Tour a Carefully Curated Sag Harbor Rowhouse
A fashion aesthete and bon vivant carves out his own piece of history out East.
With his heavenly white mane, Wayne Mahler’s 12-year-old Turkish Van cat, King Henry, is impossibly regal as he greets guests to his owner’s home in Sag Harbor Village. But visitors soon realize that it is Mahler who has had the nine lives. His rowhouse, originally built in 1895 for employees of the former Bulova Watchcase Factory, is a small repository for a life well-lived.
When Mahler purchased the petite two-bedroom home in 1989, it already had quite a history of its own, surviving a fire in the 1920s and serving as a destination for bootleggers during Prohibition, then later becoming a parlor for a set of clairvoyants named Slum. “It has taken more than 30 years to pull it together,” Mahler recounts, adding that “all the doors and bull’s-eye moldings had been stripped. I found them in the basement, covered in sand.” Working with a local carpenter, he set out to bring the place back to its original glory. “I didn’t want to modernize it. I just wanted to give it dignity again.”
Today, the house is a treasure trove of ephemera from Mahler’s past lives. He once worked as a color coordinator for Pierre Deux fabrics, a skill immediately evident in all the rooms. Blue and white saturate the sitting and living rooms, from an 18th-century Venetian chest and 1860s daybed to hand-quilted Marseilles coverlets, an Irish bench, rag rugs from Sage Street Antiques, and a photo of his parents on their wedding day. Local artist Garrett Chingery helped hand-paint the furniture and even some of the artwork.
Mahler’s most recent project, the kitchen renovation, is a study in black and white, with black lacquered Ikea cabinets, 1840s transferware plates, a Jacobean Revival chair, and a Victorian mourning picture. The kitchen opens onto a petite secret garden and black-walled alfresco dining area in the back.
Family and fashion have always come first for Mahler, who keeps a vintage copy of Vogue to remind him of his beloved Aunt Erica, who gave him his first subscription to the magazine at age 11. Along with his mother and grandmother, Mahler spent lots of time in his aunt’s dress shop and remembers her saying, “You always have to be the best-dressed person in the world because clothing is your armor. It will protect you from anything.”
In the 1960s, Mahler began modeling for the agent Paul Wagner. “‘I don’t want to be a model—I’m very shy and self-conscious,’” Mahler recalls telling Wagner. “I was this naive kid from Yaphank, and the next thing I knew, he was sending me to Arthur Elgort for photo shoots.” One of his first bookings—for a Buick commercial—provided the down payment for his Sag Harbor retreat.
After his stint in front of the camera, Mahler turned to fashion design and opened a Manhattan shop, FDR Drive, specializing in vintage textiles and clothing and “boiling things in the kitchen all night.” His “reinvented” Edwardian clothing line caught the attention of fashion buyers, in addition to the costume designer working on the film Out of Africa. Other cinematic assignments followed, from Cocktail to Tucker to Married to the Mob.
His specialized approach to fashion—clients ranged from Uma Thurman to Juliette Binoche—eventually attracted the discerning eye of Linda Dresner, who asked him to join her high-end boutique on Park Avenue. “We had the most beautiful clothing in New York,” says Mahler, who was ready for a shift. “It was very artistic and not commercial. Linda cared about making beauty, not money, and that has been my leitmotif.” (A hefty commission from the sales on a particularly popular blouse, he says, did pay for his kitchen renovation.)
Ironically, Mahler’s house lacks closet space, but the fashion connoisseur has devised his own stylish storage solutions. “My laundry is all out in baskets and color coordinated,” he says, adding with a laugh, “it’s deeply compulsive.” From layering fabrics and textures to objets d’art and pieces of his family history, he adds, “It’s about nostalgia. I am fiercely sentimental.” Childhood toys and books, dating from the 1930s and belonging to his father’s two sisters, fill the cabinets in his bedroom. And the study’s shelves are crammed with books and notes and memorabilia detailing special moments, from his friendship with Gloria Vanderbilt to time spent in Paris.
Fittingly enough, Mahler’s most recent undertaking has been collaborating on and guest-curating the exhibit “Fabulous Fashion,” on view at the New York Society Library through early next year. For a man smitten with fash- ion and beauty, the opportunity to sort through the museum’s archives was transformative. “I’ve had so many different professions,” he says, “but I only did whatever I loved, which is fabulous. Beauty is a type of spirituality. It is essential to the soul.”
The print version of this article appears with the headline: Style File.