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Bespoke: Baltimore’s Power Suits

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Fitting in is often a way of accessing power in the modern world—a uniform, the business suit, or even a hoodie in the tech industry, but not in Baltimore. Veteran fashion designers Earle Bannister, Ella Pritsker, Stephen Wise, and Natalie Karyl favor the one-of-a-kind garment, the bespoke, the eccentric, and the original. The lesson from these designers is that by dressing to please ourselves, we will naturally feel powerful.

Fashion rebel and dandy extraordinaire Beau Brummell knew this, though ironically his taste helped to shape the modern business suit. In the early 19th century, Brummell embraced a shockingly simple wardrobe at a time when most men—including his friend Prince George IV—favored bright colors, luxurious silks, lace, and velvet. Brummel chose a muted palette and impeccable white linen, dark wools, and leather, favoring clothing inspired by contemporary military and riding clothes.

While garments like trousers would usually be far too casual for dress at court, the elegant line created by Brummell’s sharp eye for tailoring and details such as suspenders and stirrups gave his soft leather trousers an elegant line and highlighted his athletic figure. His white linen shirts and Irish muslin ties cost a small fortune to keep laundered and starched, meaning that his style still suggested wealth and leisure but in a quieter way than most of his contemporaries.

 

Designer Earle Bannister in bouclé houndstooth full-length cloak, vest, and pants, with spiked gloves, vintage cufflinks, silk tie, and pocketsquare, and African walking stick
Designer Earle Bannister at Baltimore's Cylburn Arboretum

Earle Bannister’s style is perhaps most closely aligned with Brummell’s. Bannister, who has designed and made beautiful bespoke suits in Baltimore since 1995, chose a stunning brown boucle herringbone fabric for his cape, waistcoat, and trousers along with a black suit coat. Like Brummell, Bannister has a keen eye for details, a carefully placed watch chain, an African walking stick, a soft blue bowtie that picks up his blue cufflinks, and a vintage pocket square and hat.

While the ensemble relies on traditional forms of men’s suiting, the oversized herringbone and black and white striped lining of his cloak, and custom tabi boots (a reference to Martin Margiela) reveal his personality. The punk spiked gloves, a nod to Banister’s favorite designer Alexander McQueen, add a subversive note of punk to the historical references of this ensemble.

 

Designer Earle Bannister in bouclé houndstooth full-length cloak, vest, and pants, with spiked gloves, vintage cufflinks, silk tie, and pocketsquare, and African walking stick

In today’s context of plain black, navy, and grey suits, Bannister’s choices stand out the way Brummell’s did, and wearing his own creations makes him feel powerful. “Whenever I wear something I’ve created in my studio, I feel invincible,” he says. “It embodies power for me because the onlooker can see what I’ve done. The garment is the receipt or proof of my talents and abilities. It speaks for me.”

As with Brummell, Bannister says that a perfect fit is critical and custom clothing makes you feel special. “It fits your body, your taste, your style. And most importantly, you are the only person that has it,” he says. “Meanwhile the rest of the world is wearing clothes that are too big, too long, too short, too tight, too loose, and poorly made. When I wear my custom suits, I know I look my best. When you look good, you feel good, and do good.” Individuality is powerful.

 

Designer Ella Pritsker in Dress Coat with Vintage Buttons

For designer Ella Pritsker, feeling good is key to the clothes that make her feel powerful. Pritsker, with the help of her daughters, chose a coat dress made in French brocade covered with a profusion of blossoms in shades of purples, lilac, lavender, and greys, finished with vintage buttons. Her regal coat dress brings to mind men’s dress in the 18th century, the floral brocade is reminiscent of the spectacular floral embroidery on court coats, where the cut away from the body creates an elegant line. Even Pritsker’s shoes call to mind the buckled men’s styles of the 18th century.

For women, power dressing has often involved adopting details from men’s dress—in the nineteenth century working women wore dark wool skirts and white shirtwaists that referenced men’s button-downs. In the twentieth century, trousers were gradually claimed by women—a real power play if you look at how much this was resisted both socially and legally—as was men’s suiting (think of Marlene Dietrich’s fabulous tuxedos).

Designer Ella Pritzker in Brocade Dress Coat with Vintage Buttons and matching mask

By claiming much older masculine styles Pritsker’s look points to the ways that signifiers for gender and power have changed over time. While well-tailored simplicity and sartorial restraint is the hallmark of conservative men’s business fashion today Pritsker looks back to a time when ostentation and elaborate decoration was a signifier for power. According to Pritsker, who loves pockets whenever possible, “What you feel good in is your power suit.”

It’s unsurprising that Pritsker looks back to history in her couture work; she is interested in making clothing with staying power, so that “everything in your wardrobe is on trend.” She also believes flexibility can be a hallmark of power, pointing to a hot pink tennis skirt and simple black sweater underneath the coat as another kind of power suit. This wardrobe matches her current life, where the ability to move from work, to motherhood, to a game of golf, without needing to change clothes is what feels most powerful to her. Flexibility is powerful.

