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Boutique Designer

From sketches to sales, Reginald Thomas does it all. He has to.

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The snow is flying outside, but Reginald Thomas is racing to get ready for summer. There are seams to hem, tops not yet matched with bottoms, and a phone message from a model in Manhattan who needs a pass to get into the Boutique Show in New York, where Thomas will be showing and selling his summer line.

Thomas's part-time staff of seven, including a sister and a nephew, usually help him to prepare his collections for upcoming events--cutting fabric, sewing, stocking inventory, and selling, but all of them will be on vacation for another two weeks, so he will have to get ready and go to New York alone. Thomas is the founder, majority owner, and creative force behind Reginald's, Inc., a small, mostly wholesale of women's fashions.

He is sitting in the back room of his two-story shop, one in a line of old Victorian mansions on Huron between State and Wabash. He is working at a noisy Brother sewing machine, running under its rapid-fire needle a length of black-and-white-striped material that will soon be a warm-weather vest. Thomas is 35 years old and wears designer frames fitted with thick lenses, a pair of blue jeans, a white T-shirt, and cowboy boots. The sewing machine chops a dozen times a second with a sound that seems to rattle everything in the workshop except Thomas's parrot, Charlie, who sits in a high cage at the back of the room quietly overseeing the operation and squawking occasionally.

The work space consists of two small rooms crowded with a large black table, six industrial sewing machines, and piles of fabric: red cotton, polka-dotted silk, blue and green patterned leather, and fine nylon mesh. Stacks of fashion magazines like Women's Wear Daily and Vogue surround Thomas's accounting computer, a dirty IBM clone. On the same floor is the storeroom where Thomas keeps his finished creations. The way to the spiral staircase winds through racks full of colorful garments ready for shipping. Several smooth black mannequins are propped in a corner near the coffee maker. They have no hands but they do have nipples.

On the ground floor is the small retail shop Thomas has simply dubbed "The Store." It's a strategically lit room where a few choice outfits and pieces of jewelry are displayed in minimalist elegance. This is the only part of Thomas's setup that is open to the public.

Upstairs, Thomas gets up and moves over to a serging machine, a special device with three spools of thread, each a different color, running off its top. He finishes a thick seam along the inside of the vest. This item, he says, will probably run 150 units; he rarely deals in editions any larger. If it were sold separately--which it won't be because Reginald's only deals in limited-edition completed outfits--it would retail for about $80. The outfit the vest belongs to will be "moderately priced," Thomas says, at about $300 wholesale. About 80 percent of Reginald's sales are wholesale orders to women's clothing stores around the country. The Store sells the rest.

Big women like his clothes because he often cuts his garments oversize. "I cut my clothes for movement, that's why I'm known as a large-size designer," says Thomas. "I enjoy making clothes for women of any size, but the outfit has to breathe and flow. For me, it's an art. Some designers just emphasize tits and ass and...I won't even get into it."

The collection destined for New York will have about 45 individual pieces when finished, each one part of an ensemble. All of it will fit into a duffel that Thomas will check at O'Hare as luggage. Although his hands move quickly over the fabric--folding, poking, and cutting--and his deadline for New York is fast approaching, Thomas does not seem particularly nervous, or, for that matter, particularly enthusiastic about the upcoming event. This will not be a fashion show, only a week-long convention where he and hundreds of other designers will set up ten-by-ten-foot displays and take orders from retailers. There will be few models and little media glitz this time.

What he's looking for instead, he says with a laugh, is anything "as long as it's green." Big shows with runways, models, and scouts don't interest him much these days. He says, "Easy in, easy out. That's all I want. I don't have tame for all of that other stuff. It's not really time for me to do a fashion show. I'm more busy fine-tuning my craft. Getting all the kinks out, restructuring." He admits that he's a little nervous about the economy, but then he also gives the impression that he could easily walk away from it all. There's a hint of irreverence in everything he says. "With everybody filing Chapter 13, I have to have everything from the office work to my production line running as smoothly as possible," he says. "These are not good times for anyone in business right now."

Reginald's produces around 200 pieces a month on average, with a self-imposed ceiling of 400 units to keep supply tight. If inventory runs low as a deadline nears, Thomas will contract out the sewing to small manufacturers in Chinatown or on the far north side. He estimates that his annual sales range from $250,000 to $350,000. He rejects the idea of unlimited growth for his business, preferring instead to focus on maintaining the business's current size and sales.

Thomas became interested in clothing after moving to Chicago's south side from Florida at age ten with his family. Most people in this glamour-driven business, he says, have very humble beginnings. He worked as a "tabletop designer" while studying art therapy at the School of the Art Institute, doing everything himself. He would sell the clothes here or there to an acquaintance or friend but mostly he gave them away. He began his business with the help of his sister shortly after graduating in 1982. In the years since, Thomas has become one in what he describes as a select group of about a dozen Chicago fashion producers that focus on apparel design rather than just manufacturing.

He gets up from the sewing machine and moves to the rack to inspect a sweeping red throw just on the thin side of a coat. He seems satisfied that the piece is properly finished and matches the rest of its outfit. Pushing aside blouses made from materials like terry cloth, chambray, and cotton boucle, he pauses here and there to scrutinize a lining or buttonhole.

On the end of the rack one piece seems out of place--a white drapey top made of cotton mesh, the kind of material used for high school football jerseys. "I decided to use it for everyday apparel," he explains, pointing to the piece's ribbed cuffs and shoulder pads. "It breathes, it's sheer, it's comfortable. It's a cross between an oriental and an African influence."

It is almost 8:30, and Thomas has not yet eaten dinner. He makes his way over to a pack of cigarettes on the computer desk and lights one up. The smoke rises past his face into the track lighting above. He sums up his life's work with a shrug. "Everybody always needs clothes," he says. 'But no matter how you look at it--it's just a pair of jeans and cowboy boots."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.

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