THOMAS ENGEL HART

Interview by Gert Jonkers

Thomas Engel Hart is a men’s fashion designer with blond hair who seems to have a special interest in traditional men’s wear: trench coats, boyish high school shirts, uniforms, military pants and such, and his clothes always have a modern twist without being funny. This summer, some days after he presented his Spring/Summer 2004 collection, we met at the Parisian living-roomish restaurant Georget to talk about clothes, husky men, teenage depression and ex-lovers. Thomas has this incredibly juicy American accent, and he has a howling ‘r’ even when he speaks French.

Gert: I’m not in a red-wine mood today, I think.
Thomas: No? I am.
Okay, what the hell, let’s do red.
Good. I’m sure that Bordeaux for 16 euros is really fine. The meat is really good here too.
I don’t eat meat.
Oh shit, and that’s the only thing they have. This is really the worst restaurant in Paris to go to with veggies. And I was a veggie for 12 years as well, isn’t it terrible? I just don’t think about veggies anymore. What you could order is the omelet without lardon, I guess. Plus cheese, plus pommes sautées, and you’ll be totally full. At least I feel like completely filling myself up again. I always feel really empty after those presentations. I’m going to have the entrecote.
When did you start eating meat again?
One day there was a ham on the table that I couldn’t resist. I just wanted to eat it. Vegetarianism was just some sort of trend when I was 16. It must have been 1988; I was anti-fur, anti-meat, anti- a lot of things.
You had Weltschmertz?
What’s that?
Spleen. Teenage depression.
Oh no, not at all.
Let’s start at, eh, well, at the beginning, maybe?
Okay, I was born in New York, and then my family moved down to Charleston, South Carolina, when I was six. Charleston was one of the very few towns that wasn’t burned down during Civil War, so it’s a pretty town. It has a harbor.
Quite a change from New York, I guess?
It wasn’t the most joyous move, no. I hated Charleston. When I was 12 I was so decidedly different…I was expelled from basically any school one could go to in South Carolina. I had gotten the boot from all the schools in Charleston, one time because of sort of shady affairs with the other boys in the class. So I had to leave.
Shady affairs that you personally initiated?
Totally! Yeah. I was 12, and, you know, we were growing pubic hair. So you would invite people to your house…I don’t know if you did this, but I was totally going like ‘Do you have any pubic hair?’ ‘Yeah.’ ‘Well, I do too. Can I see it?’ ‘Yeah.’ ‘Can we jack-off together?’ ‘Eh, yeah.’ ‘Can I suck your dick?’ That was the sequence of events, which I had basically done with the entire class in 7th grade. But then there was this one boy over at my house, and he didn’t have any pubic hair and he didn’t want to do anything. So he was now free to talk, because since he hadn’t done anything, there was no mutual guilt, whereas everyone else in the class kept their mouth shut. So the next morning, it was written everywhere, like, ‘Thomas jacks-off’ and ‘Thomas is a fag’. It was hard. I didn’t know I was a fag until someone told me I was a fag. That kind of stopped that school with a bang. You could be black, you could be poor, but you couldn’t be gay. Then I got the boot from the next school, because I just couldn’t be bothered: I hated everyone, I was into punk rock music, fuck everybody. I got the boot from another school, and then I went to California for three years, went to Pennsylvania for some other shit. Then I was back in Charleston for a year and then I moved to New York in 1994. ‘Cause I was 21 or 22, and I realized it was time to move on: if you wanna do something, you gotta get the fuck out of Charleston.
What sort of guys did you hang out with in Charleston?
At some point I had this boyfriend that was a real redneck. I had never met such a
redneck, and he was really stupid stupid. It was kind of difficult to talk with him.
