Monday, April 29, 2013

Wise words from interior designer Mary McDonald

When I was walking up to the Mint Museum Uptown last week to interview L.A. based interior designer Mary McDonald, star of Bravo TV's "Million Dollar Decorators," I couldn't help but be a little nervous. I'm a fan of hers, but after watching her intensity at times on the show, I didn't really know what to expect when I met her in person. But I have really good instincts and as soon as I spotted her from a distance, I could tell she was going to be great.

Mary looks even more beautiful in person than she does on TV. She's petite and toned with her gorgeous long, dark hair was flowing. She was wearing a sleeveless black sheath dress with leopard print pumps,  a leopard print YSL bag, and a black and gold statement necklace.

We headed off to one of the museum's meeting rooms with some of the hardworking members of the Mint Museum Auxiliary, including president Cathy Austin. The auxiliary brought McDonald to town to speak at its annual Room to Bloom Symposium the previous day at Charlotte Country Club. McDonald's talk was one of the most successful in the 25 years of the symposium's history. The event sold-out and was attended by 500. Mary was thrilled that she sold 500 of her stylish coffee table books "Mary McDonald Interiors: The Allure of Style."

The Mint Museum Auxiliary is celebrating its 60th anniversary and I'm in the process of reporting a story about that exciting milestone. It was so wonderful to see a top talent such as Mary absolutely gush about the beauty of our city, what she deemed our "world-class" Mint Museum, and the hospitality she had been shown by the auxiliary during her visit.

For the complete article, go to

The auxiliary's leadership really knows how to do things right. No wonder Mary was charmed. She was feted at two gorgeous private homes, including artist Windy O'Connor's house that was a fundraiser for the auxiliary. Mary thought Windy's house was so stylish and she really loved Windy's artwork. The photo at the top of this blog taken by Daniel Coston is one of my favorite's from that evening. It really shows off Mary's vibrant personality. And I love that Mary went monochromatic in her green dress and stunning jewelry.

For a slideshow of photos from the fundraiser at Windy's house, go to

What I loved about Mary is that she's an interior design genius. She is so talented, smart and stylish. And she has a great personality. Plus, she's so much fun to be around. We all laughed at some of her hilarious observations and stories. She admitted that she comes across as intimidating on the show, but I can say that in person she's an absolute delight. She's the woman you would hope to be seated next to at any dinner party because not only would you learn a lot, but you would have a blast.

She commented on my Thompson necklace that I had just bought as a 25th wedding anniversary gift to myself. It's by one of my new obsessions, Addison Weeks jewelry, which is designed and made in Charlotte by Katherine Weeks Mulford and Lee Addison Lesley. I bought it at the new boutique Splurge, which is currently the only store in Charlotte selling the jewelry line. I'm in love with all the Addison Weeks jewelry, belts, clutches and bags. Go to and you'll see why I'm enchanted.

It turns out Mary is a fan too. The auxiliary gave her an Addison Weeks cuff bracelet as a thank you for coming to speak. I heard later that Mary also bought one of their clutches while she was here.

I told Mary that I wanted one of the pendant necklaces that Addison Weeks shows with the Thompson necklace - they look so cool together.

As I was standing at the meeting room door saying my goodbyes, Mary's last words to me were "Buy the pendant!"

Now those are words to live by. In life, if we want the pendant, and we can afford the pendant, we should always buy the pendant. Those wise words filled with fun are another reason to love Mary McDonald.

Friday, April 26, 2013

Behind the scenes with Cynthia Rowley

I have been fascinated by designer Cynthia Rowley for years. I have all her "Swell" series of lifestyle books, and I loved it when she became the first big name designer to create a line of "Swell" related entertaining items for Target. I love her fun, whimsical style.

I was so excited to meet her in person when she was in Charlotte several weeks ago for Girls Night Out at Belk. She was there to officially launch her new CYNTHIA by Cynthia Rowley women's clothing line that's exclusive to Belk.

I had seen photos of some of the clothes in Belk's Look Book that I really liked. When I got there I realized I wanted everything. Her designs are so cute and bright - perfect for spring and summer - and the price is right for my budget.

She was running slightly behind schedule, so I contemplated disappearing into the dressing room to try on an arm load of her designs. But I decided I couldn't chance not waiting there to interview her since I was scheduled to be the first media person to talk with her. I think she would have forgiven me, but my media friends would not.

In the meantime, I talked with Abigail Lorick-Im, who's well known in NYC fashion circles. She traveled here to help Rowley at the event. Abigail really stood out in the crowd and looked so right in her boxy Cynthia Rowley Collection dress (Cynthia's higher-end line), tan shoes, minimal makeup and an effortless top knot.

