100 years of making suits Haas: Now a century old, Haas Tailoring Co. is still looking to the future even as it recalls with pride some of the famous who have purchased its made-in-Baltimore suits.

April 21, 1997|By Sean Somerville | Sean Somerville,SUN STAFF

Remember all those photos of Colin Powell decked out in his general's uniform? Chances are good it was made by a century-old Baltimore firm.

Also on the Haas Tailoring Co.'s client list: Bill Clinton, Bob Dole, George Bush and -- in a few weeks -- golfer Tiger Woods.

For 100 years, Haas has been making clothing in the city. The company has spent the last few decades tailoring custom suits for high-end retailers that cater to the powerful, wealthy or just plain big. Over the years, Gen. George S. Patton, the Temptations, Gov. Parris N. Glendening and most of the Baltimore Ravens have sported Haas' threads.

Run by the third generation of the Haas family, the company has outlasted more than a dozen Baltimore clothing manufacturers. Just a few weeks ago, 75-year-old London Fog Industries announced the closing of its last Baltimore plant.

"In 1962, Baltimore must have had 20 good-sized clothing operations," said John Haas, grandson of the founder and the company's chief executive. "We used to be one of the smaller manufacturers. Now we're one of the biggest."

Now at its fourth Baltimore location, on Sinclair Lane off Erdman Avenue in East Baltimore, the company attributes its survival to several factors: a need for highly skilled labor, a product that depends more on quality than speed or price and, finally, Haas' standing as a family business.

Large manufacturers often close plants because they are hurting the bottom line. "Because this is a family business, you can look at things differently," Haas said.

Haas said the company, which employs about 220, has had annual sales of about $14 million for a few years. If Haas Tailoring were a publicly traded company, analysts might call its performance flat. Haas, 57, prefers to call it steady in a declining apparel industry.

"They are in a small market with limited growth," said Alan Millstein, editor and publisher of the Fashion Network Report.

Haas' future depends on the success of a declining number of high-end retailers who put their labels -- not Haas' -- in the company's clothing, Millstein said. "If you get a customer, you almost own them for the rest of their lives. That's what the men's market survives on."

To be sure, Haas' business has been hurt by the growing acceptance of casual attire -- especially on Fridays -- in the

workplace. But strong demand from retailers such as the Shirt Broker in Denver, Colo., Top Shelf in Minneapolis, and International Custom Clothing in Charlotte, N.C., and an aging work force have Haas ready to hire.

The most likely source for those skilled in such disappearing trades as sleeve-setting and pocket-making is the London Fog plant. Those jobs pay from $9 to about $15 an hour at Haas.

"We're seeing a lot of retirements," said Matt Haas, John's 27-year-old son, who is vice president of marketing. "Because of the skill level, it may take two employees to replace one retiree. You can't even find tailors in Italy anymore."

Garment-making skills were more plentiful when Jacob Haas, a German merchant who was John Haas' grandfather, founded the clothing business on Broadway off Eastern Avenue in 1897. Milton J. Haas, John's father, took over the company in 1932.

The Baltimore clothing industry was so competitive that every manufacturer had to find its own niche. After World War II, Haas specialized in making Sunday clothes for coal miners in West Virginia, Virginia and Kentucky.

Over the years, Haas moved from Broadway to East Baltimore Street to Paca Street and, in 1968, to its current plant. Today, the company sells suits through about 600 retailers nationwide. About 5 percent of its sales are ready-made suits, and an even smaller percentage is women's clothing. Made-to-order suits account for all the rest.

Customers choose fabrics through the retailers, who send Haas the selections and measurements. Haas employees enter the measurements into a computer, which produces a pattern of each suit piece. Workers cut the pieces, which are then sewn together. The company delivers suits in four or five weeks.

David Jaster, manager of the Shirt Broker in Denver, said his store orders between 600 and 700 garments a year from Haas. "They are probably one of the premier custom manufacturers in the country," he said.

Suits run from about $600 to $1,400. Jaster's Haas customers include former basketball player Moses Malone, several of the Denver Broncos football players and a television anchorman.

Haas clothed Arsenio Hall during his run as a late-night talk show host. Other Hollywood Haas clients include James Earl Jones, James Caan and the musical groups Temptations and New Edition.

Haas has made military -- and civilian -- clothes for retired Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf. And it's what big-time defense lawyers are wearing, like O. J. Simpson lawyer Johnnie Cochran and Timothy McVeigh attorney Steve Jones.

Finally, Haas makes suits for a long list of basketball players, including Scottie Pippen, Grant Hill, Jason Kidd and former University of Maryland star Joe Smith.

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