I think he was fucking me ‘cause he was living with his cousin who was gay. Anyway, he was really dumb, and one day he came to my house with a bottle of vodka, to party, to drink vodka and have sex. I wasn’t there, but my neighbors were there and they let him in. I mean this guy was so stupid, and they were sitting on the roof getting drunk, and my friends later said it was all they could do not to push him from the roof. He was so dumb, but the fact that he was a roofer saved him, ‘cause he was hard to push off the roof.
How do you spend your time with somebody who’s really really stupid?
Well, he was cute. I mean, this was South Carolina. The tree was kinda bare there.
Okay, and then you moved to New York and I heard you dated Billy Miller from the amazingly hot gay sex magazine Straight to Hell there. How did that happen?
I must have already known Straight to Hell from San Francisco. So I got to New York and I tried to meet people. So there was something at the Pyramid Club about Straight to Hell, so there was Billy in the basement selling magazines. I went up to him saying, ‘I like your magazine, I think it’s cool!’ Which I thought was what everyone did, but apparently not everybody said that, so after that Billy got in contact with me and we started going out. It was some kind of weird father-son thing; we had a great relationship. I was 22 years old and not knowing much, and he knew everything. That’s a great homosexual relationship to have.
Were you involved in making the magazine when you were hanging out with Billy?
No, I can’t even remember Billy working on it. But what an amazing magazine that is, no? There’s one issue that I’ve had for 12 years and I can still jack-off to it, it’s still incredible. It’s got that boy from AMG on the cover that everyone thought had the perfect ass.
I wonder if I have that issue. What’s your favorite story in it? It’s probably got something to do with the house doctor fucking the teenage boy who comes around for his sports test, no? ‘Cause that’s how most stories go in STH.
I don’t know. I like to look at the pictures. There was one picture I really liked, something about ‘Here’s a special treat for ass lickers who smoke’ and then there’s a picture of someone’s ass with a cigarette in it. That’s my favorite. What I love about Straight to Hell is this extreme hatred and angriness. Like, everything is so unfunny, you know? They’re really mean, like how they laugh at handicapped people.
The stories in STH are such a turn-on, I think. The way all those anonymous writers describe their sex experiences is amazing. So incredibly hot.
Well, anonymous, I don’t know…from what I heard, every gay person from Harvard wrote for that magazine. Probably also Gore Vidal, Truman Capote and all the others, like, scientists, geologists. I mean, I’m not sure, but that’s what I’ve always understood. That was the sort of people Boyd McDonald — who set up STH — hung out with. And he came from that great pursued, hated, underground gay culture. Now it’s okay to be gay, so what’s the thrill? But imagine Boyd going to a gas station and sucking dick; he was the only fag there. And he wrote about it. I think a lot about that time. For me, I find it very very very very unfortunate it’s over. Now, these days, if you go to a gas station, they’re all butching it up but they’re all queens. It’s no fun anymore.
So the Straight to Hell sort of secret and suppressed sex in a homophobic society is a turn-on to you?
I think gay sex was really different in those days. I would have loved to have had those experiences back then. In the 60s, if you said to three straight guys ‘Do you wanna have a blow-job’, one of them said yes.
You could get a blow-job with everyone, ‘cause gay wasn’t yet such a ‘thing’, such
a lifestyle.
You mean the openness and emancipation ruined it for gays?
Don’t you think? It’s just nasty the way it is now, I think.
But do we really long to go back to the secrecy around being gay?
I do.
And the chance of being beaten up? It’s not too bad to be beaten up, in a way.
I took a lot of shit for being gay, and I feel like it made me work harder. Just like now I take a lot of shit for being a designer, and I’m getting beaten up a lot, still, from a money and fashion point of view.
Oh but come on, Thomas, that’s not the same as being kicked in the eye or having your nose broken for walking down the street as a faggot.
Well, do you know how it feels to be passionate about what you do and to be ripped off for a few thousand euros? If you know what I mean?
Excuse me, that’s not the same as longing to go back to the really shitty anti-homo times. And if you want to be oppressed for being gay, why not move to Russia or one of the old Soviet states, where I’m sure the circumstances for homos are as bad as they were in the US 40 years ago.
