Art And Fashion With New York-Based Midwest Native Designer Todd Thomas
There are pieces of artist and designer Todd Thomas’ life in fashion, which has spanned nearly 30 years, that really are what the imagination conjures: dressing an incurably beautiful model in a bra for the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show, with hundreds of Swarovski crystals hand-sewn into its highly intentional padding in the right places, as she sells it in her delicate lilt with a mention of its capability to boost a woman two cup sizes. There’s boning, lining, padding, youth, whimsy, fantasy, luxury and the sparkle of an effervescent life. Things like that. For ten years, Thomas designed pieces for the show, and has also crafted ensembles for artists like Katy Perry, Nicki Minaj and Debbie Harry.
But Thomas still remembers his days lugging collections up Seventh Avenue in New York City—where he now lives—which was required if anyone were to see his creations. Originally born in the small Midwestern town of Murphysboro, Illinois, with a population of roughly 8,000, he now splits his time working between St. Louis and New York City. Thomas was also formerly a special guest judge for St. Louis Fashion Week, and coming home he now works on market and production development for Barrett Barrera Projects, a self-described artist and exhibition agency working between arts, culture, fashion and nontraditional media, where you may catch him in a curated suit with thick-rimmed glasses and sleek hair.
He was introduced to Barrett Barrera Projects by longtime friend Susan Barrett, where his skills are utilized for the development of new markets and production, in addition to project management and strategy. A new project to come out of the collaboration is a St. Louis-based residency program for artists, with an inaugural class of two that are both bizarre and extraordinary: Paul Soileau, better known as his alter ego, CHRISTEENE, and PJ Raval, Soileau’s longtime film and video partner, integral to the creation of CHRISTEENE.
Tell me about your experience working with Barrett Barrera Projects.
I began working with Barrett Barrera Projects last year. Susan Barrett is the founder of the company and is the visionary behind the roster of artists and projects presented. She has very expansive, lateral ideas about how to represent art, what art is and how cultural worlds are changing, colliding and relating to each other in more fluid ways than ever before. Barrett Barrera Projects is an agency that represents artists, builds critical mass around new understandings of art and consults on multiple levels, from development of talent to exhibition touring. The company represents a diverse mix of artists working in nontraditional media, including fashion, science and performance, and presents exhibitions that are equally nonconforming to a singular understandings.
How did you get involved?
I came into the fold through Susan, who’s a longtime friend. We were talking about another unrelated project, and I wasn’t working in conjunction with her at the time. My background is fashion, and that’s been my history, and I’ve broached pop and performance—from the commercial to the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show to smaller artists and small shows in Bushwick.
In speaking with Susan and her team, I realized that my own work could expand that currently being done at Barrett Barrera Projects. I’d begun to work in a way that curated mixtures of fashion and performance, different aspects of the field that I’ve encountered through the many years of my own career. That’s where we came together. My first big project with Barrett Barrera was with the artist Charlie Le Mindu, an artist represented by the company since 2015. I worked on the presentation of Le Mindu’s performance work, CHARLIEWOOD, in New York and at Art Basel in Miami last fall. It was the first major foray for the artist and company into these markets, and helped springboard what Susan and her team are creating, with new understandings of nontraditional cultural experiences.
How do you support artists who are considered less commercial?
It’s clear that there is a very commercial aspect to the art world. It is definitely outside the box to look at these things that aren’t specifically product-based, figure out how to frame them and what they mean to an operation or the bigger picture.
What we’ve found, specifically with the residency, is that actually there are a lot of people who are on board with this idea and these artists in St. Louis. I live in New York City, but I come to St. Louis frequently for work. The resources are here. Making it sustainable is somewhat complicated. But there’s a community in St. Louis that really appreciates these things—the gay/queen community, African American community, the art and music community—people who are on parallel paths that don’t necessarily always intersect. From a non-commerce standpoint, the bigger picture is that mutual experience artists go through.
There are endless reasons why supporting artists is vital—but that doesn’t mean it’s easy. How have you all pulled off this residency?
