901 Street Style with Mark Sandfoss

901 Street Style

Mark Sandfoss

By Cyrena Wages
Photography by McKendree Walker

Hand-sewn mirror in diamond shapes slither around the suit, inspired by the diamondback rattlesnake.

       Someone told me once that trying to keep a creative person from free self-expression is like trying to hold a beach ball under water. That’s one of the many lovely anecdotes that come to mind when I think of Mark Sandfoss.

Born and raised in Kentucky, Sandfoss received a BS in Wildlife Biology from Murray State University, a MS in Wildlife Sciences from North Carolina State University, and a PhD in Zoology from the University of Florida. Having spent years in NYC, Colombia, and Argentina, he now resides in Memphis where he is currently a postdoctoral research fellow in the conservation and research department of the Memphis Zoo.

He is objectively accomplished as an intellectual and researcher, but what brings us to this feature today is his wild and unmatchable propensity for fashion and design. I’ve gone out on the town and watched him dazzle crowds of strangers; a conversation starter, thought provoker, a photo opportunity, a  rockstar. If only we all allowed our insides to be so authentically displayed in our exteriors, what a colorful world it might be. Let’s dig in.

Tell me your origin story.
I grew up in the suburbs of Cincinnati in Fort Thomas, Kentucky. I had a wonderful childhood of running around the neighborhood and playing sports. I have a younger brother and two older sisters.

Has your hometown and your travels had a significant impact on you?
Definitely. As someone who grew up in an environment without a lot of exposure to art in Kentucky, I did not feel qualified to create “art”. However, once I traveled more and was exposed to a fashion capital like NYC, I noticed that people were people everywhere, and no one is more or less qualified to dress themselves than anyone else. South America was inspiring because of all the colors and fabrics and an observable shift in cultural values. Colombia helped to break my ideas of cultural norms and what should and should not be done. Also, as a North American I already stuck out, and this gave me freedom to dress as I pleased since there was no hiding anyway.

What first sparked your interest in fashion?
Initially, popular culture. For example, Michael Jordan had his own shoes and James Bond always wore a tuxedo. I also saw the “power” of clothing when I was forced to dress a certain way at Catholic elementary school. Similarly, once I got to middle and high school, I noticed a social hierarchy existed.  And the “cool” kids wore what was considered the “cool” clothing. Suddenly, the quality of the clothes was based on the quality of the person wearing them more than the quality of the clothing itself. I often experimented with clothes I found appealing, but it was difficult to buy and wear the clothes I wanted because of social pressures. However, I never stopped trying. For example, I bleach dyed my own hair when Eminem showed up and once shaved my head for a soccer tournament as a middle schooler. Also, I wore huge JNCO jeans as a roller-blader teen and had a mean bowl cut! I didn’t start making things until later in life when I realized:
1) I had a strong sense of aesthetic that was OK to pursue, and 2) I could not afford a lot of the high fashion clothing that I liked, but maybe I could make something similar? That may seem like a radical thought to some but felt very natural to me.

Is there an overlap between your profession and your creative inclination?
I don’t think scientists get enough credit for their creativity. To be a scientist requires the creation of an original research question that no one has ever asked before, and then create a way to test those questions in a scientifically rigorous manner. Experiments often have problems that require interesting solutions to challenging problems. This is a very creative process in my opinion.

Where do you draw current style inspiration?

Inspired by his dissertation defense, Mark’s hand-painted suit
tells the story of two snake populations fighting for survival.
Gator shoes were also created by Mark.

These days I primarily get inspired by artists that I appreciate (painters and graffiti artists). However, now that I have become more confident as a creative person, I feel more comfortable pursuing my own ideas. I get inspiration from any and all things – movement, nature, politics, random thoughts, etc…I also try to highlight fashion designs originating from non-US cultures. There is a rich human history of patterns and fabrics, garment design, and associated gender norms that rarely get communicated to a wide enough audience.

What are you wanting to communicate most to people through how you clothe yourself ?
I think the biggest message is that life is short and will be as meaningful as we make it. We should do all things with intention including how we dress. I want to see more people have fun and be expressive with their outfits. Two troublesome things I hear often from others are: 1) “I could never pull that off” – which is false because no one but your own fear is stopping you from being more expressive, and 2) “what’s the occasion for your outfit?” – life is precious, and I reject the idea that there should be a special occasion to give me a reason to dress in a way that makes me feel special. I think others should do the same.

Favorite record of all time?
This is an insane question. With no real answer. Growing up in the 90s, music was less accessible as it is today. I had relatively few CD’s and MTV had just started, so I listened to a limited amount of music over and over again. Nirvana’s album “Nevermind” was the anthem for 90s youth that felt powerless and invisible. And the Outkast record “Stankonia” made me feel the way I wanted to feel. That record made me cool. I mean “So fresh, so clean,” that’s the dream!! Both records hold up today.

901 Street Style with Mark Sandfoss