When Cynthia did arrive, I loved her whole look. She had on skinny ankle-length pants with a print that was similar to one I had seen on a dress I loved in the CYNTHIA line. She paired them with a turquoise T-shirt, a black blazer and amazing ankle strap shoes with metallic studs. Her new pixie hair cut is perfect on her, and her personality is just as sharp and bright as I thought it would be.
Here's a close up of her shoes:

When I asked her about her collaboration years ago with Target - which was groundbreaking at the time - she said she figured it would either be the end of her career or become a paradigm for designers. We all know how that turned out.

It was exciting to hear her confirm everything I think about Belk. She lit up with excitement when talking about how wonderful the Belk team was to work with. She has especially enjoyed getting to know the amazing Arlene Goldstein, Belk's vice president of trend merchandising who's also a fashion blogger for the Huffington Post and has the respect of fashion insiders around the globe. "I love Arlene," Rowley said. "We are two peas in a pod."
Here's a picture of the two perfectly stylish peas:

Rowley put into perspective the golden reputation Belk has among American retailers. I think it was a huge deal that Belk landed her exclusive line, but Rowley thinks it's a huge deal that Belk wanted to work with her. "I love that it's a family business, it's so well run and to work with them is an honor." She said collaborating with a privately owned retailer is phenomenal and rare. It's incredible that Belk is headquartered here. We are so lucky.

One of the highlights of my interview with was when she shared her thoughts on entertaining in the spring in summer.
“I think casual is always better,” she said. “And I like it when people participate in some activity rather than just sit around." She also shared a recipe for her favorite party beverage.
“In the summer, it’s all about the cocktail. I mix simple syrup in a blender with watermelon and pour it into ice cube trays. I put two cubes in each guest’s glass, pour a shot of tequila over it and add a garnish of mint. Everything melts together in the most delicious way.”

The evening was also a chance for customers to meet some of the winners of Belk's first Southern Designer Showcase who have mini boutiques set up in the SouthPark mall store. You can also go online to and search for their offerings, which range from jewelry to handbags, clothing, children's apparel and shoes.

Everyone will have their own favorites, but my two personal ones both have North Carolina connections: clothing designer Jazsalyn McNeil of Raleigh, who's a student at N.C. State University, and Charlotte jewelry designer Kathleen Murphy of Murphy Jewelry.
The shorts from Jazsalyn's line and if this style works on you, I consider them a must-have because I'm wild for the pattern:

Although it's not available at Belk, I'm obsessed with this dress Jazsalyn designed and wore to the event:

Here's a picture of Kathleen Murphy being introduced during the event:

A few days later, I went back to Belk at SouthPark and did indeed try on everything in the CYNTHIA line and narrowed it down to several  items I had to have. One of them, a dress that's a bright orange with a psychedelic looking print on the front, is my absolute favorite.

My hilarious husband says it looks like a Grateful Dead concert at Clemson. I wore it when I was keynote speaker at a recent event at River Hills Country Club, and to the opera a few days later. At both places, I received loads of compliments including a stylish woman who stopped me at the opera to tell me how much she loved my dress. I stop people and say things like that all the time, so it was fun for me to have someone say that to me.
Here's a picture of me after I gave my speech in what I now call my Clemson rock concert dress:

I also bought a Murphy Jewelry necklace and matching earrings. I haven't worn them together as a set because I like to mix things up, but I also have received loads of compliments when I wear them.
Here's a photo of the jewelry, although these pictures don't quite capture their  beauty:

Follow Olivia on Twitter @oliviafortson

Monday, April 15, 2013

Why Sarah Belk Gambrell is a Charlotte treasure

I'm so in awe of Sarah Belk Gambrell, the matriarch of the Belk department store family and one of Charlotte's most beloved philanthropists, that when I'm around her, I can hardly speak. To me she symbolizes everything I love about Charlotte. She's beautiful, an excellent businesswoman and she works hard to make Charlotte a better place to live because of her support of the arts, education and programs that help the disadvantaged. Yet she's humble. She feels she's here to serve, not be served. 

On Sunday afternoon, around 100 of her closest friends and family gathered in the backyard of her home in the Eastover neighborhood to celebrate her 95th birthday. I was honored to cover it for the Observer.  

Here's a link to the story:

It took me a while, but I finally go up my nerve to ask Sarah if I could have my photo taken with her.  I made sure everything I wore to the party was from Belk, which wasn't hard since it's one of my favorite places to shop. 

The Gambrell family's go-to event planner, Sikky Rogers of Clarke Allen, organized the beautiful afternoon.  I love this tender moment between Sarah and Sikky captured by Observer photographer David T. Foster III (he took all the photos on this blog.) 

Guests gathered under an elegant white tent from Party Reflections decorated with crystal chandeliers and accents of blue. Everyone sat at round tables with blue tablecloths and white lace overlays. The centerpieces from the Blossom Shop included blue hydrangeas mixed in with white roses, tulips and peonies.

