3rd-generation tie maker advocate of ties that bind

JACQUES KELLY

March 01, 1993|By JACQUES KELLY

The aged wire cage elevator edges up the five floors until it reaches a dim landing. Then the folding scissors-spring gate opens to the world of L. Mayers & Son Inc., one of Baltimore's few surviving downtown necktie makers.

The firm occupies two floors of the landmark Abell Building, a Victorian repository of the needle industry at Baltimore and Eutaw. It's just south of the old Hippodrome Theater, the New York Sewing Machine Co. and the surviving handful of hatters, button and zipper stores often overlooked by only but the most serious sewers.

Crowds at Oriole Park never realize that only a couple of blocks from the scoreboard is a slice of the hard-working, unair-conditioned downtown Baltimore that refuses to quit.

"My father moved here in 1925. We've been here ever since," says Robert J. Mayers, the third generation of his business to make and sell cravats.

Mayers is a man who loves his business and loves to talk about it. It doesn't take him long to grow more enthusiastic. In a second he has --ed back to his workroom and emerged with a bolt of Italian silk. It's a sharp paisley pattern that will doubtless be hanging in some snappy dresser's wardrobe before the fall.

"A pattern should be tasty. It should catch the eye," says Mayers, who also favors "interesting" and "fresh" in his necktie descriptions.

The ties that begin their lives as silk panels, then get cut and sewn at Baltimore and Eutaw, will be shipped throughout the South and states adjacent to Maryland. Mayers himself calls on his customers, many of whom have been buying from him or his father before him.

But don't bother dropping by the Abell Building for a Mayers Park Avenue tie. The line is sold "strictly wholesale." Many of his best ties sell for between $22.50 and $48. But there are also some customers who want a clip-on white tie for first communions and confirmations. There is also a market for cheaper wares.

"We once sold to Hutzler's, Hochschild's and Stewart's but the locally owned department store is gone," he says of Baltimore's vanished merchants.

The Mayers firm has outlived some of its best customers. It is headquartered in an ancient loft hung with overhead fluorescent tube lights. Employees huddle over cutting boards cheek-by-jowl with fabric rolls. There are thousands of completed ties, too -- silks, twills, Shantungs and blends.

"A man will get compliments from his necktie if it's different and has good eye appeal. A successful tie will make him feel better that day. It gives him a great pleasure," Mayers says.

"What is selling is a sophisticated styling. It's marketable today. There are updated conservative styles, geometrics and retro panels."

A few years ago the ever-steady tie makers got a jolt of business when ties suddenly took a bold turn. Flowers, globs of leaves, things that looked like enlargements of microscope slides burst on the scene. Tie traditionalists were appalled.

"They were ugly, but they sold. Boy! They sold. One Christmas we were nearly caught short. The stores couldn't sell enough of them. We really had to scramble," he recalls.

Mayers delights in telling a visitor his company was founded by Louis Mayers, the present owner's grandfather. He manufactured men's blue serge suits on Eutaw Street, just across the street from the Abell Building. He tried his luck in New York, but soon returned here and, with $1,000 capital, went into neckties.

His son, David, ran the company from World War I until 1990. He was a remarkable man who worked every day until the age of 96. He was known as one of the oldest neckwear makers in the country, a specialist in cutting bow ties from fabric. He drove a big Buick downtown until he was 90.

Robert Mayers couldn't get enough of the tie business. He began here at age 10, working summers and after school. After a stint at the University of Maryland, he came to Baltimore and Eutaw in 1950. And he never left.

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