What I mean is that such an angry and creative and exciting magazine like STH could not bubble up in the US anymore. Also, I don’t need to go to Russia; I still have my hard times. Being a fashion designer, I’m getting used to screaming at people.
You must be mildly masochistic to start your own fashion label these days. I don’t know one young fashion designer who isn’t suffering and struggling.
But you have to believe in something. And really want something. Believe me, I don’t try and set up situations that turn out to be a nightmare, but every situation tends to ultimately result in being a nightmare.
Like what?
Like, Friday night, just before my presentation, when the music wasn’t playing? That was a nightmare. That wasn’t just a situation of somebody being an asshole; it was a SNAFU. You know what a SNAFU is? It’s a World War II-term, meaning ‘Situation Normal, All Fucked Up’. It’s like Murphy’s Law: whatever can go wrong goes wrong. Like the CD that my friends made in America was a homemade CD and didn’t play in the CD player I had on Friday. Really nobody’s fault, but…I was really like, okay, close the doors, everything’s cancelled, I’m not having some sort of fucking Bob Marley medley CD with my presentation. No way.
And?
The guy who did the music was totally cool. He started doing all sorts of smart things, like pressing pause before play, weird kind of things, and it worked! Also on Friday, I had made eight silhouettes, but I had only seven boys I liked, seven boys who physically fit in the clothes. Like, there’s different body types even with models. I tend to design for the husky type of guy. I’m not into this total sssshhhhhrrrp kind of crevette boy, you know? The shrimp. I don’t like that. So we couldn’t find an eighth guy, which was a total nightmare for me, but oh well, we skipped the eighth silhouette. In the end the look was totally cool. It’s hard to make money, though.
You have a studio with assistants and stuff?
People help me, but I do most of the work myself. Like all the prototypes you saw on Friday were physically made by me. Seriously, I make it all myself. Except for the shirts, I have them made by the best shirt-makers in France. There’s not too much research that goes into a shirt; it’s always made with a certain type of pattern and certain kind of thread and a certain type of interior structure. You don’t reinvent the shirt, you know. It may sound, like, really pretentious, but I see myself more like a tailor than a fashion designer. Like a men’s tailor with a shop where you see a nice jacket, but you want it a little bit bigger. You know, like, in the 60s you had boutiques that were super fashionable, super-trendy boutiques like Mr. Fish, where Mick Jagger would get his clothes, and even our girlfriend, what’s her name…that gal who’s in Lord of the Rings…Ian McKellen.
I love her! She was, like, getting her suits made at Mr. Fish in violet pinstripe with a pink shirt, you know. Also, there was this cowboy tailor in America called Nudie who made all Elvis’s outfits.
I love Nudie! He dressed up all my idols like Hank Williams and Gram Parsons in those really hysterical embroidered suits. I went on a pilgrimage to his shop in Hollywood years ago.
Well, honey, of course you love Nudie!
And although you don’t do really obvious cowboy suits, I always somehow see the American vibe in your designs. Like those black pants with all those buttons on the legs.
Buttons? Did I do pants with buttons?
Well, those big silver what-are-they-called studs from hip to ankle on your pants. They’re in your showroom as we speak.
Oh yeah, they’re jeans buttons. You either hammer them in, or, I bought a little machine to put them in. Cost me 70 euros and I thought I could make that effort, for the 300 buttons that go in a pair of pants. You know.
You don’t do the whole production for the shops yourself, I hope?
I did that the first season, last year. That was a nightmare. Eight jackets took me about three weeks to sew. And fashion goes so fucking fast right now; you can’t spend two weeks on a jacket or the season is over… I have to be reasonable with my targets. How ever much I like embroidered 18th-century jackets, nobody’s going to accept that from me. So now I try to make it easier.
