Urbane Renewal

January 13, 1994|By Vida Roberts | Vida Roberts,Fashion Editor

The nightmare for Christmas happened to Beverly Matthai on Dec. 25, 1993. Femme, her Charles Street boutique, was damaged in the fire that swept Brown's Arcade. That same night, she and a friend were shaken up in a multiple car accident in the ice storm that swept the holiday homebound.

Ms. Matthai is a survivor. She has been on Charles Street for 5 1/2 years successfully selling high fashion at a time when so many downtown boutiques have closed or fled to the suburbs. It's the third time she has started from scratch: first as a fledgling businesswoman when she bought the store in 1988, three months later when a burst steam pipe destroyed everything in her shop, and now.

The Femme fire sale on Jan. 5 had them lined up before the doors opened. It was as much a show-of-support from loyal customers as their chance to find a bargain. They tried clothes, schmoozed and offered encouragement.

"I've seen both ends of the spectrum," says Ms. Matthai. "There were people who called as soon as they heard and offered to help. And then there was the caller who asked if there was real damage or was the fire sale just a marketing ploy."

On the day of the sale, the subcontractor who had been at repairs since early morning brought doughnuts for the store sales people. A much more typical gesture in the Charles Street community, says Ms. Matthai.

Despite this recent fire, with its smoke and water damage, Ms. Matthai is committed to staying downtown, she says, because it is good business and a good location. Her customer base is built on catering to designer-minded women who work or live downtown and like the convenience of zipping in at lunchtime or after work. They have few other options in the city, she says.

"We did a customer survey last fall and one word kept coming up over and over again -- unique. We have a lot of working women downtown, and a lot of them are in creative fields, but even so they must look professional," she says.

What she stocks could be described as clothes for the creative sophisticate. She carries lines from the lower-priced curve of designer labels -- Susie Tompkins, Cynthia Rowley, Tomatsu, Joan Vass. Not inexpensive, but priced way lower than the designer Donnas, Ralphs, and Calvins.

"I bought Femme as Femme, an established store. I made no drastic changes because I wanted to maintain continuity for the customers. I changed slowly, and I learned a lot from them," she says. "Now I have built a following and it is that following that keeps me going through the worst times."

Her customers have a signature look -- handcrafted jewelry, an interesting way with a scarf, easy and simple cuts. Not trendy, not boring, not funky. They are a confident lot who know how to put a spin on their wardrobe and are not victimized by this month's trend.

Barbara Gamse, manager of the shop at the Maryland Historical Society, is a confirmed city dweller and shopper. "I'm glad the shop is staying," she says, "its a joy to browse here. My size 2 narrows my shopping options but Femme is a great place to find unusual hand-crafted jewelry and accessories."

Carol Silberstein shopped Femme for her downtown working look and remains loyal now that she's home with a 2-year-old. "I make time and brave the parking because I find things here that fit my 5-foot-10 height," she says.

"Beverly and I have become friends and she knows me well enough to pick things for me. Some people have said the styles here are a bit too artsy-earthy, but I find them classic and distinctive."

Parking is no problem for Pat Stedem who walks everywhere to keeptrim. "My husband and I moved from Ruxton to Mount Vernon 14 years ago so we would have the convenience of downtown," says Ms. Stedem. "I shopped the Charles Street stores in the '50s and I'm so sorry they're gone. I'm glad Beverly is here because she is right on my daily walk from Mount Vernon to the Rusty Scupper in South Baltimore and back."

Ms. Mathias' interest in the city goes beyond fashion, says Ms. Silberstein. "In one of her promotions, she offered discounts to any customer who would bring in clothing that could be passed on to the homeless," she says. "That was extra work for her, but she cares."

Ms. Matthai believes that a citified attitude drives fashion and sees a movement in that direction. "Femme has a following because we have something beyond the Joe Banks suit look or Talbot's dresses. "Talbot's is quintessential Baltimore. I read somewhere that they do better here than in any other retail market and that says a lot for the state of fashion in Baltimore. I would do anything to encourage a change to something more exciting," she says.

"The growing restaurant scene is an indication of more %o sophistication," she says, "and maybe as people come downtown and learn to mix, they will lose that Fair Isle sweater and corduroy look.

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