Funky Fashions


February 06, 2005|By Tanika White | Tanika White,SUN STAFF

Mount Vernon's West Read Street has a bit of a small-town feel. On one block, there's a pizza place, a tailor, a little antique shop.

But look again. There's a taste of the exotic there, too.

Katwalk, a funky boutique in a converted rowhouse, has been bringing a slice of European and New York runways to the small but up-and-coming retail and business strip for more than five years.

Now, just as the area around West Read Street is growing and changing, the fashion-forward clothing store is becoming an old kid on the block. But there's nothing old about the shop, which caters to those who seek fashion that is edgy and unexpected.

That's just the way Katwalk owner Toni James -- with her own cutting-edge, go-against-the-grain style -- likes it.

That's why her store is filled with any number of paint-dipped shirts, multicolored tank tops made of fat yarn, and lots of knitwork, embroidery and bias-cuts. Shirts with lacy, beaded shoulders, and skirts with asymmetric fringes are sold, too.

"We are really into detail," James says.

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Even the store's aesthetic is funky. Walls and window coverings are done up in bright primary colors.

"Our customers are really courageous people," says James, who co-owns Katwalk with her husband of eight years, Justin. "They're confident. And even though this is an African-American-owned store, they're very multicultural. Whites, blacks, Asians. We have all kinds of customers. Anyone who loves true fashion, anyone who wants to set themselves apart from the general public, anyone that's in love with clothing shops here."

The Jameses -- who are both 33 and have two sons, ages 11 and 7 -- started Katwalk in 1997, on Old Frederick Road. In 1999, they moved to Read Street, where they plan to stay for a while.

"We found there was a need for fashion-forward clothing in Baltimore, but people didn't know where to get it from," she says.

They know now. About 70 percent of Katwalk clients are repeat customers, James says.

James and store manager Rashawn Robinson often act as personal stylists for clients, ordering clothes or selecting outfits with perhaps just one person in mind.

"I love to be able to style people so that they're confident in their outfits," Robinson says.

Many times, customers are completely made over by the time they leave Katwalk. James says most of her store's customers are professionals looking to revamp their "weekend wardrobe." They may appear fairly conservative from 9 to 5, but want to spice it up at other times.

James buys from many high-end designers, such as Betsey Johnson, Patricia Field and Mimi Turner. Last fall, Katwalk was one of the few places in this area where you could find the ultra-popular Toast bag, which sold for between $420 and $690.

And James also stocks the store with items from the clothing line she and her husband created in the early 1990s, Simon Isirial.

Katwalk has a number of celebrity clients. Actress Vivica A. Fox, singers Aretha Franklin and Lil' Mo, and comedian Sommore have shopped there. Katwalk's clothes are regularly seen on BET hosts AJ and Free on the music-video-countdown show 106 & Park. James also has shipped clothing requested by R&B singer Mary J. Blige.

The Apprentice's Omarosa Manigault-Stallworth has even stopped by.

All customers, even celebrities, have something in common: They have to walk the store's "catwalk" -- a clearing between the dressing room and the shop's only mirror -- when trying on clothes.

"This way we can talk to them about the garment, and help them learn how to build around that one piece of clothing, how to incorporate it into their existing wardrobe," James says. "And because it's an intimate one-on-one setting, they feel like we're their personalized stylists. Everybody feels special."


What: Boutique

Where: 243 W. Read St.

Who: Owned by husband-and-wife team Toni and Justin James

Hours: 11 a.m.- 4 p.m. Monday; 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday

Price range: About $64-$1,500

Call: 410-669-0600

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