As anyone who has worked in women’s clothing will attest, retail is a tough business. To run a successful boutique for a few years is an admirable feat, but to thrive for 40 years, well, that’s nothing short of remarkable.
Tomorrow marks the fortieth anniversary of Baltimore high-end women’s clothing boutique Ruth Shaw. The store opened in 1973 by namesake Ruth Shaw, a former tennis clothing designer and renowned local fashionista before it was even a word! She sold the boutique in 2008 to her long-time manager and buyer Ray Mitchener, who has run the store with the same commitment to quality merchandise, the latest trends, top designers and more, features that have made the store a Baltimore institution.
The upscale boutique will celebrate “Forty Fabulous Years of Fashion” Saturday night with cocktails at its Cross Keys location and 100 close friends, supporters and, of course, the 85-year-old original owner Ruth Shaw.
We caught up with current owner Ray Mitchener, who has played a huge role in establishing the store’s brand while helping to run the business for the last 35 years (he was a model for Versace, Ralph Lauren and others before). He is known and respected in the fashion industry and the store’s national reputation — it has been recognized as a fashion leader by Harper’s Bazaar, Elle and Lucky — has earned Ray access to the best and hottest European and American designers, and in the store, it shows!
He gave us a few insights into the secrets of his success…
You have kept a high-end designer business alive for 40 years in Baltimore, which is not a high-end designer town. What is your secret?
I think the real reason we have enjoyed such longevity is that we constantly change and evolve with our clients, listening to their wishes and demands and nurturing our relationships with them.
I am forever seeking the “next and now” in fashion and trying to bring it to Baltimore, keeping in mind that it has to be wearable and somewhat practical. I think the keys of staying in business for over forty years is staying relevant.
It is my greatest joy to help a woman discover more about herself through clothing.
Why did you decide to buy the boutique?
I bought the store in 2008 because, working with Ruth for so many years, it was a natural succession. I love what I do. I want to continue the legacy of Ruth Shaw.
What has changed about retail since you started working in it years ago?
The changes that have made the biggest impact on the fashion industry from my perspective are the accessibility of clothing through internet shopping, the fact that designers are accessible to the masses via product lines for Target, Kohls, Uniqlo, and others. Lastly, our relaxed dress codes have changed fashion, too.
What do you love most about fashion?
The thing I love most about fashion is that it is constantly changing. The power of fashion is an amazing thing. It effects the way we live. It gives us confidence. It gives us a sense of comfort and, sometimes, a sense of power.
Who are your favorite designers?
My favorite designers change from season to season. There are those who will always be stand-outs and to whom contemporary designers will pay homage, Chanel being at the top. But right now I love Blumarine, Max Mara and Etro as well as Alexander Wang, Philip Lim and the design team for Rag and Bone. They are just a few of my favorites. I’m always open to new designers and not afraid to let go of a collection that is not working for my customer.
So you also carry lines that are contemporary and casual and not as pricey as your designer collections?
Absolutely. One side of the store may feature Alexander Wang, Phillip Lim, DKNY and Elizabeth and James just to name a few. Walk to the other side of the store and you can find The Row (designed by the Olsen Twins – who also design Elizabeth and James) and other current high end designers.
What is one mistake you see women make when choosing clothes?
The one major mistake women make when choosing clothing is not asking for help from the pros! I have a team of great women working for me who have all been in the business for years and understand clothes. Listening to family and friends can often lead to hurt feelings and to not being open to new ideas. My store manager Maureen Gold and I see most of the designer shows in New York and Paris. We bring back ideas about what’s new for the season and buy what will work best for our customers. A husband, boyfriend or best friend can’t do that! They will most likely encourage you to buy what they like – and not what looks the best on you! The new purchase suddenly looks old when you get it home!
What is one thing every woman should have in her closet?
There is no “one thing” a woman should have in her wardrobe. There are several, in my opinion: the best fitting pair of pants she can find, a great fitting jacket (one that covers her bottom), that works with both skirts and pants and a LBD (little black dress). No one is over- or under-dressed in a little black dress.
Thanks for your time, Ray. Congratulations and Happy Birthday!