museum Sursilvan in Trun, Switzerland, in 2018 and at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2019.

What is the most satisfying part of your work?
Once a client wrapped herself in one of my textured shawls and tears came to her eyes as she said, “This is more me than me!” At that moment I was completely satisfied. When someone connects with my work, finding it resonates with their personal lifestyle and pushes them to a new personal edge, then the design process goes full circle. Likewise, the time for simple experimentation, alone in my atelier, gives me great satisfaction.

Anything new from Mary Jaeger that we should know about?
I recently relocated my atelier from Tribeca/SoHo to Williamsburg to a one-story brick building constructed in 1920. The 2500 square foot white space is simply a dream come true with a spacious showroom and separate design/construction/dye areas. Following on the heels of my retail store, Design in Textiles by Mary Jaeger, on Spring Street in Nolita (1998-2009), the Brooklyn Atelier is now open by appointment to clients and the public. This week I am designing a new collection of luxurious, hand-woven cashmere shawls using resist dye techniques. Everyone must need/desire one!

How long have you been in Tribeca? How did you wind up here?
I had a shared loft studio in the early 1980s at 336 Canal St. when I first relocated to the city after grad school in Madison, Wisconsin, at the UW. I spent evenings and weekends painting silk textiles and paper, a creative release following the demanding work schedule and travels at my corporate mass market fashion design jobs in the garment center.

After five years of what I call “boot camp,” I moved to Kyoto to study tegaki yuzen – an exacting textile design technique developed in Kyoto during the Golden Age of Japanese Arts the 1600s using fine hand-drawn lines of resist and painterly shading techniques. Yuzen kimono depict pictorial scenes suggesting mysterious interwoven tales of geisha and samuri and nature. During my tenure in Kyoto, I lived an incredible life. I worked alongside many of the Japan’s finest kimono and obi designers and dyers and worked between Kyoto/Tokyo/Paris/Shanghai. I won the Upcoming Designer Award sponsored by the Osaka Association of Total Fashion and had a runway show with multiple designers including Missoni and Jun Kaneko. I lived in Tokyo for a year designing a life-style clothing collection targeted for women aged 20-35 years marketed at Japanese department stores. After attending a wedding in Bali, I became fascinated with tulis batik techniques and found Indonesian studios welcoming, so I experienced my nomadic years, literally traveling the globe working on textile collections.

I was sort-of homeless, working between Indonesia and NYC doing clothing and interior collections focusing on wax-resist dyed textiles when I met my husband on a blind date at Republic on Union Square. I moved to Tribeca in 1996 when I decided Stuart was a keeper (he’s lived in the neighborhood since the mid-1970s).

Any favorite local businesses that you’d like to mention?
I LOVE living in Tribeca because the sidewalks are wide and inviting — it is not as frenetic as other areas of the city. My favorite day-time place for meeting my family and friends is Kaffe 1668 on Greenwich and Beach because the wooly sheep remind me of recent hikes in the Alps. I appreciate sitting under the stained glass inverted “Mexican Hat” chandeliers at Tribeca Grill nursing a martini. I visit Issey Miyake’s shop when I am nostalgic for Japan and wabi-sabi attitudes. Chambers Pottery is where my teen-age daughter Edith and I experiment with making objects using clay.

Describe the perfect weekend for Mary Jaeger.
Ahhhhh – the perfect weekend starts with plane tickets for Stuart, Edith and I to a destination on our bucket list and a meaningful cup of tea (green or English breakfast). From there, the experience blossoms – museums, antique markets, vintage shopping, cafes, conversations with locals, walking and biking, outdoor food stalls, etc. But I’ll settle for a swipe of my MetroCard. After all, this is New York City!

 

2 Comments

  1. Thank you for this article. Mary is truly an inspiration – her work is stunning. Her entire family is simply lovely…I never knew about the extent of her travels and awards – Amazing!

  2. Loved this interview. I have admired Mary’s work over the years, and recently met this extraordinary textile artist. Love for ancient textile traditions is present in her contemporary works of wearable art. The hand sewing & dyeing imbues each with its own spirit.

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