It was a quiet January afternoon at the University of New Haven until a limo pulled up to one of the dormitories. A small, elegant woman in an ankle-length mink coat and matching hat emerged from the backseat with a tall student in jeans. Together they entered the building and began packing the young man’s belongings. Faded Levi’s were stuffed into his well-used duffel, sweaters were stashed in her Louis Vuitton trunks. As the pair carried the bags down to the limo, residents exchanged quizzical looks. Was their dormmate, Kohle Yohannan, a drug dealer? Foreign royalty? What?
In fact, he was simply—or not so simply—in love. After a heady four-month courtship, Yohannan and his improbable lady friend had decided to move in together. By evening Kohle, then 21, was installed in the exquisite, gilt-edged New York City apartment of designer Mary McFadden, 50. The next day he resumed his studies at nearby Columbia, where McFadden’s daughter, Justine—two years his senior—is also enrolled. Last June he and Mary eloped, and the fashion world still can’t get over it. In the view of some jaundiced observers, McFadden, the indefatigable New York socialite who is the queen of pleated chic, has taken up with a very young nobody.
“I’m not sure any of our friends took our relationship seriously at the beginning,” says Yohannan, who has borne the brunt of their skepticism. “Mary is in a position where—what are people going to say to her? ‘I don’t approve of your boyfriend?’ Let’s face it, I’m the one who gets the muck. There were snide comments at first. People would expect me to introduce myself as Mary McFadden’s husband. Well, I don’t do that.”
For her part, the four-times-married McFadden never gave a second thought to the age difference. “My second husband was 35 years older than I, and my last husband 10 years younger,” she says. “I never felt any strangeness about it. I fell in love with Kohle because he is intellectual and very good-looking.”
They were introduced by a mutual friend last October after Yohannan said he was looking for a tennis partner. The friend, suspecting McFadden might be Kohle’s match, invited them to the same party. Tennis games led to museum dates, but both deny they were looking for love. “I was coming out of a long reclusive period,” says McFadden. “My business partner had died and so had my best friend. I’d been going out all the time, but I was not involved with anyone—just with the social whirlwind.” To which Kohle adds, “She was everyone’s dinner date, but no one’s girl.” He, meanwhile, had suffered through a painful affair and decided to concentrate on his studies. When McFadden asked about his social life, “I said I dated books,” recalls Yohannan.
Yet they could not ignore their easy compatibility and many shared interests—fashion among them. Yohannan, an American of French-Iranian descent, grew up privileged in San Francisco, where his father owned auto dealerships and his mother was a housewife. He designed his own jewelry collection when he was 17 and attended Manhattan’s Fashion Institute of Design. McFadden, who was born on a Tennessee cotton plantation and later moved with her family to New York, has been a fashion institution since the early ’70s, when she began selling her exotic togas. Inspired by local costumes she had seen during her marriage to a De Beers executive in South Africa, they were quickly snapped up by her fellow socialites. By 1973 she had quit an editor’s job at Vogue to open a design studio where she translated her fascination with ethnic shapes and fabrics into a distinctive look. Roaming the museums with Yohannan, she soon discovered that he shared her visual sense.
Intellectual rapport turned to romance in December. “Mary asked me to come to her apartment to check out why her TV didn’t work,” says Kohle. “I got there and found out there was no battery in the remote control. I said, ‘Gee, Mary, this is difficult but I can fix it. It might take a while though, so why not make some coffee.’ At 5 the next morning she dropped me home to pick up some clothes and we flew to Aspen.”
By Christmas McFadden and Yohannan were aware of the depth of their feelings. McFadden traveled to India on business and kept a daily journal for Yohannan, who was visiting his family in San Francisco. His parents were curious when her 62-page letter arrived, but, says Yohannan, “I don’t know how casually you can mention that you are having an affair with Mary McFadden.” Then the phoning began—”the hour-long Indian love calls,” Yohannan calls them. By the end of the holiday, Kohle’s parents knew about his new love.
Back in New York, Mary convinced Kohle to transfer to Columbia and move in with her. “Mary and I are both violently territorial,” he says. “If I so much as move something of hers, her perfect hairdo stands on end, and vice versa. But then I thought, ‘Hell, this is really nice between us. Let’s try it.’ Under the same roof, McFadden and Yohannan seemed to grow closer. “It’s uncanny how we are similar,” says Kohle. “We do literally the same thing every day. We are manic about our rituals.”
It was Mary who decided they should marry. In June they traveled to California and used the phone book to find a justice of the peace in Corona. Though no family members attended the wedding, the couple says they had their blessings. “My daughter, Justine, was pleased because she saw how happy I was,” says Mary. Kohle’s mother, Doris, took a little longer to come around. “At first I thought Kohle was getting married too young, but I know you don’t measure affairs of the heart by numbers,” she says. “He was always light-years ahead of his age anyway.” There was no prenuptial agreement; though, Yohannan says, “We had a verbal agreement that if either one of us gains 20 lbs. that would be cause for divorce. So far we’ve both lost 10 lbs., so I guess things are fine.”
Married four months, the couple has settled into a comfortable routine. Mary, an inveterate party-goer, still socializes seven nights a week while Kohle—a dean’s list student pursuing a degree in art history—often stays home to study. “We made a deal that I’ll only invite him to the important things,” says McFadden. “He’s fun to go out with—he has a flair for attracting the most attractive people. It’s nice that you don’t get a lot of dogs along with the bargain.”
Yohannan attends classes in the morning before meeting McFadden at her studio, where he has taken a major role in her $5 million plus business. They sketch side by side, and he recently designed her knitwear showroom in Manhattan. “I think I help put the fire under Mary’s butt to get her to go forward even more,” he says. “We are both violently success-oriented. We want an empire.”
For fun, the couple motorbikes and indulges in some generational cross-pollination. McFadden has introduced Yohannan to Far Eastern art, and he has won her over to rap music. If there is a bone of contention between them, it’s food. Yohannan likes the occasional homemade fare; Mary doesn’t cook. “She has tried to cook only once over the last year, and that was a disaster,” he says. “I told her I love fresh waffles. I heard her tinkering in the kitchen and went in to find the poor little rich girl slaving over the directions of frozen waffles. I snatched them out of the frying pan and told her to please stick them in the friggin’ toaster.”
Now there is talk of children. “We want to adopt a son,” says McFadden. “After that we’ll probably adopt another so he can have company. I know it’s difficult, but I plan to have a child within two years.” Adds Yohannan: “Mary and I want to go for every experience and live life in its quintessential form.”
McFadden is more restrained. “This marriage comes as a dream for me,” she says. “To meet someone as I approach the end of my life, which is the beginning of his life, is, I feel, a gift I’ve been given. We have such camaraderie. Failing cancer or a motorcycle accident, we could have two very extraordinary decades that will be enriching to him as well as to me. That is special.”