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Marilyn Riseman collection goes to Peabody Essex Museum

Marilyn Riseman in her Beacon Hill apartment in November 2012.
Marilyn Riseman in her Beacon Hill apartment in November 2012.JOHN TLUMACKI/GLOBE STAFF/FILE

The family of Marilyn Riseman has given her extraordinary personal fashion collection to the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem.

Much like the late Boston socialite’s larger-than-life personality, the collection is enormous, numbering some 700 pieces, ranging from a red coat dress by Japanese designer Yohji Yamamoto and black-and-white ankle boots by Chanel to a motorcycle jacket by Rick Owens and a black parasol trimmed in feathers by Sonia Rykiel.

“The fact that she was based in Boston and had a worldwide reach makes her collection incredibly important to the museum,” said Paula Richter, curator for exhibitions and research at PEM. “The array of designers in her collection is quite breathtaking.”


Riseman, who died in March at 86 of pancreatic cancer, was one of the city’s most visible partygoers. Known for her kabuki-style makeup and blunt bob haircut, she acquired pieces from well-known fashion houses and young emerging talents. Her granddaughter Joanna Prager Johnsen bequeathed the collection to the museum with her mother, Marcy Prager, and brother, Daniel Prager. It also includes 35 scrapbooks filled with photographs and newspaper clippings featuring the grande dame.

“She wanted it to live in the place where it would be most cherished, not in a closet in an archives,” Prager Johnsen said.

The announcement of the gift coincides with a planned weeklong tribute to Riseman at Boston Fashion Week, which begins Oct. 5. Founder and executive director Jay Calderin said designers will leave a front-row seat empty in honor of Riseman.

“She wasn’t a cheerleader. It was more along the lines of backing it up with action,” said Calderin, recalling Riseman’s affection for newcomers such as Maya Luz in recent years.

One of Luz’s round spiked handbags made the regular rotation in Riseman’s wardrobe and is among the dozens of accessories donated to the PEM.


Prager Johnsen said the entire collection resided in Riseman’s Beacon Hill apartment. Cataloging the pieces was a full-time summer project that took her and four staff members from the museum four weeks to complete.

“She was meticulous the way she maintained her clothes. All the pieces were in separate labeled ensemble bags: a skirt, hat, accessory. She’d have these pieces arranged flawlessly,” she said.

Given Riseman’s dynamic nature — she became a central figure in the city’s fashion scene half a century ago when she opened her first boutique, Apogee, on Newbury Street in 1966 — the breadth of labels in her closet is not surprising. Other designers in the collection include Issey Miyake, Alexander McQueen, Martin Margiela, Dries Van Noten, Ann Demeulemeester, and Balenciaga.

“When you’re encountering a wardrobe with such masters, you can imagine how exciting that can be,” Richter said. “It’s such an important collection of the last 40 to 50 years of fashion.”

Richter wouldn’t comment on the estimated value of the gift, explaining that the museum was only at the “beginning of the process.” But she and Prager Johnsen share a desire to see the clothes displayed as a collection that stands on its own.

“It has huge exhibition potential,” said Richter. The Peabody Essex has sharpened its focus on fashion in recent years, with exhibitions featuring the collections of style legend Iris Apfel and milliner Stephen Jones, and last year an overview of avant-garde Japanese fashion.

For that whole-is-greater-than-the-sum-of-its-parts reasoning, Prager Johnsen said the bequest is the doyenne’s full collection save for a couple of sentimental pieces such as a purple pompom scarf Riseman wore when she met Leonard Bernstein and a walking cane sporting a pistol handle.


“I feel really good that it’s all intact. If I have daughters, I want them to see it,” said Prager Johnsen. “Who would believe it if they didn’t see it? I want to say, ‘She really was this big.’ ’’