Making a fashion statement For a quarter-century, Ruth Shaw has been dressing Baltimore in high style.

September 13, 1998|By Mary Corey | Mary Corey,Sun Fashion Editor

The Armani suits hang pristinely in the front window of Ruth Shaw. Sarah, the willful dachshund, stands guard by the Donna Karan hose. And fashion patter echoes through the room: That bias skirt makes you look smaller. ... I don't think it's dowdy, but you need a strappy sandal. ... You look fabulous.

The owner of this namesake store smooths the cashmere, pleased that so many black tunics have sold. To her, it's vindication: The fashion magazines that proclaimed "black is out" were wrong.

"When black dies, we're all going to be dead," she says with a laugh.

There are those who predicted her own demise as well. But for 25 years, Ruth Shaw has given high fashion a home in Baltimore, remaining true to her belief that glorious designer clothes - including $700 cashmere sweaters - have a place in a town where the wealthy often wear the same elbow-patched cardigan for decades.

She believed, and she made others believe. She put Jean-Paul Gaultier's tutu skirts in the window of her Cross Keys store. She asked jaw-dropping amounts for clothes. And she stayed, while chic retailers, such as Saks Fifth Avenue and Nan Duskin, came and went.

In a brutal business where a bad season can ruin a shop, she kept going. And longevity matters, even if she refuses to give in to much reflection as she marks a quarter-century in business this month.

"I'm not the sort of person who looks back," she says. "I don't even look too much forward. I sort of prefer to see what's now."

The present is a good thing. She's got a knowledgeable sales team (buyer-manager Ray Mitchener has been with her for 20 years), an established name and well-earned respect.

"She has one of the best 'better specialty' stores out there," says Barbra Musial, the vice president of sales and marketing for celebrated New York milliner Eric Javits. "That's a reflection of her, without a doubt. She makes a very strong statement in terms of her identity, who she wants to be in the marketplace. She and her staff are in sync. They all work together. In this day and age, that's unusual."

If the staff has stayed, so have customers - some of whom she's dressed since the store opened. On this September afternoon, a group of well-heeled women give her a warm greeting and later walk out clutching white shopping bags with discreet gray stripes and red lettering, a status symbol in this town.

As for the woman whose name is on those bags, she's equal parts doyenne, businesswoman and straight shooter. Mention a fashion-related subject - from anchorwomen to Washington style men's taste - and she's ready with an often acerbic insight.

"The way women anchors on television are dressed is just disgusting," she says. "That happens to be primarily the fault of the station. They have decided women don't look good unless they are wearing bright colors. ... How can you take an anchorwoman seriously? She gets on and says, 'Well, the market fell 200 points today,' and she's wearing turquoise with stones all over it."

Or this:

"Washington is a fashion wasteland. ... Most of the fashionable people are foreigners and they go back to Europe to buy their clothes. The rest of them are from Kansas. They look like they're wearing housedresses most of the time. Or they have a friend in the State Department who bought a piece of fabric somewhere, and the dressmaker made it up and it belongs on a sofa."

Men as shopping companions?

"First of all, I have nothing against husbands. You have to live with them, but the truth is, men mostly don't have a sense of style. They don't get it. I've been married twice. I never asked my husband what I should wear or how I should wear it. I was the one who was wearing it. It was, 'Do I feel good in this?' "

This strong, elegant woman with gray hair, silver jewelry and a black Piazza Sempione ensemble isn't hot and bothered as she speaks. There's candor, not venom, in her tone.

"She's very opinionated, but she's also very kind and generous," says interior designer Rita St. Clair, a long-time friend and customer. "You get to a time in your life where you say what you feel and you don't think about it. ... It's 'What you see is what you get.' "

Before opening the store in 1973, Shaw, who grew up in Washington, dabbled in other careers: She sold furniture, acted as press secretary for U.S. Sen. Joseph Tydings and created a line of tennis clothing.

From manufacturing, the switch to retail was natural. Her first season, she carried Cacharel tweed pants, sweaters and printed shirts in dark green, bordeaux and chocolate. She had feather jackets made in New York to wear with them. It was a shockingly new concept for daytime dress in Baltimore, but it sold. And Shaw was on her way.

Sally Jones, owner of Jones & Jones in Cross Keys, has known Shaw since she opened and calls her approach to retail gutsy.

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