I really enjoyed getting to know Sarah's only child, Sally Gambrell, and Sally's four children: twins Charlie and Cooper, 14; Christopher, 10; and Caleb, 7. The boys played hard in the backyard amid the magnolias, azaleas, camellias and cherry blossoms as guests sipped on hot tea and mimosas while eating tea sandwiches, scones and tiny fruit tarts from Best Impressions catering as a trio performed classical music. 

I asked Christopher how he would describe his grandmother. “She’s funny, active, smart, a genius and she loves children,” he said.

Here's a photo of Sally and her sons as they sing "Happy Birthday" to Sarah.

Sally owns a popular yoga studio, Yoga One, that I hear a lot of buzz about. She told me that she thinks it is successful because she applies the business practices her mother taught her: Offer a great product at a fair price and take care of your customers and your employees while giving back to your community. 

Sally also told me that her mother has an insatiable need to learn new things. She subscribes to almost 60 periodicals that cover topics ranging from news, world affairs to retail trends. 

In this video clip I took, Sarah is surrounded by her grandsons as she blows out the candles on her cake, with some assistance from Sally. You can hear Sally say that we all need to help each other.  To me that sums up the legacy of the remarkable Sarah Belk Gambrell. 

Follow me on Twitter @oliviafortson

Monday, April 8, 2013

Emily Maynard is using her celebrity to help at-risk children

Charlotte's own reality TV celebrity, Emily Maynard ("The Bachelor" and "The Bachelorette"), will be part of the A Better World Charity Golf Tournament on April 29 at Cedarwood Country Club, 4100 Pineville-Matthews Road. The title sponsor for the event is C.A. Short. 

The 12th annual event raises money for the mission of A Better World, a Charlotte nonprofit that helps at-risk children in the Ashley Park neighborhood and surrounding areas by providing programs between 3 and 6 p.m. on weekdays after school - a time when children with working parents are especially vulnerable. Thanks to A Better World supporters and volunteers, 55 youths are given homework assistance, tutoring, mentoring, and a hot meal five afternoons a week. The children and their families are also provided with access to counseling and necessities including toiletries.

Linwood Bolles, A Better World's chairman of the board, told me that Emily called and said that she doesn't know which end of a golf club to hold up so she wouldn't be able to play, but that she wanted to be there. "She's passionate helping children and wants to volunteer and help out any way she can," he said. 

Right now, 18 teams of four players will be participating, and ideally that number will increase to 24 teams. Thanks to support from board member Jon Richardson and the Richardson family, at least one Carolina Panthers player will be participate in the tournament and Panthers memorabilia is part of the silent auction after the tournament.

The tournament starts at 9 a.m. If, like Emily, you're not a golfer but still want to participate, you can attend the reception that begins at 1:30 p.m. and bid on the wide range of auction items. 

For details about playing, or just attending the reception and silent auction, go to

Emily, who has started a fashion and lifestyle blog, was featured in the March issue of Allure magazine where she announced she has started a jewelry line, Emily Maynard for Towne & Reese, that's available on her web site,

Follow Olivia on Twitter @oliviafortson

Friday, April 5, 2013

The Magical Mystery Tour party is waiting to take you away on April 13

The McColl Center for Visual Art is hosting its signature spring fundraising gala, “Studio Party 13: Magical Mystery Tour,” at 7 p.m. April 13.  

Partygoers can view the offerings of contemporary art for sale while taking a trip through eight “Fab Four” themed artist studios. Proceeds support local artists and the center’s residency program. 

Event chairs are Olga Faison, Blair Farris, Pam Stowe and Laura Thompson. 

Cocktail attire or that inspired by Fab Four era icons is encouraged, and a best-dressed prize will be awarded. Tickets are $125 at

If you want a chance to win two free tickets to the event, go to the center's Facebook page and post a Beatles-inspired haiku, then ask your Facebook friends to "Like" it. The haiku that has the most "Likes" by 3 p.m. on April 8 will be named the winner.

Follow Olivia on Twitter @oliviafortson

Monday, April 1, 2013

Meet designer Cynthia Rowley at Belk April 4

Established designer Cynthia Rowley will join up-and-coming winners of Belk's Southern Designer Showcase for Girl's Night Out at Belk SouthPark from 6 to 9 p.m. April 4.

They will all be honored during a special presentation at 6:30 p.m. The event is a great chance to snap up some bargains for spring. Many regularly priced women's apparel, shoes and accessories, including some rarely discounted designer brands, will be 20 percent off.

The fun event is like shopping at a lounge. There will be wine, nibbles and music from a DJ.

Rowley is there promoting CYNTHIA, her new line for Belk.