Nearly 70 years of style with Eddie Jacobs

December 26, 2008|By Jacques Kelly | Jacques Kelly,jacques.kelly@baltsun.com

As he's been doing for nearly the past 50 years, Eddie Jacobs opens his own door in downtown Baltimore for another business day. He answers his own phone (the number has not changed in nearly 70 years) and mails his own paperwork.

The man who sells suits as they looked in the 1950s is proud of his merchandise's permanence. He believes in classic clothes with good linings, reliable wool fabric and pants with a proper rise. He owns no blue jeans and will not discuss the grunge look. His sales technique is as soft as the shoulders in one of his Southwick suits.

"He'll sacrifice a sale if he feels a garment doesn't look good," said attorney Timothy D.A. Chriss, who has been a customer since his junior high school days. "He is confident in his goods and confident in his taste."

One of downtown Baltimore's most affable retail survivors, Jacobs says he learned everything from his father, the elder Eddie Jacobs, who opened on Redwood Street in 1939 and died in 1982. The shop has moved a few times, always in proximity to Light and Redwood streets, where it anchors a retail space in the Bank of America Building.

"My father was my commanding officer and a brilliant salesman," said his son, who is 69 and began work at the store as a 13-year-old Polytechnic Institute student. "The day he died at Union Memorial Hospital, he asked me, 'How did we do today at the store?' "

Since 1966, he has run his shop with a partner, Frank Motta, a master tailor who was born in Messina, Italy. Motta, who once worked in the old Cambridge menswear suit manufacturing plant, has a sewing machine and steam presser at one end of the shop.

Jacobs and Motta work in tandem as a customer tries on a garment. They trade looks and glances in a kind of "yes" or "no" code pertaining to fit and style. Patrons have learned to heed their advice.

"That's what 42 years of working together will do to you," Motta said.

One day recently, Motta was arranging Irish wool caps on a table and Jacobs was unpacking silk ties to be set out on a table.

"There is no real year-round clothing material, not in Baltimore," Motta said. "We believe in the seasons."

Jacobs puts it another way: "In Baltimore, you cannot wear a suit when it's 95 degrees that you can wear when it's 32."

Jacobs and Motta ardently believe in sticking to the classic, American-style soft-shouldered suit and the shirts and ties that go with it.

"What we are selling is consistency," Jacobs said. "You don't have to replace your wardrobe every two or three years."

Although not so many men wear topcoats, Jacobs said his customers will wear one for 20 years, and only then buy a replacement.

"If they gain weight, then they'll come in, maybe for a new one, more likely to have it altered," he said. "I'll remember the original sale."

Jacobs is actually delighted when a customer wears a sport coat for 10 years and has it patched and relined. He says his customers grow attached to his suits and sport coats and only grudgingly part with them.

"By the time the jacket comes in here after a decade, it's like a loyal dog. You could whistle, and it would run up and jump," Jacobs said. "This is really a replacement business. Our customer is a conservative male who buys his own clothes. Rarely does a wife shop for her husband here."

Jacobs and Motta have plenty of stories to tell about Baltimore. They recall the top business executive who built his own downtown office building but refused to invest in a new suit as he gained weight. His wife ordered Motta to take a suit's vest, rip it apart and use the salvaged fabric to expand the pants.

They also recall the local contractor who decades ago funded a state senator's $1,000 spending spree. A 1960s political fundraiser would reward his donors with garments from the store, so many that Jacobs and Motta reserved a rack for his Christmas selections.

This type of spending is a thing of the past, Jacobs said. He describes his clientele as a "thin piece of the market" whose members tend to dress as their fathers dressed. They are almost all drawn from the local professions and lean toward law and financial circles.

"The one thing about bad times is that men begin to clean their act up," Jacobs said. "The want to look their best."

His suits may be conservative and his ties quietly colorful, but the shop created a local identity for itself with one of its sidelines: country-club sportswear.

The founding Eddie Jacobs, who was the 1924 boy's indoor tennis champion, learned the game at Druid Hill Park on courts opposite his Auchentoroly Terrace home. He went on to win the 1927 national junior doubles and again in the 1960s took top honors as a senior player.

"My father brought in the tennis sweater and made a style out of it," his son said.

The shop also sells a necktie, popularly known as the Eddie Jacobs, with a pattern of crossed rackets over a background of dark blue. At one time there was a tennis blazer, with a racket lining and buttons.

Jacobs and Motta concentrate on selling suits, sport coats and trousers locally. But over the years, the shop's name has appeared in small New Yorker magazine ads offering slightly unusual menswear items - a French cuff, button-down shirt, the shirt with a buttoned flap over the pocket and men's bathing trunks made with extra sturdy pockets, good for use on a boat.

Jacobs said his goal is not to sell to everyone in Baltimore. He hopes to reach those who appreciate what he believes is his sense of consistent style and quality.

"Demanding customers are part of the game," Jacobs said. "And don't ever think that you're smarter than your customers. You aren't."

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