SEX APPEAL AND STAR POWER

Byline: Teena Hammond

LOS ANGELES — The off-white and gray interior of the Tom Mark boutique is an austere backdrop to drop-dead sexy clothes worn by the likes of Drew Barrymore, Jennifer Lopez, Tori Spelling and plenty of other hot, young starlets who frequent the store.
The boutique, on ultra-hip Beverly Boulevard, sells the Mark Wong Nark label by local designer Tom Mark. The shop itself is practically a celebrity hangout, with famous faces popping in daily for a Mark Wong Nark fix. Halle Berry is a regular, and on her most recent visit, she bought the $800 chevron-pattern knit dress that has become something of a Mark Wong Nark trademark. The clingy dress has spaghetti shoulder straps and is one of his bestsellers.
Also popular is a pair of boot-leg pants at $162, which Rachel Hunter bought recently as part of a shopping spree at the boutique that included four pairs of pants, several blouses and a short, leopard-print dress. Heather Locklear is another boot-leg fan, along with Yasmine Bleeth and Courteney Cox.
And Renee Zelwegger got plenty of attention at the AIDS Project Los Angeles gala in June in a baby-blue Mark Wong Nark dress she snagged off the rack just hours before the event.
Tom Mark, a native of Thailand, is softspoken and friendly, but definitely not modest. Not that he needs to be. His designs wow those who wear them and see them, and he knows it.
“I believe in myself, and I’m very good at what I’m doing,” he said. “I create the clothes in my line, and they’re totally for beauty, for confidence. The clothes come from my soul.”
One of the things he loves most is when someone tries on a custom-designed outfit for the first time.
“They try it on, and from the dressing room, I hear the screams so loud, you’d think there’s a cockroach in there,” Mark said.
Gabrielle Zuccaro, the boutique’s manager and cheerleader for anyone who tries on the designs, said she tries to keep Mark out of the store because “When he’s here, I can’t make any money — he gives everything away.”
Sure enough, during one of his infrequent visits to the store, Mark was overheard offering a discount to Garrett Wong, an actor from “Star Trek,” who was about to buy a form-fitting, burgundy knit dress for his girlfriend.
“Why did you do that?” Zuccaro said, gently admonishing Mark as soon as they were out of earshot. Mark just smiled and shrugged.
His creations are his passion and his obsession.
“I have a silhouette in my head all the time of a woman. My fascination is women’s bodies and how to cover those bodies,” Mark said.
Another important aspect of Mark’s life is his dedication to helping out those less fortunate. He donates time and money to help the homeless, he said. His two sons, Jay Ortega and Gilbert Mark, were never formally adopted but he began raising them in their preteen years in order to give their lives some stability. Now, Ortega, 21, is the chief executive of the Tom Mark boutique, and Gilbert Mark, 19, is just entering Mark’s alma mater, the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising here.
Mark credits the institute for all of his success.
“I didn’t know anything about clothes. They taught me everything I know,” he said.
He was among the first graduates of the school, in 1984. He began selling his clothes wholesale in 1988, and the line is now available in Nordstrom and boutiques including Traffic here and Oasis in New York. The Mark Wong Nark label is expected to gross $1 million this year, Mark said.
Tidbits of Mark’s background are revealed in his label, Mark Wong Nark — which is his birth name and means “the family of dragons” — and also in the store’s design. The store, which opened in May 1995, was designed by Chu & Gooding Architects and is based on Mark’s philosophy — it’s simple and streamlined, but has lots of detail. Semi-translucent, off-white Fiberglas sheeting that resembles linen flows from the back wall of the store to the ceiling in the middle of the store.
“This is a river to me,” Mark said of the illusion created by the Fiberglas design. “River means ‘prosperity’ in Chinese.”
Despite the limited size range — everything is either extra-small, small, medium or large, and large is actually just a size 8 — women with less-than-perfect bodies also shop at the store. “There’s a Mark Wong Nark for everyone. If you come here, you want to show your best asset. I can do that. I can hide things, too. I know women’s bodies better than they do.”
As sexy as the clothes are, Mark tries to make sure that the woman wearing his designs is flattered by the clothes, not overwhelmed.
“My clothes don’t speak louder than the customer,” he said. “As I always say, I’m not a designer, I’m a public servant.”