Rooting for Joe Bank, the local guy

Hampstead-based clothier has deep roots in Baltimore

  • An employee works inside a Jos. A. Bank retail store on December 5, 2013 in San Francisco, California.
An employee works inside a Jos. A. Bank retail store on December… (Justin Sullivan / Getty…)
March 01, 2014|Dan Rodricks

If you own shares in Jos. A. Bank or run a small business in the Carroll County town of Hampstead, where the menswear company is headquartered, your reasons for caring about the outcome of the current hostilities between Joe Bank and the Men's Wearhouse are obviously financial.

Not so much for the rest of us.

For the rest of us, the interest lay in the bidding, with Joe Bank, the Men's Wearhouse and Eddie Bauer all caught up in a five-month, corporate-takeover drama. Someone could have produced a reality TV show about all this by now: Bank's attempt to buy Men's, Men's attempt to buy Bank, Bank buying Bauer, and Men's getting ticked off about the whole thing.

What a bunch of suits!

It has been fun to watch the story play out; we still don't know how it will end.

But, corporate intrigue aside, there's another reason for Marylanders to follow along and maybe even cheer for Joe B — there's a "Baltimore thing" in this story.

Ask older men around here to name the places they went to buy suits over the years, and they'll list several locally owned establishments, including the old Howard Street department stores.

But most are gone. Long gone.

Joe Bank, however, is still here, and you can trace the company's roots back to early 20th-century Baltimore.

Joseph A. Bank was the grandson of an immigrant tailor. He learned to cut cloth from his grandfather. He made and sold pants, only pants — he could have had a business called Joe's Just Pants — then he married the daughter of a clothing manufacturer.

By 1945, Jos. A. Bank & Co. had a showroom in downtown Baltimore. The company moved from wholesale to retail some time in the 1950s, and by 1981, Joe Bank had 11 stores. The company has gone through a lot of changes — it was owned for a time by the Quaker Oats Co. — and today Bank has more than 600 stores and an online business.

As time goes by and home-grown companies are bought, sold, merged with, downsized, and reinvented, it becomes more difficult to identify regionally with a brand.

But as you can see, there's something in the Joe Bank DNA that makes it Baltimore, and not just because of the local roots. It's because there's practically a Joe Bank tradition around here, at least for men of a certain profession and social class.

I first became aware of this in the 1970s. Back then, the city and counties were swimming in polyester. It was everywhere — in three-piece suits, in leisure suits, in shirts and pants and ugly ties. John Waters made a movie called "Polyester."

In that era, there was a popular men's ensemble known as The Full Towson. It consisted of a brightly colored polyester suit — often blue or red — with a shirt of the same color, a white tie, a white belt and white shoes. (Jeremy Renner comes close to this a couple of times as Mayor Polito in the Oscar-nominated "American Hustle.")

The Full Towson wasn't exclusive to the Baltimore County seat; you could find it almost anywhere as population, businesses and political power shifted from the city to the growing suburbs. In fact, you might say the Full Towson was an unofficial uniform of local pols, developers and salesmen. It was considered formal attire for a bull-and-oyster roast.

The era of the Full Towson seems to have been when Jos. A. Bank established itself as the place where men went to be serious, to dress for success, to escape the onslaught of plastic clothes.

In the midst of one of the worst periods in American haberdashery, Joe Bank never went disco. It held steady as a retailer to the sober and conservative, standing tall in a classic wool charcoal suit above a foamy sea of polyester.

All through downtown Baltimore, in office buildings and courthouses, there were men in Joe Bank suits. There was definitely a "Joe Bank look," and you knew it when it walked past you — classic navy or pinstripe suit, white or blue Oxford shirt, and repp tie.

Forty years later, that look is still around. Some attorneys and bankers have been shopping at Joe Bank throughout their careers.

"Joe Bank was the first to mass-market the old-school Ivy look in Baltimore," says Gilbert Sandler, long-time chronicler of city life. "The Ivy look for less." Sandler credits Eddie Jacobs, the tennis champion, with establishing that look and selling it in his downtown store. But it was Bank that figured out how to sell it on a larger scale.

"The poor man's Brooks Brothers," some called it, though Bank's prices were never that low. It has always been a reliable store for members of the suit-and-tie workforce who could not afford custom-made clothes.

And it has always had "that Baltimore thing" going for it, even through corporate transformations and expansion to other cities. For that reason, I'm rooting for Joe Bank to survive the current hostilities.

drodricks@baltsun.com

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