Anthony Mayes was nearing age 50 when he got the first suit he ever owned, a dark gray Armani, and it seemed life, at last, would be better.
He'd just been released from his latest time behind bars, making it about 22 years of his life total, for an array of charges including drugs and armed robbery. He said he's determined to make his most recent six-month stint his last, and sees the clothes — suit, shirt, tie, dress shoes — as part of that effort.
"They make me feel important, like I can succeed," said Mayes, 49, who believes he's been given "an opportunity to redeem myself."
Mayes is among some 400 men who have stepped out of prison and into a donated suit over the last couple years thanks to a program run jointly by the Baltimore-based nonprofit Living Classrooms Foundation and a rock 'n' roll drummer turned clothing designer, Christopher Schafer.
"I love it," said Schafer, who owns Christopher Schafer Clothier, a custom clothing shop in Fells Point. "You see these guys get suited up. They look great. It gives them a boost of confidence. They're happy."
The Sharp Dressed Man program has been running since 2012 under the auspices of Schafer's nonprofit, Baltimore Fashion Alliance. A few years ago Schafer met Howard Wicker, Living Classrooms' director of services for people released from prison, and told him about his own efforts in recycling dress clothes that are used, but not worn out, and still stylish.
"I told him, 'If you ever need clothes, let me know,'" said Schafer, who played drums with several bands, including the defunct version of Groovement, and To the Moon. "The conversation kind of started from there."
Sharp Dressed Man's center of operations is a spot on the west side of Baltiore now known as "the boutique." Located in the historic Hodge House behind First & Franklin Presbyterian Church on West Madison Street, the former gymnasium and day care center has been spruced up with freshly painted walls, refinished wood floors and clothing racks that nearly reach the 19-foot ceiling.
There are a couple of hundred suits on three long racks stacked one atop another and two more standing on the floor. The jackets carry some glossy labels: Vitale Barberis Canonico, Hugo Boss, Jones New York, Nordstrom. A pair of black Ferragamo loafers just went out with a suit the day before, said Schafer's 19-year-old son, Seth, who works in the clothing business along with Derrick King.
Christopher Schafer said they're not offering anything worn or dated, anything you wouldn't want to wear to a job interview. They're taking donations at their store on Aliceanna Street, and at the Hodge House "boutique."
Christopher Schafer envisions more furniture soon for this space that floods with sunlight in the afternoon, and perhaps a tuneup for the upright piano now standing against a wall. Maybe someone could play jazz standards as men line up for Wednesday morning fittings — another touch of class for an operation seen as a way to get ex-offenders in the door for a Living Classrooms' mentorship program.
"The boutique becomes a carrot," Wicker said. "We want to link every guy to a suit and every guy to a mentor."
After about three years, the program has succeeded in keeping men out of prison. While the recividism rate runs about 55 percent in Baltimore City and 40 percent statewide, this ex-offender program is recording a 7 percent rate, said James P. Bond, president and CEO of Living Classrooms.
He said the released prisoner programs work with about 400 people a year — only a tenth of the number released in the city. Roughly 150 a year work temporarily under contracts Living Classrooms has with the city and local organizations to clean up waterfront areas and vacant properties, perform maintenance, landscape, paint and help the city demolish vacant houses.
With their record of conviction and lack of recent work experience, many people leaving prison struggle to find jobs.
A key part of keeping released prisoners out of jail is getting them a job, Bond said. Most work for four to six months, get work experience, then head out to find jobs elsewhere.
Mayes was just hired as a supervisor for Living Classrooms' Project SERVE program, which focuses on helping ex-offenders. He's supervising a crew that does cleanup around the city, mostly in abandoned properties, and also works a separate part-time job in maintenance at a school on the east side.
He's working with Jonathan Crutchfield, 25, who was released from prison in August. Crutchfield also got his first suit through Sharp Dressed Man — a black Prada, with a dress shirt, cuff links, Ralph Lauren necktie, shoes and a suit bag.
"It makes a big difference," said Crutchfield, who served about six years on robbery, theft, drug and gun charges. "When I put that suit on and those shoes, no one could tell where I'd come from. And it was encouraging."
He interviewed for jobs at a temp agency, warehouses and an Italian restaurant, and could be back in the job market after finishing the temporary work with Project SERVE. The cleanup work doesn't demand a suit, but he figures it could come in handy for future interviews.
Mayes said he wears his suit to church and for social occasions.
Schafer hasn't done any jail time, but he figures he can grasp the idea of changing course. As a musician playing such local venues as the Recher Theatre and the 8x10, he said, "I had a pretty wild life for a long time," and decided some years ago on a new tack.
He'd always been interested in clothes, and when his wife's job took them to London in 2006, he started learning clothing design. It led to a new profession, first working for another company, now on his own turning out custom suits starting at $750, slacks at $300.
The business was among 12 to receive a 2013 Mayor's Business Recognition Award last week.
Sharp Dressed Man provides rewards Schafer said he gets from seeing the looks on the faces of men trying on a new way of life.
"It's cool to see this," he said. "The fringe benefit for me is I like seeing that."