Kenneth M. Charlow, 84, owned custom tailoring firm

August 06, 2005|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

Kenneth M. Charlow, the third-generation owner of a Baltimore custom tailoring establishment that was known for nearly a century for its meticulously hand-crafted garments, died of heart failure Monday at St. Joseph Medical Center. He was 84.

Mr. Charlow, whose father and grandfather were tailors, was born in Baltimore and raised in the city's Park Circle neighborhood.

He was a 1938 graduate of City College and attended the Maryland Institute College of Art. In 1941, he enlisted in the Army Air Forces and served in Europe in ground support with the 486th Bomb Squadron. He was discharged in 1945 with the rank of sergeant.

After the war, he studied clothing design in New York City before returning to Baltimore in 1949 to join J. Charlow & Son, which had been founded in 1899 by his grandfather, Jacob Charlow, at 420 S. Charles St.

The first shop was across the alley from the city room of the old Baltimore Herald newspaper, and after the 1904 Baltimore Fire destroyed the shop, it moved to Howard Street near the Little Theatre.

It later moved to Fayette Street, Liberty Street and finally to 214 W. Saratoga St., where it remained until closing in 1983.

"With several theaters nearby, we had a lot of the theatrical customers," Mr. Charlow told The Evening Sun at the time of his 1983 retirement. "The show people -- like John Barrymore -- would come into town strutting their stuff, and we'd get the theatrical trade."

For more than 30 years -- almost half the life of the venerable tailoring shop's existence -- the ever-cheerful Mr. Charlow helped customers select fabric, settle on a design, take measurements, and then make the necessary patterns from which the garment was cut and assembled. The process would take between three and six weeks.

"I'm always running into people who asked me if I'm related to the Charlow tailoring company. It was once the place to go for suits, sports coats, pants, tuxedos and overcoats," said a son, Dean M. Charlow of Lutherville.

"One time, Bubba Smith, the football player, came in with a leisure suit and wanted it copied. My father refused," the son said.

Mr. Charlow cut a fine figure himself, always wearing a suit and sometimes a vest to work.

"He was a well-dressed man, and a well-dressed man never left home without wearing a hat," the son said.

Mr. Charlow was known for his dry wit, which he liberally dispensed.

"When people would come into the store and say they were a perfect 42, Dad would say, `No, you're an easy-to-please 42.' He was convinced the only way to have a perfect fit was to have a custom-made suit," Dean Charlow said.

"He always made sure the customer had an impeccable fit. And he had a knack with helping a client choose fabric. Sometimes he would send swatches to customers with a note saying that a suit in this cloth would look good on them," said another son, Glenn M. Charlow of Homeland. "He had an expression, `No customer is hard to fit, just ones that were hard to please.'"

When during a fitting, a customer complained about wrinkles, Mr. Charlow would hold his palms skyward and say, "Your skin is a suit made by God, and it has wrinkles."

"He was a consummate gentleman of the old school," said H. Thomas Howell, a Baltimore attorney, who still wears suits that were made for him years ago by Mr. Charlow.

"I wear them with pride. Everything fit perfectly and was top-quality. I'm the type of person who wears suits because I have to. He made you want to wear them," Mr. Howell said.

Even though he had retired, Mr. Charlow continued making garments for some clients and taking care of his family's clothing needs.

"He was always sewing buttons on Mom's coat, and I'm still wearing clothes he made for me," said Dean Charlow.

Plans for a September memorial service were incomplete yesterday.

In addition to his sons, surviving are his wife of 56 years, the former Norma M. Chmelar; a sister, Beatrice Fine of Pikesville; six grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren. Another son, Duane M. Charlow, died in 2001.

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