 

Designer Stephen Wise in denim suit in Gianfranco Ferré fabric with French cuffs

According to designer Stephen Wise, “suits give you an extra sense of armor.” The stone print on his bespoke suit speaks to that defensive form of power dressing. Wise’s ensemble started with the fabric, a denim by Gianfranco Ferré: “I loved the unstructured geometric patterns in it and the various colors emitting different emotions. The shirt fabric [a muted floral print] was purchased after the suit fabric. I’m a big fan of pattern play and these two fabrics play off of each other and the outcome intrigued me.” For Wise, the interplay evoked an image drawn from the poetry of Tupak Shakur, “the rose that grew from concrete.”

In the spirit of his poetic reference, Wise made a feature of an accident: the sleeves on the jacket he designed were made too short by his tailor. Rather than scrapping the jacket, he had a French cuff added and an extra elbow patch. Suddenly a unique suit was even more one-of-a-kind. Wise says that to him what is most powerful is “to see your name on something.”

 

Designer Stephen Wise in denim suit in Gianfranco Ferré fabric with French cuffs
Designer Stephen Wise in denim suit in Gianfranco Ferré fabric with French cuffs

For him, wearing clothing with his own label and logo is powerful because it shows his ownership of both his business, but also his image. As Wise explains, he takes a “more holistic approach,” to power dressing, “meaning the better I feel about me the better I feel in my clothing. That confidence will exude from me, making me feel powerful from an internal space… making the clothes look even better.”

While we think of the modern men’s suit as being a kind of uniform for business that never changes, it’s not quite that simple. As the garment emerged in the mid-nineteenth century, men used the correct suit for the correct time as a way of signaling authority and status. There was a keen awareness of fine materials and well-tailored fits that denoted status and wealth.

Wearing the appropriate kind of suit for day or evening, town or country, was a way of showing that you knew the rules of society and that you had good manners. Wise’s suit plays on these ideas, presenting a classic form but with a poetic twist, a blend of organic forms and the geometry of good tailoring. Confidence is powerful.

 

Designer Natalie Karyl in sequined maxi gown and cable knit cardigan from her house brand, Doll Collection
Model Ashanti Watkins wearing Ragdolls Couture Victorian Tux

Natalie Karyl’s work as both a designer and stylist centers around the relationships she builds with clients and the social experience of shopping. Her Doll House Boutique, in Mount Vernon, Baltimore since 2004 and in LA since October 2019, are community spaces highlighting the work of many new designers and an “embodiment of the culture of sisterhood.”

For the shoot, Karyl selected a sequined maxi-gown from her house brand called Doll Collection, to exude an old Hollywood glamour and function as “sparkle armor” from the world. She makes the look her own by adding her favorite cardigan and embellished sneakers by Gucci. The maxi is reminiscent of Diane von Furstenberg’s iconic 1974 wrap dress.

Although it formed the basis of her brand, von Furstenberg did not invent the wrap dress; women had been wearing them at least since at least World War I as housedresses and “bungalow aprons.” However, in von Furstenberg’s hands, the dress was both practical and unapologetically sexy and it became a new kind of symbol of power for women in the workplace in the 1970s. Like von Furstenberg, Karyl imagines a different kind of power, but in Baltimore it is community power.

 

Model Marcella Myles wearing Ragdolls Couture Military Embellished Canadian Tuxedo

 

Through her boutiques, Karyl nurtures new talent and creates a warm environment for her customers. A sense of collective responsibility is also reflected in her brand’s sustainable practices: producing locally on a small scale, using upcycled materials, and reworking vintage garments.

Karyl has always employed creative reuse of clothing in building an aesthetic around blending disparate elements. Her design work for Ragdolls Couture often incorporates materials like denim and leather that can read as masculine, and forms of men’s suiting like tuxedos and frockcoats, which she pairs with feminine elements like tulle, lace, peplums, or a mutton chop sleeve. She favors blending high and low, masculine and feminine, casual and formal, hard and soft.

“What I wear to feel powerful is determined by my mood,” she says. “I can feel powerful wearing joggers and heels with a t-shirt and blazer.” Like Yves Saint Laurent’s iconic Le Smoking (a tuxedo for women), or Halston’s ultrasuede shirtdress (a man’s dress shirt reimagined as a dress), Karyl’s looks use structure and tailoring to adapt masculine elements to women’s bodies, although she subverts masculine signifiers for communicating power. Sisterhood is powerful.

Models Ashanti Watkins wearing Ragdolls Couture Victorian Tux and Marcella Myles wearing Ragdolls Couture Military Embellished Canadian Tuxedo

All photos were created at Baltimore's Cylburn Arboretum

This story is from Issue 10: Power,

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