Fashion Profile: Thomas Engel Hart

Armed with a snarl and a swagger
Fashion Profile: Thomas Engel Hart

A sinewy, leather clad punk slouches against the wall of an LA street armed with a snarl and a swagger, that’s Thomas Engel Hart.

Carving a name for himself in New York, the US designer now mainly resides in the capital of couture, Paris, where he has launch his own self-titled label. Not new to international acclaim, he did a three-year stint as Creative Director for established fashion house Thierry Mugler Homme on his rise to the top. Spurred on by his increasing need for greater creative freedom, he made the bold move to quit the prestigious post and go it alone. Now in its third season, his menswear collection is stronger than ever.

Engel Hart’s Spring Summer collection was fittingly called ‘LA Punx’, presented a dazzling array of cropped jackets, deconstructed vests, skinny jeans and shirts, all embellished with safety pins, rips and skulls, a nod to the designer’s first love: punk.

“I’m obviously completely fascinated by anything that happened in the 1970s; this encompasses punk but I’m also a big glam fan too,” he says, speaking on his musical influences.

“There’s no question that punk is my favourite thing but I also love glam rock, T Rex, Roxy Music and in particular the way Eno looked.”

And as further testament to this, the rebellious designer also took it upon himself to transform a tranquil Parisian street into a microcosm of 70’s LA, for a raucous and unconventional fashion show for the collection.

His collection for next summer, which he previewed in Berlin in January, had a more grown up fashion sensibility, though there was still a nod to his past influences with tough looking skinhead models and polo necks t-shirts.

Born in New York, Engel Hart moved to South Carolina when he was six, but the pull of the Big Apple was too strong and he hurried back there in his early 20s.

“You grow up thinking you’re the biggest freak and then you go to New York and you realise that there are loads of other freaks,” says Engel Hart.

Fascinated by infamous choreographer Michael Clark and drag culture, he was a regular on the city’s gay scene, partying with the likes of Antony and the Jonsons’ enigmatic frontman Antony Hegarty.

“Antony was doing performances at The Pyramid Club which I was immediately drawn to and then our friendship just developed from there,” he recalls.

Femininity, masculinity, androgyny, dandyism; the fashion psyche is often preoccupied with questions of gender. And Thomas Engel Hart can talk for hours about this; his overtly macho aesthetic seems to contradict his persona and interests.

“If you had seen pictures of me when I was younger you wouldn’t think that I’d make the kind of clothes I’m making now: who knew that a Leigh Bowery fan could make that kind of shirt!”

So while the theatrical New Yorker has always tended more towards the subversive, he admits that his designs still conform to traditional ideas of gender.

“Antony’s got this whole gender thing going on and I certainly approach fashion in a different way; I work within the confines of gender convention and I guess I just know what’s going to work.”

That’s not to say that Engel Hart’s work is in any way mediocre. “I still really want to make something that has an amazing energy though and the clothing I make is definitely for somebody who is an out and proud show-off.”

Although he was always interested in clothes, Engel Hart never intended become a fashion designer per se, but instead unwittingly fell into it all, after years of perusing flea markets for off-kilter gems and Victorian antiques. It was only after enrolling on a pattern cutting course at night school that he began to make garments for other people, before finally setting up his own company in 2001.

Engel Hart fled New York in the nineties and sought solace in the chic Rues Parisiennes: “I had to get out; it was about to turn in on itself. I didn’t want to be forty and fabulous and still going to night clubs in New York.”

Despite relocating to Paris, Engel Hart’s New York upbringing still heavily resonates throughout his work; his current collection for Autumn Winter 2010 is a visual homage to his time spent in the city and was inspired by punk troupe and close confidantes, The Stiffs.

The creative temperament of the French capital has favoured him well and made his designs more refined, considered, luxury and definitely more desirable.

“There’s just something very beautiful about the place and it makes your clothing or whatever you do here very sophisticated because of that,” he says. “But that’s not to say you’re going to turn a monkey into Yves Saint Laurent by moving him to Paris of course!”

With his feet now fixed firmly in Paris, but his heartstrings steadfastly tied to New York, Engel Hart offers a unique cross-continent cultured approach to fashion and as such, is fast becoming one of the most reputable and exciting names in menswear today.

Words by April Welsh

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