Capital Gazette wins special Pulitzer Prize citation for coverage of newsroom shooting that killed five

SCARLET FEVER

The Baltimore Sun

Yes, the suit is frequently washed. Important to knock that question out before the story of Baltimore's Red Suit Enthusiasts gets under way in all its Spandex, silliness and super power.

Transforming a thrift store find, Hunter Smith and Kathryn Long of Mount Vernon have launched a Red Suit movement, a Web site (redsuit.org) and a state of mind and body. Their touring, partying, one-size-fits-all red suit is one piece art project, one piece faux wrestling club, one piece raw human nature and literally one red piece of no-holds-barred fabric.

In the name of serious fun, Smith and Long are on a mission to get Baltimore itself into the red suit. They just need bodies.

Do you dare squeeze into the red suit and join the communal club?

"It's the unleashing of the essential person," says Smith, who's been known to wear the red suit on poker nights and random nights around the house when he's feeling lucky and frisky. "I get in the suit weekly, and I still feel a jolt of newness. I feel ready for action."

"You can't not have fun in the suit," Long says. And that man of hers looks really strong in the red suit - no way he is going to lose a fight in the suit, she says. "It all makes me love him more."

Since March, more than 120 enthusiasts have joined their novel club. The online gang is mostly folks in their 20s (like the co-founders) - although someone's 83-year-old great-aunt and someone else's 8-month-old have enlisted after being given the secret handshake by team captain Long. They vie for the most online votes in hopes of becoming the top-rated Red Suit Enthusiast. Membership climbs on the weekends, when the couple might take the blue-striped unitard to Club Charles or Rocket to Venus in Hampden. There, the captain unveils the suit from her purse, and Long's pitch goes something like this:

The wearer of the suit invariably experiences a heightening of their innate talents and sensibilities, as if donning it, the best and strongest elements of their characters, heretofore behind the guise of their workaday personas and socially mandated roles burst forth with an overpowering vigor, says the Web site.

"You just feel kind of sexy in it," says Charisse Nichols, promotions director at Center Stage, where her friend Long works in the props department. During one of the theater's "Espresso Hours" last year, Long pulled out the red suit and asked colleagues to dive in.

"I thought it was disgusting," Nichols says. But in January, during a festive moment at Club Charles, Nichols told her friend, just give me the suit. Life wasn't the same. The red suit became this cultural experience, this art form better than any "stupid gold fence" in Mount Vernon, Nichols says.

"And the suit tucks in the right things."

Per club protocol, Nichols' picture went up on the Web site and Smith went to work writing Nichols' fictional biography and assigning her a wrestling club and name. No real names are given. The red suit brotherhood boasts such clubs as Brewmaster, Hoodlum, Tormenter and Heartbreaker and member names such as Anvil, Spitfire, Bricklayer, Tinderbox and Viper. They are all there to be seen (and rated) flexing and vamping in the red suit.

"I felt free as a bird and tough as a tiger," says Jamie Lacey, who, along with Smith, is getting his masters in social work. In December, Lacey met his friends Smith and Long at Rocket to Venus. They leaned on him to join the team.

"They pulled out the suit, which is in their bag of tricks 24/7," Lacey says. He changed in the restroom like it was Superman's telephone booth. Lacey assumed a few superhero poses in the flattering garment and was admitted to the team. He was no longer social worker Jamie Lacey - he was Riffraff of Club Hoodlum.

"It was a magical experience, truly life altering," he says. "The suit makes you find ways to be true to yourself."

Ryan Patterson, a community artist in Baltimore, first saw the red suit at a holiday party for a nursery school staff. Before people knew it, Long and Smith had parents and friends slipping into the tight suit. Patterson was nervous, but it's hard to resist the power of the suit - and captain Long.

"The suit makes you want to act out in it. I wanted to strike poses right away," Patterson says. "I was one of three guys at the party who wore it backward. I didn't know how to put it on."

Where does the suit live when it's not headlining bars and nursery school staff parties? The garment (actually a crew suit, not a wrestling unitard) reposes on a dress mannequin in the basement apartment of Long and Smith - the superintendents of a Mount Vernon apartment building. Bound to wed this fall, the couple have fruitful and multiplying birds and two cats - and one red suit. "It's almost a pet," she says.

The suit caught Long's eye in a thrift store in Massachusetts last summer. That was June 6. Two days later, she put on the suit and nothing has quite been the same. Smith tried it on, and he, too, felt nakedly powerful. He felt like the outcast kid in school who grows up to be a superhero. The sleek and curvy suit gave them permission to believe in make-believe again.

In July, Long's father, David Long, passed away. At the service, the family sang songs and told stories to honor her father, who was known for running family talent shows. He was a man, his daughter says, who believed in acting as if you're famous - even if it's just around your family or friends. A famous man who believed in taking his fun seriously. So, in that spirit, Long produced her thrift store find and more family members than she could have imagined donned the red suit. Somehow, it fit the mood.

Back in Baltimore, Long and Smith began collaborating on what would become the Red Suit Enthusiasts. They discovered people not only willing to shake off their clothes for the suit, but they didn't want to take the suit off. It fit and flattered everyone - except it looked baggy on the skinny. "That's the sweet justice of the suit," says Long. No enthusiast was turned down - except for a couple of guys who crossed the captain by being jerks. They were "honorably discharged" from the team.

The suit developed a cult following among the arts crowd of Mount Vernon and beyond. Then, disaster struck.

Late last year, the couple couldn't find the red suit. They suspected it was stolen from the laundry room in their apartment building. Having sunk into a deep funk, Smith turned to the Internet and managed to find the suit maker, a man named Justin Nakatsuka who runs a rowing clothing store in Vancouver, British Columbia. Smith e-mailed him the story of Baltimore's red suit and in January, Nakatsuka sent a free replica. The unitard didn't look exactly the same - but it felt the same, and the dynamic duo from Mount Vernon felt saved.

They hope the suit's popularity will lead to red suit stickers, trading cards and a book. The suit has given them a purpose - a powerfully quirky communal purpose that's perhaps best understood when striking a fierce pose in the red suit. Despite yourself, you will feel free as a bird and tough as a tiger. You will feel kind of sexy. You will strike immortal poses. And the suit promises to be clean.

"People tend now to wear their underwear more often," the captain says.

If art teaches anything, you must be true to yourself.

rob.hiaasen@baltsun.com

IF ONLY ...

If Kathyrn Long and Hunter Smith had their way, these people would wear the red suit.

1.

Barack Obama

2.

Sheila Dixon

3.

Anyone from The Wire

4.

Project Runway winner Christian Siriano

5.

John Waters

6.

Maxwell Caulfield (currently seen in A Little Night Music)

7.

Michael Ross, Center Stage's managing director

8.

Marc Steiner

9.

Perez Hilton

10.

Tina Fey

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
66°