Fashion & Style

Local shops fit for a man

Richard Cohn eyed the back of the grey Canali suit jacket and smoothed the fabric on Frederick Bianco's shoulders. They stood before full-length mirrors joking about Bianco's penchant for having his shirts altered to expose the sleeves just so.

Bianco, a customer of Pikesville's J.S. Edwards for 15 years, expects this level of rapport with Cohn, a sales associate, and other employees of the high-end menswear boutique.

"I come here for the personal service," said Bianco, who works in film and does voice-overs. "It's their attention to detail. They stand behind their product, and they have a variety of quality clothing."

J.S. Edwards is a rare breed in Baltimore, a city that has only a smattering of menswear shops. Of those, Brian Lefko's Men's Clothier announced in October that it would close. Martin + Osa, the national chain with locations in Columbia, Towson and Annapolis, shut down in March.

Even national powerhouses such as J. Crew have cut their men's offerings at some locations in the region. Nationally, the number of men's clothing store employees dropped by 15.8 percent from 2008 to 2009, according to the most recent statistics from the National Retail Federation.

"People here seem more traditional and more set in their ways with what they wear," said Edward Steinberg, owner of J.S. Edwards, which has been open for 28 years. "We don't have a major store like a Neiman Marcus and Saks. It kind of says what the market is. If there were more fashionable people, there would be more stores."

Daniel Wylie, owner of Hampden's newly opened menswear store Sixteen Tons, thinks Baltimore is ready for new blood. He said his store is a departure from mall department stores that feel too generic, and higher-end boutiques that are too expensive for some people's taste.

"I wanted to create a nice option for men's shopping in Baltimore," said Wylie, who opened his store to mirror an old-school haberdashery where the styles of Sammy Davis Jr., Steve McQueen and Paul Simonon from The Clash meshed. He hoped to capture that vibe by naming the store after the Merle Travis song ("You load sixteen tons, and what do you get? Another day older and deeper in debt").

"Men's clothing has gone in a good direction in the last 10 years," Wylie said. "I want to help men in Baltimore step it up a little. I want to bring an end to the days of baggy jeans and hoodies as acceptable menswear, and get clothes that fit them."

With the encouragement of his wife, Lesley Jennings, owner of Hampden women's boutique Double Dutch, Wylie opened the store the day before Thanksgiving.

"This was a way of me collecting things that I wanted to buy and putting them under one roof," Wylie said.

Wylie knows that his new venture won't be easy — especially in this city, in this economy.

"I am frightened, yeah, but as in any other business, you have to tell the people what they want and sell it to them," Wylie said.

Wylie is unconcerned about the lure of online shopping and more affordable designer menswear offered at bigger chains such as Target and H&M, which announced this month a plan to open a store in Baltimore's Inner Harbor in the spring.

Sixteen Tons may have a future — despite the downsizing and closings of competitors, according to Vincenzo Gatto, an instructor specializing in business and marketing at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City.

"Any store — if they clearly identify who they are — should be able to survive any type of downturn," said Gatto.

Steinberg said that it is important to know the market. J.S. Edwards offers moderate to high-range clothes that includes designers such as Hugo Boss, Cole Haan and Canali.

"Baltimore is usually two to three seasons behind," he said. "The key is not to be too fast for the client. You have to know how to home in on what the customer wants."

Mark Millman, founder of the Owings Mills-based executive hiring firm Millman Search Group, has noticed a drop in the men's clothing offerings at the bigger local chains such as J. Crew and Banana Republic, as of about 18 months ago.

"They have all focused on kids, young teens and women," said Millman, whose company works with a variety of retailers. "Because of the tight economy, men can make do with their clothing."

It is not uncommon for retail clothing stores to reduce their men's inventory during tough economic times, according to Gatto, who has more than 40 years of experience in the menswear business.

"That's a normal reaction," Gatto said. "Women will shop because they want to and they are good at it. A woman won't wear the same dress twice in a month. A man will wear a suit twice in a week if he can."

But when it comes to higher-end fashion items, men's shopping patterns mirror those of women, according to Gatto.

"They know what they want," Gatto said. Store owners "have to have exactly what they want."

At Gian Marco Menswear, a downtown men's clothier where it's not unusual to find Italian-designed blazers for $1,200, Executive Vice President John Massey advises that Wylie and any other new men's clothing store owners be patient.

"It's a business that doesn't happen overnight," said Massey, who teamed with business partner Marc Sklar to open Gian Marco 14 years ago.

"You really have to know the merchandise and area you are working with," said Massey, who worked at a variety of stores such as Saks and Neiman Marcus before opening Gian Marco. "It's a tough game. Knock on wood, we will continue to do what we do."

To attract and keep his customers happy, Wylie said he plans to keep most of his merchandise around $100, which he said "seems to be the magic number in Baltimore."

Wylie based his store's concept in part on his wife's nearby women's boutique, which specializes in classic-looking clothes with a vintage feel, thanks to customer demand.

"So many people came in and asking for the male version of Double Dutch," Wylie said. "It sort of stuck."

Wylie used his 15 years as a carpenter and three years as a project manager for a construction company to figure out a renovation plan of the space, adding creative touches along the way.

A poster of Sammy Davis Jr., whom Wylie calls the "patron saint of Sixteen Tons," hangs near the store's front door. A large antique desk, which was purchased at an estate sale, displays sweaters, bow ties and tan leather belts in the center of the store. Newsboy hats and fedoras rest in metal crates against another wall. Hulking suitcases and wooden kegs are placed throughout the store, giving the space an old-time feel.

"I created a masculine — but not macho — environment," Wylie said. "I want to have a comfortable place for guys to do shopping. If they are not excited to be here, they can at least look at some cool stuff."