In 2009 Baltimore native and custom menswear designer Christopher Schafer looked out of a top-floor window on East Pratt Street and caught a glimpse of the city's past and his future. Schafer and his wife had recently returned from London, where he first learned the custom menswear trade and experienced some success working for the Tom James Company, the largest manufacturer of custom clothing in the world. But that initial success was in cosmopolitan London, not Baltimore. And it came before the economy tanked in 2008, the year they came home to have their first child together. So things were harder here, and Schafer was struggling.
As he looked out the window over the Inner Harbor and Harbor East, he saw a different view of the city. "It's sort of like where you take the treetop view and you see something different than when you're standing in it," Schafer says. "And I was like, It's here. It's here. But how are you going to find your way? Because Baltimore supposedly isn't known for [custom menswear]."
But Schafer knows Baltimore was once known for fashion. Baltimore had a garment district that rivaled New York's, especially for menswear. Jos. A. Bank and Haas Tailoring Company once made suits worn by presidents, statesmen, and executives. Jos. A. Bank sold its manufacturing division in 1998 and became primarily a retailer; the Individualized Apparel Group bought Haas in 1999 and closed its Sinclair Lane manufacturing plant. Mass-production, corporate consolidation, and cheap labor changed how we dress.
Schafer wants to bring garment-making back for Baltimore's men, along with the philosophy that comes with it. Men can get so accustomed to buying cheap, mass-produced clothes that bespoke garments sound extravagant. Even guys who like to look good know dude shopping all too well: Go to (insert chain retailer here), start with the sales rack and move to the front of the store, find your size in a few basics, repeat as necessary. It's why closets today need to be walk-ins instead of the compact ones found in old buildings. A small selection of well-made, smartly put-together items created specifically for you and you alone is a different wardrobe attitude. "That's the approach that we're trying to promote," Schafer says, sitting in the Fells Point clothier studio that bears his name. Since 2010 Schafer has custom-designed and made suits, shirts, jackets, and ties for his clients in the greater Baltimore area, Washington, D.C., and New York. This afternoon he's clad in a pinstripe chocolate suit and yellow shirt. He's flanked by his colleagues Christopher Rondo and Derrick King, who joined Christopher Schafer Clothier about a year ago. They're both dapperly clad in custom items as well.
This studio isn't what immediately springs to mind when thinking bespoke menswear. It's in a warehouse space at the corner of Aliceanna and Eden. Down the hall is Signature Attire, a tie manufacturer in which Schafer is a partner. In the studio, Schafer's drum set sits at one end, a holdover from his music days when he and his brothers took over the Hour Haus nearly 20 years ago. Against one wall a series of mannequins showcases different items; nearby, a rack of garment bags hangs waiting for clients to come by for a fitting. (Measurements and consultations primarily take place in the studio, the tailoring itself done at another site.)
The room is gritty but polished, a reflection of Schafer's personality. "I didn't even have a suit when we moved to London," he says with a laugh, explaining that his wife's work as a mechanical engineer took them overseas, whereas he had always just worked jobs and played music. He was able to obtain a work visa but finding employment was difficult. A gardening opportunity arose, as did an entry-level position at Tom James learning how to design clothes. He says he very quickly realized he had found his career.
He was still working for Tom James when he returned to Baltimore in 2008, but it was a more difficult market. He knew he wanted to go out on his own but he was also gaining an understanding of the investment that would take. As he looked out over the city from East Pratt Street, he remembered that Baltimore once had a garment trade. "It went off like a bell," Schafer recalls. "I know that I'm not crazy because it's happened [here] before, and if it's happened before, it can be done again. And I thought, If I don't try, then I'm just going to be a guy who has a wardrobe of nice custom suits from London that I don't ever wear here."
So he sold his 1968 Triumph motorcycle. He sold his '57 Ford convertible. He tore the legal section out of the phone book and starting cold-calling attorneys at firms with whom he didn't have a non-compete clause with from his previous employer, trying to find potential clients. He started networking, networking, and networking some more, joining a business-development partnership of business owners, executives, and entrepreneurs. And he started paying attention to how people do business in the city.
"What I noticed is [that] the guys who are successful, they're all somehow giving back [to the local community]," Schafer says. "I wasn't in a situation to give back to anybody, but I knew that it had to be part of the equation." Schafer, stylist Stephanie Bradshaw, and designer Ella Pritsker started the Baltimore Fashion Alliance in 2010 as a networking organization for local fashion workers (disclosure: City Paper contributor J.M. Giordano is also a member), and through it, Schafer became involved with the Helping Up Mission, recycling his clients' old clothes. The partnership led to Schafer, the BFA, and Living Classrooms Foundation Ex-Offender Mentoring Academy launching the Sharp Dressed Man, where King, Rondo, and Schafer take donated suits and shirts and custom-tailor them for the ex-offenders reentering the workforce.
The experience has taught Schafer that it's possible to can be philanthropic in kind. "You can take your time and talents and you can use them in a way where you can actually help other people," Schafer says. "What Living Classrooms is doing, it's incredible. We're just providing the clothing. The guys over there, they didn't quite know what to make of us [at first], but once they started seeing their friends get all dressed up, then they all wanted in. The clothes don't make the man, but you'll see them look at themselves differently.
"It's the same with our clients," he continues. "People learn and appreciate [custom clothing] quickly. And I can totally relate to that. Once I started having suits that were made for me, I was like, Oh my God."
Schafer wants to share that experience through his business, the BFA, and Sharp Dressed Man. "We want to build a pattern for you that you love, and then we want you to be doing business with us over and over for the next 20 years," Schafer says. "I really feel it's the ultimate form of self-expression, what you're wearing when you walk into the world. People do judge a book by its cover."
Christopher Schafer Clothier holds the Blood, Sweat and Tears Fashion Show June 20 at his studio, featuring designs by Ella Moda Couture, Carlous Palmer, Michele Blanchard, Nicole Myrick, and Sloane Brown to benefit the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. For tickets, visit bloodsweatandtearsbaltimore.eventbrite.com.