Lisa Schatz, owner of Cupcake, shows some of the Preakness dresses they have for sale at her store in Fells Point.
Lisa Schatz, owner of Cupcake, shows some of the Preakness dresses they have for sale at her store in Fells Point. (Lloyd Fox, Baltimore Sun)

Lisa Schatz starts her Preakness shopping eight months early, at the September fashion trade shows in New York City. In addition to her regular buys for spring inventory, she's learned to add items featuring bold colors and fun prints that will stand out at Maryland's biggest horse race.

Usually boutique owners purchase clothes for four seasons — five, if you count resorts. But in Baltimore, where Preakness-goers buy duds that sometimes veer from national spring trends, window displays are peppered with color combinations such as yellow and black, bold prints and funky hats that reflect the quirky traditions of the race. Preakness is its own buying season.

"When we're doing spring buys, we have to predict the future," said Schatz, who owns Cupcake, a women's wear boutique in Fells Point. "If we don't get the buying right we are in big trouble. May and June are my big months, and Preakness is a huge part of that."

"The Preakness is a main event," said Nancy Lattman, owner of L'Apparenza, a boutique in North Baltimore that features an extensive line of popular designers such as Alice + Olivia, Jay Godfrey and Tory Burch. "It is a social event where people go out and buy a dress specifically for that event."

Fashion experts say Preakness is not just a social event, it's a clothing event.

"Everybody likes to really get dressed for it," said Sima Blue, owner of the Green Spring Station women's boutique Trillium. "Everyone wants something new and fresh to go to Preakness with. From the infield to the corporate area, there is something for everyone."

The days leading up to the big race are the most stressful for boutique owners.

"My last five days have been spent hustling Preakness inventory into the boutique," said Schatz the week before the race, as she hung several colorful dresses, including a black-and-yellow color-blocked crepe sheath by Black Halo. "Between now and Friday it will be dress mayhem. Everyone will be here buying dresses."

At Gian Marco, a menswear boutique in Mount Vernon, owners Marc Sklar and John Massey hire two additional salesmen and an extra tailor the week of the Preakness to accommodate the influx of business generated by the event. Out-of-town customers start shopping for clothes the Wednesday before the race. By Thursday, the boutique is bustling. On Friday, the boutique is "bedlam," according to Sklar.

"By Friday evening we're done," he said. "Saturday is the race. And Sunday, everybody goes home."

Stocking a boutique for Preakness takes some knowledge about the event. The race's official drink and flower is the black-eyed Susan, so yellow-and-black combinations are popular.

"Whenever I buy for Preakness, I think about lots of color," said Blue, whose boutique's window features Preakness-wear such as a neon print floral dress and a sea-foam and red floral print with cutouts on the side, both by Nanette Lepore, as well as a green and white silk wrap and a jewel-adorned emerald green shift dress, both by Milly.

Lattman, who has worked in women's retail for more than 30 years, has loaded her boutique with Preakness-themed frocks. She estimates that 80 percent of her dresses are purchased with the race in mind.

"The main thing is color — especially this season," Lattman said. "Everything this season is pink, orange or yellow. I dress them in the dresses that they can go out in. The dresses are very festive and very happy."

Schatz has even coined the term "day-casion" to describe the style of dress for Preakness.

"It's not as formal as a wedding or prom, but people still purchase for the occasion," she explained. "They want to look dressy without an evening fabric. Chiffon, crepe and printed lace are preferred."