To do these things like residencies goes back to community building, and from a Barrett Barrera standpoint, it’s really about exposure. What you garner from these residencies and outside-of-the-box situations are a deeper understanding of others. You create something that’s intimate and expansive in building a web of these smaller ways of connecting. That’s what’s happening in the ways people transmit these communications, specifically with artists like Paul Soileau (CHRISTEENE) and PJ Raval, who have these guerilla tactics of communicating their work. Paul has gone from doing tiny shows in Austin with his persona known as CHRISTEENE, to Rick Owens backing and producing the work and music videos. The strategy of those approaches is really hard to describe, but it’s also really effective. There’s something next-level to it. Things are collapsing. It’s definitely time for some different modes of communication within many cultural worlds, and I think people are really feeling that right now, especially in the art world.
How did your path cross with CHRISTEENE and PJ Raval?
I came to know CHRISTEENE (Paul) through Justin Vivian, a trans-genre artist, activist, cabaret star, Tony Award nominee and book writer. These people have really forged a trail of their own in a very difficult terrain. And Paul was brought on at Art Basel in Miami, Susan met him. It was a matter of people really falling in love with Paul and seeing an opportunity to work with an artist who was doing something very much like what we’re doing, which is hard to put in a specific category. It was a match in that way.
PJ is Paul’s longtime collaborator, and a vital piece in creating CHRISTEENE. PJ has work and an approach that straddles art and commerce. There’s something deeper to explore, to figure out what category that’s in. So, the artists came to us through an organic process. It really couldn’t have worked out better. With Paul and PJ as our inaugural class, it gives us an opportunity to introduce another layer to the work that Barrett Barrera is doing in the realm of queer art and alternative gender art, which gives us space to create a dialogue around that. We bring that community into the fold as well.
Personally, what has this process looked like for you?
It’s been interesting for me. St. Louis is essentially my hometown. I was born in Murphysboro, Illinois, but I moved to St. Louis and began to really realize my work. That’s where I made connections and identified that fashion was something I’d wanted to do, vis-à-vis music. There was a burgeoning post-punk scene in St. Louis at the time. I developed my support system there early in my career working on things, and I’m familiar with the resources there.
It’s been amazing to see. For PJ and Paul, we’re putting them up in an incredible warehouse, a former pharmaceutical company on the Mississippi River, with fantastic visual resources. Their studio space will be at the historic Lemp Brewery. Those kinds of things make me look around and think, “This is fascinating.” There are so many great things to take advantage of in St. Louis, and connecting with the community that’s there. I spent about a week meeting with leaders of the LGBTQIA community here, the Metro Trans Group, artists, performers and more. There was a genuine interest, and I was amazed at the quantity and the quality of the work, energy and creativity.
What’s your personal story and journey in the world of fashion?
My interest in fashion has always been on a cultural level, and the personal/political imaging behind fashion. For me, it’s never been just making something pretty. It’s been more full and complex, and I really began realizing that when I moved to New York. I’ve done my own collections, I worked on the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show for 10 years, and then developed pieces for people like Nicki Minaj and Katy Perry. Art has always been a feature of everything I do. The majority of my friends are artists and performers, and it’s a world I’ve been ensconced in.
Susan and I have known each other for 30 years now. Her keen appreciation for and promotion of fashion was where we bonded. But she’s also more than art, and I’m more than fashion. The people who work with Susan are all outside-the-box thinkers, and if not, she’ll make you into one quickly.
I’ve always felt like my work has always been harder to define than just fashion, pop, transgressive, or whatever the reaction has been. With her, it’s similar. She’s been a designer, an architect, an art buyer and collector. It’s really having a particular passion and desire to really see and identify all of these opportunities within cultural milieus, and make some intersections between some of those parallel paths. I think that’s the difference between doing general, predictable methods.
What has it been like to work with brand giants like Victoria’s Secret, and these higher-profile celebrities?
For celebrities, it’s been about making specific wardrobes or costumes for events, performances and tours, which really at the end of the day boils down to brand identity. Fashion is essentially branding on a very individual, intimate level. We’re all branding ourselves by how we display ourselves. It’s design-based, but it’s also been development-based. Your Instagram is a brand.
The world is so different from a million years ago when I had to schlep up and down Seventh Avenue in New York for someone to see my collection. In the fashion, art and music industries, it’s all different. What’s important is what you make and how you transmit it. This residency is really highlighting that fact.