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London Fog alumni revisit the past in former Baltimore factory

A group of former London Fog engineering and manufacturing managers gather for the first reunion to honor Lowell Abramson, second left, former vice president of operation, at the LaCuchara Restaurant which occupies part of the old coat factory.
A group of former London Fog engineering and manufacturing managers gather for the first reunion to honor Lowell Abramson, second left, former vice president of operation, at the LaCuchara Restaurant which occupies part of the old coat factory. (Kenneth K. Lam / Baltimore Sun)

The former London Fog employees stood in what had once been their workplace, now transformed into a trendy Hampden restaurant.

They pointed to the place where there used to be a big staircase to the second floor. A freight elevator is now painted white and inoperable. The floor was original, but gone were the huge outlines painted on the floor, from when the London Fog factory was a sailcloth factory, and workers used the outlines to cut the material.

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The former managers for what was once one of the most recognized apparel brands in the United States gathered Sunday for their first-ever reunion at the Meadow Mill building. La Cuchara, the Basque restaurant, was once the plant's finishing room, where buttons were sewn on and the raincoats inspected before they were placed on trucks.

Many of the 30 people spent nearly their entire careers at the company, working their way up from the cutting room floor to management until the company ran into hard times in the 1990s.

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A few donned their old London Fog coats for the occasion, as it happened to be raining outside.

The guest of honor was Lowell Abramson, who worked for London Fog from 1964 to 1994 and was its vice president of operations. Vince Cassandra, who organized the reunion, brought Abramson in as a surprise to both Abramson and the group. Many in the group attributed their success to Abramson.

"As we get older, we think about the people that have influenced our lives over the years and who've given us the inspiration to go on and find new careers and succeed, and this gentleman here was our mentor," Cassandra said.

Abramson never got the recognition he deserved, Cassandra said.

"The engineering and manufacturing people were in the background," he said. "We weren't out on TV, we weren't out in fashion shows. Back then the apparel industry was all about glitz and glamour in New York, and we were here in the factory in Baltimore."

London Fog, which began making raincoats in Baltimore in 1922 as Makover-Rhoten, went through several changes over the decades.

The company made waterproof coats for the Navy in the 1930s. It boomed in the 1950s after it perfected a Dacron-cotton blend for its formal raincoats. The company moved its headquarters to Eldersburg in 1976 but kept plants open in Baltimore.

The company struggled in the 1980s and the 1990s as more casual clothing grew more popular, and ownership changed several times.

The company closed its domestic plants in the 1990s, the last a 281-worker facility in Baltimore's Park Circle in 1997. Products are now made overseas. It filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in 1999 and again in 2006. Iconix Brand Group bought the London Fog name.

Many of the former managers have fond memories of their years working for the company.

Max Hilb, a former plant manager at a cutting facility in Hagerstown, spoke of the times the nearby Jones Falls overflowed, once taking many of the raincoats down the stream.

"A lot of people stole them," said Hilb, 67, of Eldersburg. "And the city came and recovered them and brought them back to us."

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Abramson, 88, said he felt "overwhelmed" to see many of his former co-workers again.

He said he worked for London Fog at a time of tremendous expansion.

"We were opening plants as quickly as we could," he said. "As the owner said, 'If I put the London Fog logo on baseball bats, we would sell out of baseball bats.'

"It was a premiere brand name in those days. And we couldn't make enough raincoats to satisfy the demand."

Abramson said he once went to Asia to learn faster manufacturing techniques, and came back and asked his team to re-create them. It was a bit of a gamble, he said, but he trusted they could pull it off.

"I felt that there wasn't much I couldn't do because of the management team that I had," he said. "I depended on them, and they always came through."

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