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Baltimore haute couture...it's not an oxymoron. Really.

Katie Moran at the Maryland Academy for the Couture Arts - Arianne Teepl
Katie Moran at the Maryland Academy for the Couture Arts - Arianne Teepl
Ella Pritsker is at her desk behind a bolt of pink tweed fabric. She's only just begun and it already looks as though this day's work will stretch into double digit hours. Not that she minds. "When you get to do what you love," she says, "you can tap the creative spring inside that spews ideas. And people everywhere want to do what they love."

Pritsker is the founder and director of the Maryland Academy of Couture Arts, and she knows a little something about fashion. Born in Russia, she studied the art of custom couture at the sewing tables of dressmakers in Austria and Italy, before immigrating to Baltimore in 1990.

Seven years later Pritsker launched her own line, Ella Moda Couture, in Maryland. Though currently in hiatus, her designs were voted Best Custom Couture by Baltimore Magazine in 2001. 

Making it happen 

Believing there were others in Baltimore who shared her love for creating beautiful clothing, but lacked the necessary training, in August 2009, she opened the Academy. The school is many things, but your run-of-the mill sewing school it isn't.

Pritsker's classes are "couturier" classes, where she encourages her students toward high-fashion creativity in the construction of original garments, and delights in destroying the myth that designers need a degree from a big institution like Parsons to create exclusive, beautiful clothing. Her students range in age from 13 to 60, but they all share a common love of clothing design.

It's a love that around here sometimes appears unrequited. After all, Baltimore is known more for crabs and kitsch than it is for couture.

Though, according to Pritsker and others, that might be changing.

"I am so happy to be here," she says, as she lovingly adjusts the silk taffeta basket-weave collar of a dress on a corner form. "There is so much talent in Baltimore. We just need to promote it."

And she does, by scouting out talented students like Michelle Murphy – who hand-paints diaphanous squares of silk with an expert hand – and by patronizing local manufacturers and retailers like "A Fabric Place" on Falls Road – Baltimore's equivalent of New York City's acclaimed "Mood Fabrics."

"If we want fabulous local fashion, we have to build our fashion infrastructure," she argues.

Sowing a common thread for the fashion conscious

That kind of infrastructure building is exactly what Aimee Bracken had in mind when she opened Form Boutique. "I felt there was a real need for cool, chic clothing boutiques that catered to creative professionals and women who just love fashion. Many of these women are here in Baltimore, but they just were not shopping locally as much as they could have. It made sense to fill that niche," she says.

Originally located in Hampden, in April Bracken relocated the boutique to Clipper Mill – another booming upscale retail destination. While Baltimore lacks the major shopping district of a larger market, Bracken and boutique owners like her recognize the appeal of Baltimore's "destination" shopping – the kind that goes hand-in-hand with the revitalization of Baltimore neighborhoods.

According to Gwendolyn Long, co-owner of Holly G Boutique in Mt. Washington Mill, that revitalization is the raison d'κtre for stores like hers. Her aim is to lure Baltimore area consumers – those inspired by trends without being modish – out of the malls and into Baltimore neighborhoods to shop where the City's diversity is on display.

Long says what she loves about Baltimore is that it provides fashionistas with a different experience on every corner. "There are great stores in Fells Point and Federal Hill that offer more weekend evening wear, professional wear at Cross Keys, and funky cool styles in Hampden. So each store is more a functional part of its surrounding community than a standalone location."

Julie Bent, the creative force behind LOT 201, works out of her studio in Station North where she's collaborating with Bracken on a line that will be available only at Form Boutique. Slated to debut in September, it has both women excited about the possibilities of offering an exclusive line to the eclectic, sartorially discerning consumers of the City.

According to Bent, Baltimoreans are creative and innovative, and don't want their style defined by someone else. Adds Bracken, "Baltimore is a great urban city mixed with classic sensibility. Baltimore women are smart and chic, they get it."

Pret-a-porter their way

Chrissie Davis, a consultant from Mt. Washington, is one who does. She's every boutique owner's dream: successful, smart, style-savvy. And Baltimore's neighborhood appeal is part of what brings her to the City to shop. "There are clusters of unique neighborhood shopping venues that reflect the attitude of the area and its people, like Hampden and Fells Point." These venues make it easy for her to eschew the mall in favor of boutiques like Cupcake, Blu Vintage and Urban Chic – those that provide an essential mix of vintage, luxury and everything in-between.

Yes. Luxury. SAMM, owner and co-creative director of Baltimore-based Viola Ricci Couture knows the City's treasure troves extend beyond the Village at Cross Keys. "From Fells Point to Towson, you can find high end brands from the world over."

Brands like Armani, Geren Ford, Ana Sui, Jil Stuart, and Vivienne Tam. But some Baltimore boutiques continue to labor under the misperception that the City is too "funky" or "unique" for national fashion credibility; that we're Mobtown bumpkins who don't know our Marc Jacobs from our Michael Kors.

Davis disagrees. "I think it would be a misconception to think that Baltimore's women are not in tune with fashion or don't care about it. The city is full of young, vibrant, fashion conscious women."

Hitting the catwalk

Heck, we even have a Fashion Week. The event, in its third year, takes place August 19-21 at the Sheraton Baltimore North, in Towson. There's also Fashion at Artscape. Thsi year it'll feature the art festival's  second annual fashion design competition. Beating them all to the punch this year on July 11 when historic Mt. Vernon Square will be overrun with models, photogs and designers is the inaugural "A Day of Fashion and Tribute to Alexander McQueen," sponsored by Baltimore-based Kantankerous Couture.

According to designers Bent and SAMM, events like this are proof that the City is an excellent incubator for industry professionals. From affordable rent, to its collaborative spirit, from its well-stocked boutiques to its laid-back predilections, it's all part of what they believe is critical to the perceived credibility of the fashion industry in Baltimore and its future.

But Baltimore fashion has a ways to go before it full matures. "These are the toddler and preschool days for Baltimore fashion. We have the talent. We just need the latest in eco and traditional fabrics at reasonable prices to keep our sharp edge," SAMM says. Bent adds that investors and a network of sales reps wouldn't hurt, either.

As Davis points out, "If they bring it, we will spend."

From spending, comes exposure – for the City's designers, its many boutiques and its fashionable sensibilities. As Pritsker says, "fashion is a fabulous way to present yourself and your uniqueness to the world."

That'll work out fine. After all, unique is one thing there's no shortage of in Baltimore.

Got a comment? Let us know what you think about this story on Twitter, Facebook or in an email! You can also read more about Baltimore'sArts and Culture scene.

Sarah Perry is an eleven-year native of the Baltimore area and has been writing for about that long. Her work has appeared in publications across the country. She's also a lawyer, but don't hold that against her.


Photos by Arianne Teeple
Katie Moran at the Maryland Academy for the Couture Arts
Ella Pritsker, director, Maryland Academy of Couture Arts
Maryland Academy for the Couture Arts
Julie Bent, clothing designer, at Form boutique
Julie Bent, clothing designer, at Form boutique
Aimee Bracken's jewelry design at Form boutique
Aimee Bracken, owner at Form boutique
Form Boutique in Clipper Mill
Merchandise at Form Boutique
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