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In the beginning, he stuck to the straight and narrow. Dull stripes, Ivy League burgundies and blues, perhaps an occasional paisley on an adventurous day.

But two words changed Kurt Schmoke's life. "Nice tie."

The bespectacled, button-down mayor of Baltimore has gotten downright bold when it comes to ties. The mild-mannered scholar of public policy, who is described by even his friends as boring, is sporting colorfully eclectic cravats.

He is turning up at black-tie galas in a kente cloth bow tie and cummerbund. He appears at ribbon-cutting ceremonies wearing an Orioles tie covered with baseballs and a Baltimorean tie that features the folksy "Hon" greeting and icons from Poe to Ripken.

Mr. Schmoke is not a stranger to eye-catching accessories. After all, he has an assortment of suspenders that he likes to wear with his plain blue Oxford shirts.

For years, however, the mayor refused to don anything but basically tweedy ties to match his conservative Brooks Brothers suits.

His wife, Patricia, tried to raise his fashion consciousness. But all of her trendier purchases ended up in the back of the closet.

His Cabinet tried to persuade him to wear flashier ties with gifts each Christmas. His four sisters and two children saw an opportunity in Father's Day. But he always was reluctant to venture beyond plain hues and simple patterns.

The turnabout began a little more than a year ago when he was given a bright red silk tie from the Johns Hopkins Children's Center. The tie, sold by the children's hospital to raise money, features children of all races riding a roller coaster and throwing up their hands in glee.

"My wife saw it and said, 'He's got a life,' " Mr. Schmoke says. But he quickly adds, "I wasn't trying to make any kind of statement. It was all the people who decided I needed to brighten up my act."

To his wife's surprise, Mr. Schmoke fell in love with the tie and began wearing it at public events. Everywhere he went, people came up to admire it. The Baltimore City Life Museums, the Save the Children Foundation and the Orioles capitalized on the moment and also sent him freebie neckwear.

Some call it an election-year makeover timed to coincide with his campaign for a third term. Others have suggested it is the result of turning 45 in December.

But those who know him best say the reason for the mayor's venture into more splashy, one-of-a-kind ties is pretty simple. He showed off the first one to his wife, and she gently encouraged him to try a few more.

Mrs. Schmoke broadened his collection at Christmas, while one of his sisters gave him his first kente-cloth tie and dared him to wear it.

"It's called 'Operation Patricia,' " says Daniel P. Henson III, Baltimore's flamboyant housing commissioner and tie connoisseur.

The mayor's new look has drawn admiration from strangers on the street and from political allies and foes alike. At a dinner at the British Embassy, Princess Diana was so impressed with Mr. Schmoke's roller-coaster tie that he ordered her the matching scarf.

"They're very upbeat," says Julian L. Lapides, the former state senator who is running for comptroller. "Maybe one of these days I'll learn how to wear one of those with elan."

Lawrence A. Bell III, a city councilman who has been critical of the Schmoke administration, has only praise for the mayor's new cravats. "If the ties make the man, then maybe he's loosening up a bit."

There have been some unexpected repercussions. When Mr. Schmoke was interviewed on CBS, a viewer liked his tie so much that he sent the mayor a rather odd Chicago Bears cravat that has a huge bear stepping over the Chicago skyline.

Emboldened by his ties, the mayor's staff is taking a hard look at his sturdy Bass Weejuns. But Mrs. Schmoke is not pushing her husband toward more stylish shoes.

"For someone who is on their feet all day long, I think comfort is of the utmost importance," she says.

Besides, there's always the fear that her husband will revert to his strictly button-down self.

"She knows I can slip back at any moment," Mr. Schmoke

quipped with a mischievous twinkle.

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