The Fashion Stakes

First lady Kendel Ehrlich bets on a winning outfit for the Preakness.

May 13, 2004|By Kate Shatzkin | Kate Shatzkin,SUN STAFF

It could have been a mother of a shopping challenge: Nine weeks after giving birth, a 42-year-old woman seeks the perfect outfit for a very public event, where all eyes instantly will assess her sense of style.

But when the woman is first lady Kendel Ehrlich - with half the baby weight gone, congenital self-confidence and a coterie of advisers dedicated to making her look mahvelous - dressing for Saturday's Preakness proved to be a breeze.

The shopping expedition was put off until just days before the Preakness because the Ehrlichs' infant son, Joshua, had to have surgery to correct an abdominal blockage. But with Joshua "thriving" since coming home from the hospital a week ago, Ehrlich was free to sweep into her favorite boutique, Octavia, on Tuesday, where seven outfits had been selected for her to try on.

"Maybe I thought that I should wear black this year because I'm just coming off a pregnancy," Ehrlich quipped. Instead, the selected ensembles indulged her penchant for bright colors. "I think that color is very appropriate [at the Preakness], even if it's not one of the Maryland colors," she said.

Ehrlich did those colors in a big way last year, wearing a yellow shift, a straw hat trimmed with cabbage roses and a black pashima shawl as she accompanied her husband, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. That outfit, like this year's candidates, was picked out by Betsy Dugan, the Octavia owner who has become a friend and informal personal stylist to Ehrlich.

With 15 pounds still to lose from her pregnancy, Ehrlich said she was a little nervous about facing the fitting-room mirror. But she said the Pikesville fashion retailer has become a comfortable destination.

"Every time I have come in here, it's just a really fun experience of trying on beautiful clothes," she said. "I'm not really intimidated by coming here. They've always been so nice to me."

Getting back in shape

It helped that the second-time mother - the Ehrlichs' first son, Drew, will turn 5 this summer - has had more time in her schedule since the baby's birth to lift weights and jog. And that Joshua is not only eating well but getting up just once at night. And that she brought her sense of humor.

"I had baby drool on me before I got here," she freely admitted as a staffer adjusted one designer ensemble.

Dugan wasn't Ehrlich's only clothing adviser. Merchandise manager Gary Myers weighed in, as did Ehrlich's spokeswoman, Meghann Siwinski.

And every lady - first or otherwise - needs a shopping companion like Susan Bancroft, who's known Ehrlich since elementary school and therefore didn't mince words.

"You don't need to be screaming," Bancroft told Ehrlich, worrying about an excess of accessories as Octavia staffers brought over earrings and purses.

"You know what I'm saying? ... It's a little more, a little more, a little more and the next thing you know, you're a wedding cake."

Ehrlich had her own opinions, too.

"That's not me. Sorry," she said, turning back a black purse with a curly wire for a handle.

Easy choice

She knew what she liked, quickly choosing the second outfit she tried on: A pistachio-green suit by Rickie Freeman for Teri Jon, with black buttons and a grosgrain ribbon belt tied in a bow. She decided her own bag, shoes and pearl studs would work well with the $400 cotton suit - and save some money.

Having selected the winning look, Ehrlich spent another couple hours trying on the rest of Dugan's selections, just to make sure her choice was sound.

Bancroft liked a blue-green brocade suit with yellow flowers and a green hat that brought out Ehrlich's blue eyes, calling the look "hip Mamie Eisenhower."

Ehrlich bought it, minus the hat, as well as a dress with a similar pattern but in pink.

Another hit was a simple peach dress with a slit neckline, which Dugan pronounced "very Audrey Hepburn-looking."

"I need a paying job," Ehrlich lamented during the session, one foot extended runway-style.

Can you top this?

Then there was the all-important matter of the hat to go with her Preakness suit.

A black straw topper with netting and a downturned brim looked good, but fit too tightly on Ehrlich's head. After flirting with a silk cloche, she wondered if the straw hat could be fixed.

Back in her official state car, Ehrlich, still wearing the pistachio suit, was driven down Reisterstown Road to Hats to Hose, the shop that had loaned Dugan the hats for the first lady to try.

There, custom milliner Phyllis Eley stretched the hat - "Sometimes the crown is more round than the shape of your head," she explained - and Ehrlich tried on others for fun. The shop, crowded with hats and children's outfits, has a play area and little boys wearing yarmulkes were darting to and fro with blocks. Most of the customers seemed oblivious to the first lady, and she didn't seem to mind.

She did seek the opinion of one, Ellen Mahaney, as they both scanned the merchandise. "Somebody going to the Preakness?" Mahaney asked.

"Like my outfit? What do you think?" Ehrlich replied. Mahaney nodded approval.

A few minutes later, Mahaney approached again. "You're Mrs. Ehrlich, aren't you?" she asked. "Wow, it's an honor. I so admire your husband. He's a great guy. Tell him ... "

"Hang in there, right?" said Ehrlich, laughing.

"Don't change a thing," Mahaney replied. "Nothing."

They chatted about Joshua's recovery ("He's doing great, thank you!") and Drew's experience as a big brother ("Doing very well. He has his moments.")

Then Ehrlich pronounced the stretched-out hat "much better," and made her purchase.

The hat cost $50.50, thanks to a customer appreciation sale. Ehrlich waited patiently in line behind a woman whose babbling baby reminded the first lady of her own at home, and paid with cash.

As she stepped out of Hats to Hose, Ehrlich pronounced the trip a success.

To boot, the chosen suit was a size 8 - Ehrlich's pre-baby size - and the only outfit she tried on that was.

In her head, she knows that that designer sizes can run big.

But in her heart, she said: "I'm going with it."

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