In 1992, Kingston University Fashion Design graduate Piers Thomas landed an internship at Patagonia after walking into its Ventura flagship store and asking for an interview. A keen sailor (he was one of the UK’s youngest qualified instructors), Thomas had been making clothes, bags and kites since teaching himself to sew on his mum’s machine while still at school.
“I knew that I wanted to design technical sportswear. I was interested in how things are put together rather than aesthetics, and California is the mecca for that industry,” he explains. “Patagonia was my first choice of employer, for three reasons. It designs products by evolution, by constantly improving a garment. It doesn’t persuade you to throw last season’s stuff away to buy something new. Second, it is committed to being environmentally responsible. And third, it has a great mix of products [from luggage, to jeans, footwear, weather-proof clothing and surfboards], so I get to work in different areas of design.” Having proved his versatility during the internship, Thomas took up a permanent position as “designer at large” in 1994, and recalls that for a long time he was the only fashion-design graduate at Patagonia.
Thomas’ background in water sports has afforded him first-hand knowledge of how water-based technical garments (sailing, fishing and surfing) should perform. He designs with the most up-to-date waterproof, breathable and quick-drying fabrics, but insists that to make a workable garment which sports-people will accept requires a mix “of pure technology and emotion. You have to speak the language of that sports-culture, know what level of comfort is expected, what the visual and emotional values are. I call it ‘techmotional’!”
The small city of Ventura, about an hour’s drive north of LA, may be a “backwater of life”, but it affords Thomas the opportunity to immerse himself in a range of sports – he lives on a sailboat and surfs at lunch-time – and have what he describes as a “real” job.
Putting his technical mind-set to more mainstream sportswear design, Thomas also invented and patented Patagonia’s “safe pocket”, which stops loose change from falling out of your trouser pocket when you sit down.