Designs on Baltimore

Fashion-forward trio sees high style happening here

September 27, 2004|By Tanika White | Tanika White,SUN STAFF

Cameras clicked and house music blared as the leggy models burst from a white tent, stepping and strutting, all attitude and high drama. They were moving billboards, lithe and lean, advertising clothes that were wild! Shocking!

If this had taken place in Manhattan's fashion-famous Bryant Park this month, scores of reporters, retailers and celebrities would have been there, scribbling notes and critiquing the new styles. But this was Fashion on Charles - a showcase of Baltimore boutique owners and aspiring designers. So there was little press or star power as the models made their way down the makeshift outdoor runway on Mount Vernon Square downtown. Mayor Martin O'Malley didn't show up, much less Paris Hilton.

After all, Baltimore isn't known for its fashion-forwardness or high style.

But three young men envision a day when it could be. And when it happens, they'll point to the show they organized on a recent Friday night as the event that started it all.

"The response we've heard, it's better than I had imagined," said Jeffery David Crook, one of the show's organizers. "People are calling to tell me that they're sorry they missed it ... and saying, `How do we get involved in the next one?' "

It didn't start off that way.

When Crook, Tyree Canty and Alex Sivels decided to try bringing cutting-edge fashion to Baltimore, they hit a lot of walls.

"Most people [had] not seen the vision," said Crook, a public-relations consultant who goes by the name J'David. "We got a lot of `no's.'"

But the trio is certain that Baltimore is ready for real runway style. The Mount Vernon/Charles Street area, they believe, could one day be as synonymous with boutique-shopping as Philadelphia's South Street, or New York's East Village.

And so, they said, the show must go on.

With little help from the city or area businesses, Crook, Canty and Sivels pulled off on Sept. 10 what they hope is the first bi-annual Fashion on Charles.

"Basically, we see a turning point for Baltimore," said Sivels, co-owner of Enigmatology Boutique and Art Gallery, at 815 N. Charles St. "Baltimore is going to be huge in two or three years, especially that Charles Street area where we are."

The four-hour fashion show and after-party brought together Charles Street/Mount Vernon area boutiques and shops that sell unique clothes for men and women, and a few from outside the area.

"We hope that people will realize that there are small boutiques down in that area," said Toni James, who, with her husband, Justin James, owns Katwalk Boutique, 243 W. Read St. "And maybe it will attract some new people to come down and start some new boutiques down in that area, also."

New York-based designer Rosalind Lott, who showed clothes from her Rosalind Gene line at the fashion show, said she could see herself opening a shop in Baltimore in a few years, if the energy level of the Fashion on Charles can be maintained.

"It's all about how you market it," Lott said. "If you can get one person to say ... `This is where it's at,' then you're in."

Crook, Canty and Sivels understand that all too well.

For months, their attempts to raise money for the show seemed futile. Not one business person or city leader, it seemed, would believe them when they said, "This is where it's at."

So the three used about $20,000 of their own money for park rental, music, model fees and such. For the novice entrepreneurs, that was money hard-earned and hard to come by.

Crook, 32, just recently opened his own public-relations consulting firm, beth!nk Communications. Canty, 25, and Sivels - who is younger than Canty, but won't tell his age - have been co-owners of the funky Enigmatology Boutique for less than two years. The shop sells urban chic clothes with a vintage feel.

Canty and Sivels both are Baltimore natives. Canty, a Northern High School graduate, studied history at the University of San Francisco, but always loved fashion and making his own clothes. Sivels, who graduated from Northwestern High School, is studying international business at Towson University and once had a line of clothing.

Often traveling in the same social circles as Crook, who is from suburban Washington, the three began to realize they shared a common vision.

"[Baltimore] is ready for high fashion," Crook said. "I think people are out there looking for it. There are people who are looking for style."

Designers and shop owners, of course, are ready, Crook said.

Baltimore isn't as boring or blue-collar as it's reputed to be, Canty said, and his and Sivels' shop is a testament to that.

The spare but stylish boutique is doing "very well," he said, and frequently, shoppers come in to Enigmatology loudly lamenting the dearth of stylish clothing in Baltimore. They're happy to pay a little more ($70 is about average) for an eclectic shirt Canty made in his apartment or for a funky dress from a designer that no one else in the city is likely to have.

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