Mary McFadden never goes anywhere without her prepacked suitcase containing 10 of her dresses. When that suitcase didn't show up this week in Durham, N.C., where she had gone to speak at Duke University, it hardly disturbed her. The designer, best known for her finely pleated dresses, and patterns and designs that abstract or interpret art from all periods, simply steamed and wore the dress she had traveled in.

She told Duke students she got started with three dresses first bought by the New York shop Henri Bendel; $1 million in orders from other stores followed. It cost $1 million to capitalize her business. Fortunately her grandmother had given her 20 carats worth of diamonds and a ruby when she was 15. She swapped the stones for paintings two years later -- "I didn't have any interest in jewels at the time but, needless to say, my tastes have changed" -- and later sold her collection of art by Dali, DuBuffet, Rauschenberg, Magritte, Max Ernst, Klee, Kandinsky and others for $1 million.

Gene Pressman, executive vice president of Barney's New York, who shared the program with McFadden, said his family's retail business also started with a sale of jewelry. In 1923 Pressman's grandmother sold her wedding ring for $500 and used the money to open a hole-in-the-wall shop with 40 suits on Seventh Avenue and 17th Street in New York, just across from the store's present location. They began with clothes bought at clothing auctions, which they sold at discount prices. In 1933 Barney's was the first store to advertise on radio, to promote its vast range of sizes; in 1947 it was the first with television ads. In the 1960s, to upgrade the business, the store introduced Pierre Cardin menswear to the United States.

Gene Pressman, 34, has completed the evolution of Barney's from a discount store to a top-quality fashion store. "It's easy to go down; it's hard to go up," admitted Pressman, who added women's clothes and introduced Giorgio Armani, Gianfranco Ferre and others. In January Barney's will open a separate women's store.

Pressman, with his partner Lance Karesh, designs a successful line of sportswear for men and women called Basco. McFadden also is spreading out, with a line of clothing for J.C. Penney's. None of her couture design customers has objected, she says.

It was the $3,000 variety stuff, not the Penney's variety, that was in McFadden's errant suitcase (which was returned just before she left Duke). "I never worry about them. There are more in the closet where those came from," she said.