Mark Thomas: Patterns of Light and Shadow
By Chiori Santiago
Art Festival 2003 - Award Winning Artist - WEARABLE ART 1st Place - Mark Thomas
- San Francisco, California"
Mark is quiet, and so are his clothes. “I’m pretty shy. I don’t enjoy having to talk myself up,” he says. “I’m more comfortable with letting the work speak for me.”
And so it
does. Thomas dyes sumptuous velvet—a material that doesn’t shout, but whispers
of elegance and serenity—in deep black and luscious colors. He stitches it into
clothing that is all draped straight lines and simplicity. Its appeal is in the
details: patterns of light and shadow, streaks and stipples reminiscent of a
secret forest glade or a pool as still as mirror glass.
Yet just three years after launching his clothing line, Thomas is enjoying as much attention as a town crier. He’s set up his booth at such prestigious shows as Cherry Creek Festival in Denver, both American Craft Council shows and Smithsonian Craft show. He’s earned awards at the Mill Valley Arts Festival and Sausalito Arts Festival. Judges and collectors are drawn to the painterly beauty of his wares: “Customers tell us when they’re not wearing my scarves, they hang them on the wall as art,” he says. Not bad for a former textile designer content to dabble in the background and let others turn his fabrics into spotlight-stealing garments.
His first job after graduating with a degree in apparel arts was as a design assistant or costumer Jean-Pierre Dorleac, the man behind the sartorial exotica of “Barbarella” and “The Blue Lagoon.” Later, as a designer in a Hollywood costume house, he worked on costumes for the film “Blade Runner,” an experience that opened his eyes to the possibilities of clothing as “functional art.”
“The clothing was really arty and I was totally into that,” Thomas says. “I just loved the things we were doing: pearlizing leather, sewing found objects onto the clothes. At that time I had no idea there was such a thing as art-to-wear, but I was interested in taking the arty aspects of costume and applying them to ready-to-wear.”
Other aspects of the Hollywood scene weren’t as much fun. “Everything you hear about the competitive, cutthroat environment is true,” he says. Retiring by nature, and more interested in exploring techniques than fighting workplace battles, he decided to go into business by himself. He moved to San Francisco in 1982 and began creating one-of-a-kind clothes that he sold at the city’s legendary art-to-wear boutique, Obiko and at Bergdorf Goodman in New York.
As he became fascinated by painting and hand-dyeing techniques, he spent more time producing custom block-printed textiles for other designers, a business so suited to the introspective artist that he busied himself at it for nine years.
“Fortunately, designers talk to each other, so all my orders came from word of mouth,” he explains. “I didn’t have to deal with the public.” The plus side was freedom from marketing; the downside, he realized was “I got tired of seeing other people make a name for themselves with garments that relied so much on my textiles.” In 1989 he decided to turn his attention to producing a clothing line of his own.
His present work is influenced by shibori methods Thomas adapted to create “a whole new self-devised technique.” He’s reluctant to reveal details—he’s planning a book on the method and wants to keep it relatively secret until then—but it involves painting fabric first with brushes dipped in dye and embellishing the striated pattern with dots of dye applied via squeeze bottle. “The black is most important; I mix my own,” he says. The dye is fixed with a seaweed paste, then steamed.
“It takes five days to paint five and a half yards of fabric,” he says. “It’s actually not easy to do; I finish maybe a bolt a month. It’s not a production-worthy technique. It’s an art technique, so that limits production. Eventually I will have a production line, but for now I’m enjoying working with the dyes.
The resulting yardage is cut and stitched into simple, fluid forms such as the perennially popular ankle-length straight coat. He holds one up to view, opens the rich fall of velvet to reveal the muted dye patterns on the inside. “It’s like a butterfly’s wing,” he points out. “That’s where it all started, with my fascination with insects.”
Recently, he’s added silk charmeuse tunics and trousers to complement the velvet outerwear. The materials balance each other in terms of production, too. He likes the light-reflecting and color-enhancing qualities of velvet; “it has a great chromatic range because you’re looking into the pile,” he says. “In dye terms, it has a gray scale of one to ten. Silk has a range of maybe one to three or four. With the velvet, I’m always trying to tone down the color; with silk, it’s the opposite, I’m always trying to use brighter colors. Velvet is very hard to sew but easy to paint. Silks are much more difficult to paint but easy to sew.”
Thomas’ wares range from $95 for a scarf to $2000 for a full-length coat, with most pieces falling between $265-1400. The reluctant salesman admits he’s almost hesitant to charge what the labor-intensive garments are worth.
“It’s been a conflict for me at times that the things I make are expensive, high-end wearables. As a child, my family went through periods of poverty, and I felt personal discomfort in charging $2000 for a garment. Who could afford that? But [the clients] haven’t objected. Even if people come into the booth and can’t afford the pieces, they can see their value. We never pressure any potential buyers; there’s no reason to talk anyone into buying. In fact, when I started I put off the crafts circuit for a long time because I never thought I could handle the public contact.”
Fortunately, Thomas has an alter ego in Johannes Mager, his partner of 21 years. Mager is accustomed to the limelight; he makes a living as a composer and director of the romping jazz band that accompanies the performing troupe Make-A-Circus, based in San Francisco. He’s happy in a role as the public face of Mark Thomas Textiles and Apparel. He answers the ever-ringing telephone in the duo’s live-work apartment, takes orders and handles clerical and accounting duties, freeing Thomas for the work he enjoys most.
“Research and development is the part that keeps me going,” Thomas says. “I’m always stirring pots of dye while I’m talking on the phone; there’s always an experiment going on. I usually try to set aside some days to just do business, other days just to paint.” At the moment, he concentrates on producing just one new fall line; he fulfills wholesale orders during the spring and summer months while he’s taking orders for fall.
In addition to custom orders and commissions, he sells some garments through retail outlets, including Rafael’s in San Francisco, Northern Possessions in Chicago and Spirit of the Earth in Santa Fe. A few times a year, he takes a deep breath, sets up a booth, and faces his public. If he’s lucky, as he was at ACC Baltimore, he has a good day and can quickly retreat to private life. “We sold out the first day, hung up a sign that said ‘Gone fishing’ and went to the aquarium,” he says.
“We’ve been very fortunate these past three years. It takes a lot of work but the end result is a good one. I’m surprised how well we’ve progressed. We’ve always been able to support ourselves as artists. It’s a month to month thing, but I’ve always believed that if you do what you love and stay true to it, good things will come.”
- Mark Thomas Sausalito Art Gallery - - Mark Thomas Web Site -