At Lexington Market, Stephen Wise can't help but stand out, dressed in a red and blue plaid vest and matching pants, which he designed, and mismatched loafers, one brown, one green.
But the 37-year-old designer fits right in at his market shop on North Paca Street, where he has begun selling men's apparel and accessories. At Stephen Wise Baltimore, in a block facing one of the main market buildings, mannequins dressed in jackets with bold designs and floral shirts share window space with an old Singer sewing machine. Antique dressers and tables, which will display shirts and neckties, dot a showroom that will double as a tailors' workshop.
"It is an era where men want to dress and look clean and neat," said Wise, who began renovating the vacant storefront last summer.
Wise's shop symbolizes a broader theme at the market: highlighting locally produced foods and goods. And it was a good fit for the North Paca block that has traditionally housed about a half dozen non-food tenants, including a shoe store and a bookstore, said Robert Thomas, executive director of Lexington Market Inc.
What's unique is that "Stephen is a producer," said Thomas, who also serves as executive director of the corporation that runs Lexington and the city's five other public markets. "We find that to be helpful because the nature of the market redevelopment is to find more producers and makers to feature in the market — mostly with food. …They make what they sell or they grow what they sell or do something creative. We can create niches found more in a public market setting than a grocery store — local people producing local stuff."
Wise, who has run stores in the past, has been working with managers of the historic market to transform the space for an official opening later this month. As he bustled around the shop-in-progress on a recent day, showing off a vest with extra pockets, a sewing room under construction and an area where he'll carve out a fitting room, passers-by stopped frequently to peer through the window. The curious stares have occasionally translated into sales of silk bow ties or custom-made suits.
The Baltimore native says he's more of an artist than a merchant. But after nearly two decades in the designing trade, he's convinced there's a growing market for men's apparel that's tailored, unique and fun.
"When you put on one of my suits, you feel good and walk differently," he said. "To me, it's fun and still classically tailored menswear."
Warren Beads was riding his bicycle down Paca Street about a month ago when he spotted Wise's paisley suit in the window.
"I saw the shop, and it looked like an old-school shop," said Beads, 53, of Edmondson Village. "There are not many tailors around. …I saw the suit in the window and I told him, 'Hey, I need to have that suit.' It's that kind of fashion that you just gotta have."
Beside the suit, the first he ever had made to order, Beads also ordered a pair of pants, and "Now I want him to make a green and white pinstripe sport coat [displayed] in the window," said Beads, who used to work at the University of Maryland dental school and now sells clothing and rents properties.
Wise, who recalls now-shuttered city stores where he used to buy fabric or buttons, envisions a day when Baltimore can reclaim some of its history as a garment center. When he heard about the available space at Lexington Market, he saw a way to contribute toward that end, by creating and selling his Stephen Wise Baltimore label (pronounced Stef-fen).
The market also has gotten behind Wise's vision of a garment district resurgence, Thomas said.
"There was production here, and it was an economic driver for the city, so to the extent an operation like Stephen's can start here and plant a seed for others to follow in the same path, it's a good thing for us to be a part of," Thomas said. "I like his vision, and would love to see that happen."
Wise will have an edge, Thomas believes, because "he offers quality at a substantially lower price point than you might have to pay at a custom shop. He honed his craft under local masters of the fabric industry here in Baltimore."
Wise tries to buy all his fabrics and materials in the city and has hired local tailors. He designs and sells suits, shirts, ties, vests, socks and sweaters with prices ranging up to $1,200 for a custom suit. He also offers sewing classes and plans to sell fabric.
Wise just might have tapped a nerve in men's fashion.
"People are looking for that unique edge, something that really sets them apart," said Erika Chloe, founder of MyImageExpert.com, a New York-based image and fashion consulting firm. "Not so much that they look awkward, but enough that they make a lasting impression. Everyone wants to brand themselves, and the way you do that is through clothing and grooming."
Chloe said that despite the mainstream fashion that's highlighted in magazines and on the runways, menswear has begun to imitate women's wear, with fitted suits and customized details, unique fabrics and bold patterns.
Last year, she said, brought "lace inserts in men's shirting … and we'd never seen that."
Wise, who grew up in East Baltimore, always struggled as a small, thin child to find outfits that would fit. He recalls his mother having to pin his clothes, which sparked a desire to design his own. When he was a teenager, he said, his family couldn't afford the trendy sneakers the other kids wore.
But when a friend from his church who ran a formalwear store gave him high-end designer clothing — Versace and Armani and Hugo Boss — "that changed my life … the guy who couldn't afford Nikes. I didn't' want to wear Nikes anymore. I wanted to dress up."
The store owner introduced him to a local designer, who taught him to sew and employed him for several years while in high school. At Howard University, Wise set up a men's store in his dorm room and sewed on the side. His dorm floor manager, who wanted a suit, became his first custom-fitted client. Wise designed the garment, and found a seamstress to produce it.
"I haven't stopped since," he said, adding that he now focuses on design and leaves the sewing to tailors who "make my ideas come to life."
His brand of clothing, which he plans to sell off the rack and customized, serves "a niche market," he said. "What's missing in fashion is the fun. We don't give you boring. It's a really good suit, it just happens to be colorful."