Oct 18, 2010 10:34 AM by Nichole Larkey
NEW ORLEANS (AP) - Mignon Faget has told this story before. But it still makes her chuckle. "It's true," she said with a soft laugh. "I melted down the bonbon dishes."
It was back in 1970, when Faget was making a name for herself as a clothing designer. She had the idea to make a silver belt buckle in the shape of a sand dollar she'd found on a Gulf Coast beach. So she melted down some sterling bonbon dishes she'd received as a wedding gift.
"That first belt buckle was an experiment," Faget said. "I thought the sand dollar had such beautiful characteristics. When it turned into silver, it lost its association with what it was and became something else entirely. Something new. That appealed to me.
"With jewelry, there's this lasting quality," she continued. "With clothing, last year's dress is over with. With jewelry, it's still relevant year after year."
Relevance is an interesting topic. Faget has never lost it, in 40 years of designing and selling jewelry in New Orleans.
Now 76, she sits atop a glittering mini-empire of silver, gold and gemstone jewelry: 90 employees, four stores, a foundry, a Magazine Street bank-building-turned-home-office and an ardent fan clubs.
"A piece from (Mignon Faget) is as much a must for a New Orleans lady as a Tiffany piece is for an NYC one," cites a Frommer's travel guide.
As if to prove that point, Mignon Faget - the company, not the person - has a Facebook page with more than 7,100 friends.
Such a following is testament to many things. Talent, of course. But New Orleans has lots of talented jewelry artists. None have come close to Faget's fame.
After the city was nearly washed away with the Katrina levee failures, there was hardly a female (or male) earlobe, wrist or finger around town that didn't sport one of Faget's stylized fleurs-de-lis.
So what is it that makes her work such an indelible part of local culture? It's hard to quantify, but the Historic New Orleans Collection has made a fascinating and comprehensive attempt in the new 40-year retrospective exhibit "Mignon Faget: A Life in Art and Design," which runs through Jan. 2.
The exhibit fills four rooms with more than 700 items, from Faget's childhood to her early work as a clothing designer to her most recent jewelry collections. Several pieces will be new to even her most devoted collectors.
There are private commissioned items - including a stunning vermeil, red tiger's eye, garnet and braided cord collar - scads of black and white photographs from her youth, and a small assembly of Faget's late '60s and early '70s dresses, studded vests and gaucho pants, all so fabulously funky they looked ripped from a revival of the musical "Hair."
The dress that launched Faget's fashion career - a short, white sailcloth shift with hand-blocked sea-shell pattern on the hem and tie closures at the back, made in 1968 - is remarkably of-the-moment, even more than four decades later.
Tacked behind glass, the jewelry on display ranges from intricate studies on the botanical details of corn to the decorative cornices of New Orleans architecture to the playful silhouettes of animal crackers.
Taken as a whole, and presented with such museum profundity, Faget's work is impressive and endlessly experimental. Contemporary jewelry rarely gets such reverential treatment, the kind typically reserved for paintings and sculpture.
But such an exhaustive study of a jewelry artist does at first seem an odd fit for a French Quarter history museum. After all, this is an artist who is still creating, still selling many of the same rings, necklaces and bracelets at her local stores as you'll see on display on the Historic New Orleans Collection's Royal Street walls.
"We don't look at art just for art's sake," said Priscilla Lawrence, Historic New Orleans Collection's executive director. "We explore the importance of our culture. And our culture and our history is such a big part of Mignon Faget's work."
"She's singular in her accomplishments," said Judith H. Bonner, senior curator at the collection and curator of the Faget exhibit. "Here, we're emphasizing Mignon Faget's inspiration and her process and her contribution to art history in the state."
At home on a humid Friday afternoon, Faget seems both slightly overwhelmed and amused by all this focus on her life's work.
She still puts in about six hours a day at work, sleeps with a notepad by her bed so she can record nocturnal inspirations, and is involved in the day-to-day business, even though she admits, "I've never liked fooling with money or managing people."
Seated in the front parlor of her home overlooking Bayou St. John, Faget is dressed casually. Camel-colored cropped pants, starched white shirt, short gold sweater and three thin gold necklaces, all her own design from various collections.
On the facing wall hangs a portrait of the artist as a young woman, 19 years old. In the painting, the teenage Faget is poised and lovely, in a billowing ice blue gown, head tilted, looking away, as if waiting for a party to begin.
The portrait was a long-ago gift from her parents. Faget is the youngest of four children. Her father was a doctor. Her mother early on encouraged Faget's design inclinations, sewing her clothes and allowing her daughter to mix and match pieces from various patterns and pick out fabrics at Krauss.
For high-school graduation, Faget designed the dress worn by her entire class at the Academy of the Sacred Heart.
She went on to study art at Newcomb College, majoring in metal work and being named Tulane's homecoming queen. After graduation in 1955, she studied abroad at the Academie de la Grande Chaumiere in Paris.
During her school years, Faget - who looked like a young Audrey Hepburn circa "Roman Holiday" with a pixie haircut and a slim figure - modeled for D.H. Holmes.
That department store connection would be helpful when, after marriage and three children, Faget wanted to break into fashion design. Holmes placed an order for eight of Faget's first dress designs, the white shift with the hand-blocked seashell hem in the exhibit.
Fashion remained Faget's focus for several years, even as she dabbled in accessories. From the late 1960s to the early 1970s, styles were changing dramatically. Women were freeing themselves from confining clothing. Hemlines rose, and skin grew more exposed.
Faget developed a fondness for suedes, leathers and nailhead studs. She began churning out leather gauchos and hot pants that laced up the side. In 1969, New Orleans Magazine featured a fashion spread, photographed by artist Jean Seidenberg, with models in Faget's studded creations lounging around City Park with bearded
bikers from the Galloping Goose motorcycle club.
"There was this huge freedom with the hippie movement," Faget said. "I would get trim from the hardware store. I didn't have the money to go to New York to buy notions."
Even as she moved more into jewelry and away from clothing, textiles remained a favorite medium. A "scarf" necklace made of cotton, silk, pearls and sterling silver is part of her more recent Bamboo collection.
Over the years, there've been the fun moments. Like the time she got a cease-and-desist letter from Izod after the famous French brand got wind of Faget's alligator with his upturned tail in her Animal Crackers collection.
She quickly remade the alligator, tail down. Problem solved.
"Everything I've done," Faget said, "every collection has come out of a personal experience or some nostalgia. I still enjoy experimenting and abstracting things from nature and what's around me. I don't think it's something that I'll get tired of."