He never needed a pattern or a tape measure. Reginald Thomas would estimate the measurements with just a look.
Then, he’d sort through the couture database in his brain, which he began packing with fashion knowledge when he started making dresses at 10. Trained at the School of the Art Institute, he knew the romantic flourish of Yves Saint Laurent, the elegance of Chanel, the subversive naughtiness of Jean Paul Gaultier, the architectural structure of Issey Miyake.
He’d figure out the color, fabric and silhouette that best flattered a client. Then, he’d whip up a dress — sometimes in an astonishing 30 minutes.
The designs he generated are going to be wearable for decades, fans and customers say.
“I have a black, jersey gown that’s still great,” said Linda Johnson Rice, chief executive officer of Ebony Media.
“His clothes are always very flattering to the body,” said publicist Dori Wilson, a friend. “He had the uncanny ability to conceive and cut garments without a pattern — an amazing feat!”
“If it wasn’t fabulous,” said designer Jermikko Shoshanna, “it wasn’t Reginald.”
Mr. Thomas, who designed for some of Chicago’s best-dressed women and also supplied them with one-of-a-kind purses and scarves he hunted at flea markets and resale shops, was found dead at his West Loop home on June 25. His death, at 61, was caused by cardiovascular issues, according to the Cook County medical examiner’s office.
“He was always full of compliments, including for himself,” said Desiree Rogers, the former Obama White House social secretary who is now the chairwoman of Choose Chicago, the city’s tourism agency. “He might say, ‘Girl you look good — and so do I!’ ”
Mr. Thomas also designed stunning jewelry and made artwork.
“He had an incredible eye,” said Wilson. “He could go to rummage sales and come back with Hermes bags and scarves, Chanel.”
In addition to his relatives and clients, his female cockatoo Charlie also “is very sad,” according to Wilson.
When Mr. Thomas was designing, Charlie would be with him in the studio, squawking “Reggie!” from atop her cage and bouncing to the music he played for her.
He started life in Lake Wales, Florida. By 10, he’d lost both his parents. His sister Nadine Williams said she brought him to Chicago and raised him. He went to South Shore High School, where he designed prom dresses for his classmates.
He said some didn’t believe he could make a career in fashion — until Eunice W. Johnson predicted he was going to be a success. She was the wife of then-Ebony publisher John H. Johnson and founder of the Ebony Fashion Fair, the traveling runway extravaganza. Some of Mr. Thomas’ designs were featured in her show.
He also admired the style of his friend Joan Johnson of the Afro Sheen empire.
Young Reginald started his business around 1980 with a $39 investment, according to a 1986 Chicago Sun-Times interview. Within five years, he was shipping $250,000 in products. At various times, he had bricks-and-mortar stores. His last one was at 53rd and Cornell in Hyde Park, according to hairstylist and friend Leigh Jones.
Mr. Thomas sold his designs to Carson’s Corporate Level and avant-garde retailer Fiorucci. By 24, “His clothes were all over the United States,” sold under the label Reginald Designs, according to his sister.
He developed a reputation for easy-fitting clothes that flattered women from petite to plus-size.
Mr. Thomas was a generous mentor to other designers, including Barbara Bates. Starting out, she wasn’t sure where to go for equipment. After one call to him, “He acted like we were high school buddies. He took me to buy my machines, my cutting tables.”
In 30 minutes, he created a winning wedding gown for a relative of Jones who’d grown frustrated with the search for a perfect dress. “He went in his workroom, and, after about a half hour, he made a dress and handed it to her,” Jones said. “She was jumping up and down she was so excited.”
The designer was a fan of DJ Frankie Knuckles and of house music. And he enjoyed both expensive restaurants and homemade greens and ham hocks.
Though a devotee of haute couture, he told the Chicago Reader in a 1993 interview, “Everybody always needs clothes. But no matter how you look at it — it’s just a pair of jeans and cowboy boots.”
In addition to Nadine Williams, Mr. Thomas is survived by his other sisters May Catherine Thomas and Joanne Wilcox and many cousins, nieces, nephews, grand-nieces and grand-nephews. A private family gathering is planned, and his Chicago friends are discussing a celebration of his life at some point.
“I think Reginald found the beauty in everyone,” said Rogers.