updated 03/03/1997 AT 01:00 AM EST
•originally published 03/03/1997 AT 01:00 AM EST
These days, Mark can rest easy in the knowledge that he's hotter than Oprah's latest book recommendation. Under the label Mark Wong Nark (his birth name), the Thai-born designer has built a small but successful company and a reputation for clothes that present skin without sleaze. "Tom's clothes are young yet sophisticated," says Bleeth, whose closet is crammed with Mark's boot-cut leggings and spaghetti-strap gowns. "They're feminine without the frou-frou." But his designs—from $130 stretch skirts to $1,500 slinky, beaded gowns—admittedly aren't for everyone. "I'd rather have my own little world and fit women I can please," says Mark. "My clothes don't fit the masses."
That, of course, isn't a problem for stars like Jerry Maguire's Renée Zellweger and country singer Faith Hill who flock to his Beverly Boulevard boutique (his line is also sold at Nordstrom). "I love Tom's clothes because he understands what a woman's body is truly like," says Barrymore. "He makes you feel and look capital." (Translation: way cool.)
Mark's upbringing in the Thai village of Lampang was hardly high-glam. Impoverished, his family—including mother Orpin, father Visoot (a lumberjack who died in 1978) and three older siblings—shared a small, dirt-floored hut. "I got laughed at because I went to school in bare feet," he says. A bright spot was his mother's work: sewing embroidered dresses for the town's well-to-do wives. "I would run home to see what she had made," says Mark, whose mother (now retired and living in Bangkok) also taught him diplomacy. "She said, 'Never tell a customer a dress doesn't fit because her hips are too big.' "
But it wasn't until his parents scraped up the money to send him to a Catholic boarding school that Mark, 14, saw life outside Lampang. "I had to learn to use a fork and knife," he says. Graduating from Thailand's Chiang Mai University in 1974, he joined his sister Timmi, a nurse, in Adelaide, Australia. There he studied hotel management and briefly wed a hairdresser ("We were too young," he says).
Still uncertain of what he wanted to do, in 1984 he joined his brother John, a clothing manufacturer, in L.A. Six months later he found his calling at a dance club. After he'd criticized a woman's clothes to his brother, John challenged him to do better. Mark enrolled at L.A.'s Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising and began making knit dresses. Four years later he was selling $100,000 worth of his line to boutiques. But in 1990, poor orders due to a recession forced him to shut down and give up his three-bedroom Hollywood home. "I just went down," he says. "I was a broken person."
Though investors helped relaunch his line in 1995, and the company, which employs 30 people, grossed $500,000 in 1996, Mark lives frugally. One reason is that since 1986 he has helped raise Jay Ortega, 21, and Gilbert Moreno, 18, whose mother, now a security guard, was struggling to support them (the half brothers met Mark through his friend, their uncle). While Mark has no car and lives in a small L.A. loft with Jay, he put both kids through private school and has given them jobs in his company Says Jay: "Tom is my savior."
Currently single, Mark makes little time for himself. "I dragged Tom to Disneyland, and he brought his sketch book," groans Jay. But Mark says he's content to help people dress for the Hollywood scene—and not be a part of it. "I've been up, I've been down," he says, smiling. "I need very little to be happy." Luckily, L.A.'s hot young stars have more material desires.
STEVEN COJOCARU in Los Angeles