On hangers, the dresses Mark Heister designs don’t look the way they’re supposed to. The spiraled seams, the twists of fabric, the flared hems, and the draped bodices hang loose and slouchy on the racks. To get the full effect, you have to see them on a woman’s body.

You can usually find Heister’s clothes at Bonwit Wier, I. Magnin, Neiman Marcus, and some Oak Street boutiques. For the next few months, you can also find them at the Chicago Historical Society.

Showing modern clothes isn’t unheard of at the Historical Society, says Elizabeth Jachimowicz, the costume curator there; over the years, it has shown the work of at least four or five contemporary designers who have been considered important enough to point out.

But recently the museum’s curators have decided to step up coverage of local contemporary work. “Chicago Designs: Mark Heister” is the first in a series of exhibits dealing specifically with Chicago design: other media will include metal, glass, and furniture. The reason she chose Heister, Jachimowicz says, is that he is something of a Chicago classic.

“He understands cut,” she says. “He understands what fabric does on the female body. He doesnt use flowers and frills to cover up what’s underneath. His designs stand on their own.”

The secret to his success, Heister says, is his lack of formal training. Heister started sewing when he was seven, but he chose graphic design as his course of study. For about 20 years, he worked mainly in package and product design, “I did a lot of work with folding cartons,” he says.

His tendency to view things three-dimensionally–“it’s similar to origami, that way of thinking,” he says–carried over into the clothing business. “No one taught me what I couldn’t do, so I was able to discover little things that were completely unorthodox that worked–ways of cutting, ways of manufacturing,” he says. “My seams are not in expected places.”

He also works on the bias, which is very difficult. A fabric’s bias is its diagonal; because it runs along the angle between the lengthwise and crosswise grains, the stitched edge becomes stretchable and harder to manage. But bias-cut garments have a drape and a swing unmatched by clothes cut along the grain.

When Heister started designing clothes in the early 70s, there was no Chicago fashion community; only one well-known designer based her operations here. “I just started making dresses,” Heister says. “I put together a little collection, took it around to stores, tried to get appointments.”

He kept his package-design business while he made clothes for a few private clients. In 1975 he won a design contest sponsored by a local apparel manufacturer, and in 1981 he closed his package business and opened a showroom in the Apparel Center.

In 1985 Heister won the Gold Coast Fashion Award. But his name still remains widely unknown, even in Chicago. That doesnt seem to bother him, though; he’s more interested in next season’s line. He may branch out into other areas of design, too, he says, like furniture, ceramics, or China.

Heister has lived in Chicago for about 25 years now, and he has no intention of moving. “I think more American-looking clothes come out of Chicago than anywhere eise in the country,” he says. “Not New York, which is preoccupied with trends, or California, which is sort of lazy and a little too casual.” Chicago’s style isn’t conservative, he says, “just stable and fairly sophisticated. [The women here] don’t want to advertise some designer’s dress; they want to show their own best features. It’s pretty simple.”

“Chicago Designs: Mark Heister” runs through July 16. The Historical Society, at the corner of Clark Street and North Avenue, is open 9:30 to 4:30 Monday through Saturday and noon to 5 Sunday. Admission is $1.50, 50 cents for children and seniors. Details at 642-4600.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.