If you can make it from Fort Wayne, you can make it anywhere. Or, to put it another way, you can make it anywhere — from anywhere — in the fashion industry these days. At least that's the case Marlene Thomas is making. She's launched Marlene Haute Couture from Fort Wayne, with only a web presence. The biggest mistake she thinks a beginning designer can make, after all, is opening a shopfront right away — or moving to the coasts and pumping money into fashion weeks.
“It doesn't matter where you live — if you brand and your name becomes famous, you don't need to be there; only your PR and connections need to be in New York,” she says. “I'll do my avant-garde here — and it's nothing to jump on a jet for New York and do Fashion Week.”
Not that Thomas hasn't known the pride of ownership of a boutique. A South Africa native, she had her own shop in the port town of Richards Bay from 1983 to 1998. And she was successful there — her clients were voted best dressed women; she designed costumes for a Kentucky Derby-like horse race, Rothmans July; her small business was respected within the business community in a town filled with chain stores.
But personal issues interceded; she was making bridal gowns while going through a divorce, an irony not lost on her. She moved to the U.S. and abandoned design altogether for a time; her friends in Fort Wayne knew about her past career, but she didn't talk about it with any passion.
That is, until last year, when Fort Wayne designer Anton Babich asked her to participate in a runway show. She said yes, but on the condition that she only design two dresses, one of them being the showstopper. People said of that dress, according to Thomas, “Oh, my God; this is Versace!”
“It was awesome!” Thomas says. “I just knew it.” It being that she was ready to get back in the game. She debuted her first U.S. collection at Fall 2011's Midwest Fashion Week. Since then, she's been working to establish her name. Her legal team tells her, according to Thomas, that they've never seen anyone brand a business as quickly as she has. She's taken up invitations to fashion weeks in New York City, Dayton, Ohio and, of course, Indianapolis — and she's turned down pitches to participate in other weeks for financial reasons.
One more thing might be said about Thomas's betwixt and between situation in Fort Wayne: She's not really aiming her work towards a hometown audience, largely because they aren't likely to spend the four figure prices it typically fetches. Her market is L.A. and New York, areas that will pay for the high-end fabrics and materials she uses.
Thomas describes her work as feminine and romantic, shaped by soft, flowing lines. It's consistent with what she likes to wear: soft clothing, “the textures of voile, chiffon, organza against my skin.” Her avant-garde work shows clients what she can do: detail work, hand-beading, her attention to the person from head to toe. Her more mainstream work still uses plenty of fabric: Midwest Fashion Week founder Berny Martin describes Martin as “pushing the edge, with haute couture appeal.”
It all comes together in a largely improvised process. Thomas starts with a sketch, but that's sometimes abandoned when she encounters the fabric. Ideas come from nature, furniture, jewelry, some kind of scene — say, that of a fire, which would lead her to design a piece which includes all the colors of fire. Even dreams provide inspiration; she may wake up in the middle of the night with an idea for a dress.
Thomas is at the beginning of her journey with Marlene Haute Couture: The company launched in October with her Midwest Fashion Week debut, and she's currently looking for venture capital (she's relying entirely on her savings right now) and developing her business plan and lookbook. But things are rolling, and Thomas is in negotiations to move into production on a line of day wear and evening wear.
As the branding process goes forward, Thomas is fine with the attention being on her brand and work — and not Marlene Thomas herself. “I'm always behind the scenes,” she says. “I'm one of those quiet designers, hiding from the limelight.”