Canine couture

Beth Crisman's dog Cody, a Boston Terrier.
Beth Crisman's dog Cody, a Boston Terrier. (Lloyd Fox, Baltimore Sun)

The proprietor of Handbags in the City has a fashion sense that favors the classical, whether he's wearing a belted Burberry trench coat with a standup collar, lounging in a Mulberry cashmere sweater or modeling a jacket lined with shearling.

And Sparky's owner, George Sakellaris, also in Burberry, doesn't look too shabby, either.

"He's a little old man, and he loves dressing up," says Sakellaris, co-owner of the store at 840 Aliceanna St., the shop where Sparky, a 13-year-old Brussels Griffon, can be found most days.

"Sparky has worn clothes ever since he was a baby; now he has two coats and about a dozen sweaters. Mostly, we dress him because he's short-haired and he gets really cold when he goes outside. If it's raining, he doesn't like to go out at all, but he minds it less if he's wearing a raincoat."

Despite the recession, Baltimore dog owners have been snatching up sweaters, coats, raingear and, yes, even booties this winter to help keep Fifi and Fido toasty and dry.

"You're talking about a passionate product for a passionate consumer, and passion overrides any economic downturn," says Marshal Cohen, chief retail analyst at the NPD Group, the New York-based market research organization.

"Even during the recession, where the consumer was cutting back, certain items became identified as necessary luxuries. Pet owners wanted to insulate their dogs and cats against the recession in the same way that they wanted to isolate and protect their children."

For instance, Beth Crisman, who lives in Northwest Baltimore, can't afford designer duds for herself or her dog on what she earns as a practicing artist and part-time professor. (She teaches photography and art history at several area community colleges.)

But Crisman would no more go without sweaters in winter for Cody, her 3-year-old Boston terrier, than she would go without a coat for herself.

"Bostons don't do well with either extreme temperatures of hot or cold," she says, adding that she orders Cody's clothes either through online sites or catalogues, spending about $10 on average for a sweater.

"But he looks really cute, and he loves the attention he gets when we go for a walk. What dog wouldn't?"

Virginia Byrnes, co-owner of Dogma in Canton estimates that about 30 percent of her canine customers come into her shop wearing attire of some sort. Across town, Chris Woodside, co-owner of Pretentious Pooch in Mount Vernon, estimates that canine apparel makes up between one-fifth and one-quarter of his winter sales.

Cohen said that boutique-style stores peaked in popularity about five years ago — or about the same time that such top labels as Gucci, Prada and Coach decided to expand into the pet market.

Once the recession hit, many boutiques had to branch out into other dog and cat products, such as food and bowls, to remain in the black.

Baltimore is a city that places a high value on being down to earth, Woodside said, so frou-frou products that sell strongly in such cities as New York, Los Angeles or even Washington do less well here.

"People in Baltimore are definitely more practical," he says. "It became clear a year or so ago that we were either going to have to morph into selling other products or close the front door."

Still, there's practical, and then there's "practical." A sweater or coat may be a necessity for short-haired dogs such as chihauhaus, terriers or even Dobermans who walk outside when temperatures are in single digits.

And if that coat happens to be quilted, beige and made by Gucci (retail value, $280) or a striped Coach cashmere sweater ($148 and up), that doesn't make it less functional.

For instance, Cathy Brennan, an attorney who lives in Rodgers Forge in Baltimore County, enjoys dressing Dante, the surviving member of a pair of Boston terriers, in sweaters, a cape and bow ties.

But she thinks it was the $500 she invested in black leather-and-pewter Coach collars for Dante and his sister, Newbury, that helped her recover her puppies after they were stolen in 2001.

"The thief took everything in our house, our televison, computers, everything," she said.

"The guy who took the dogs apparently thought they were mini pit bulls. He was nice enough to put the collars on the dogs before he took them. He later dumped Newbury, who could be very irritating and clingy."

Someone who knew that Brennan was searching for her pets noticed the bewildered dog in the distinctive designer collar, took the puppy in and contacted her owner. With the help of residents in the neighborhood where Newbury was found, Brennan then tracked down and recovered Dante.

"We never got any of the other stuff back," Brennan said, "But we got what was most important."



Don't turn Fido into a laughing stock. Just as with humans, there are potential style pitfalls that the savvy pet owner will avoid at his peril. Below is a list of fashion faux paws, courtesy of Aileen Gabbey, executive director of the Maryland Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals:

• Put a comfortable coat on dogs with thin skin or hair when the temperature drops below freezing.

• Consider protective booties for dogs accompanying their owners on longer hikes in the winter, as ice can collect in the paw pads that makes it difficult to walk.

•Make sure that any pet attire fits your animal comfortably, and that there is sufficient clearance for your dog to do his business without dirtying his coat or sweater. This is particularly important for male dogs.

• Don't overdress your pets. Chances are that a Siberian husky won't need a down jacket, no matter how chilly it gets. And put the sweaters away for even the small breeds once the weather warms up. Dogs can't sweat, so it's more dangerous for them to be too hot than it is to be too cold.

• Avoid sunglasses, hats or any accessories that will interfere with the animal's ability to see and hear.

• Only dress your pet if someone will be available at all times to calm and help him if he becomes frightened or tangled up.

• Don't force outfits on your pet. If Bonzo looks unhappy or miserable, he probably is.

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