That’s why you had those cute, striped rugby shirts and matching wristbands and belts and ties this season. Easy does it.
Yeah, I was totally obsessed with selling
this season.
But I guess we shouldn’t talk too much about making money, right?
No. I don’t have money. I sometimes do a bit of photo styling for magazines to make money. And also for the quick result: you work for two days and boooom! it’s done — unlike a fashion collection. Did you see the black-and-white story I did with Marcus Mam for Crash magazine that just came out? I used a lot of Bernhard Willhelm and Jean Paul Gaultier and Dior Homme clothes. I even used more Dior outfits than I used my own stuff, I think. I was so happy with that story. Everyone hated it, which made me even more happy. They thought it was too gay. Well sorry, I am gay, and if you hate that story, that’s good!
What’s this story of you being married? That was the first thing you told me last year when I met you at your presentation.
Yes, I’m married.
To a woman?
Yes, of course.
Who, where, why, when, what happened?
I was in the metro here in Paris, going back to my house, like, about four years ago, and there was this little girl in the metro reading a book on Joan Crawford. And me being a total New York queen, I’m into Joan Crawford, Greta Garbo, Katharine Hepburn… I never speak to people on the metro; you just don’t do that. But I say, ‘Excuse me, why are you reading a book on Joan Crawford,’ and she says, ‘I’m doing my Masters on Joan Crawford, Garbo, Katharine Hepburn, Marlene Dietrich, Mae West,’ and I say, ‘Wow, they’re my favorite actresses!’ And then we took a beer, and then we actually moved in together, and then we got married. I love Isabelle.
Are you still living together?
No. She left me for another woman.
Oh.
Yeah. That’s the last thing you’d expect when you’re gay, that your wife is gonna leave you for another woman, right? But, whatever.
One thing that struck me about your new collection was the really horrible materials you used. I mean, there’s this tank top and matching shorts made of this thick nylon fabric. It looks sort of bulletproof…
You mean the two-millimeter thick polyester jersey? Yeah, they make really horrible tank tops, but if you want that sweaty effect, what can you do? I just didn’t fancy using cashmere or some other luxury material, you know? To me, sweaty polyester — and the right to be sweaty — is much more luxurious than cashmere wool. Have you ever been to that fabrics fair Premiere Vision? It’s really fucking great, like the size of three football fields. And I always go to every fucking stand, ‘cause I never know what I’m looking for, so I want to see it all. This year I had an assistant who had just had some horrible cyst. She went home bleeding ‘cause her cyst broke open after a day of shopping for fabrics. So at the end of the day, I found this 2mm-thick polyester jersey, and I thought: this is terrible, I want it, and I’m gonna use it!
In the end, do you design your own wardrobe? Or copy your own wardrobe?
Well, yes, in a way it all looks a bit like me. People say my shapes are amazing. It looks good, and everyone feels good when they’re wearing it. Typically, guys, when they try them on, they feel sexier, handsome, strong. It hits them right when they put their hands in their pockets. My garments are very physical. On my wall in my studio I have this article by Charles James called The Shape. It’s been on my wall for ages. He says that before anything else, you see the shape; it’s the most important thing. That was very inspiring to me. I love perfection in clothes. Like, I once ripped off those army pants, and when I actually made them I was amazed, ‘cause the pattern fit exactly in a meter and a half of fabric with almost no waste. That’s what I find amazing. Every detail was there for a reason. You know, as soon as you go for senseless, gratuitous details, it immediately looks kind of cheap. Kind of D&G or whatever.
Interesting. What army were those pants from?
I think they were Nazi Germany’s. Well,
I wasn’t ripping off their ideology, you know what I mean? It was only the logic of that garment that I thought was beautiful.
Do you have a clothes fetish?
Hmm, a clothes fetish? I love short jackets. Those French Revolution short jackets. That’s a major fetish. Not that I personally wear short jackets very often. But if I do, it means I’m ready to party hard.

End