Style & Shopping

Ray’s Runway

As the owner of Ruth Shaw, Ray Mitchener helps make Baltimore beautiful, one well-dressed woman at a time.

Raymond Mitchener wears sweatpants. This is hardly a huge scandal when it comes to most older gents. Except when it comes to the 66-year-old, perfectly coiffed Mitchener, the owner of Ruth Shaw—arguably the most luxurious women’s clothing boutique in Baltimore—it’s practically headline news. Though in fairness, the sweats are from Bergdorf Goodman.

And while Mitchener can sometimes be perceived as snobby or critical—conjure up that NYC salesperson at a chichi designer store to give you a sense of his reputation—the truth is more complicated.

“What many people don’t know is that I grew up in a trailer in the middle of a tobacco field in North Carolina,” says Mitchener. His father was stationed at Fort Bragg before Mitchener and his parents relocated to Wilmington, North Carolina. His childhood was far from fancy, but comfortable and filled with love. Even so, Mitchener learned that regardless of where you came from—at least in the South—“at the drop of the hat you’d get dressed to do anything,” including pumping gas or doing a grocery store run. “My mom always said you never know who you’re going to run into.” That attitude followed him to East Carolina University, where he studied theater, to New York, where he spent some time modeling, and finally to Baltimore, where he followed a boyfriend and ended up employed at Center Stage, back when it was on North Avenue.

Originally, he was working in the box office, but when it was discovered that he could sew, he was moved to the costume shop to make use of his talents with a needle and thread. (Mitchener was working there when arsonists set fire to the theater in January 1974 and the staff had to recreate all the costumes for the just-opened Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, which took up temporary residence at the College of Notre Dame.)

It was while working at Stewart’s Department Store that Mitchener began networking with the fashion heavies of Baltimore. Barbara McConaghy, fashion director at Saks Fifth Avenue, cast him in her shows and became an important mentor. “Everything you learn from me you pass on to someone else,” she told him at the time.

After leaving Center Stage, Mitchener continued to learn about the local fashion scene. He also worked at Hutzler’s and for a time with McConaghy at Saks. There was a healthy rivalry among the businesses and lots of ladies who lunched and shopped. Now, says Mitchener, the pain palpable in his voice, “There’s no competitive shopping.” There’s us, he says, “and then there’s . . . them.” Them being all the other women’s clothing boutiques in Baltimore that sell clothes but not the bold European designers Ruth Shaw carries, and certainly no one he would view as direct competition. “I know it sounds like we’re snarky, but we’re not,” he says, shaking his head. “I think now our society has become so permissive you can do anything and wear anything you want anywhere.” For Mitchener, that is not a celebration, it’s a lament.

“What many people don’t know is that I grew up in a trailer in the middle of a tobacco field.”

The need for high-end clothing shops, believes Mitchener, has taken a hit. He thinks back to his mom dressing for errands, and now he looks around on an evening out and no one dresses up anymore. In Ruth Shaw (the person), to whom he was first introduced by McConaghy in 1977, he found a kindred spirit, another person who always believed you should dress your best. Mitchener and Shaw met for dinner and talked for hours. “We didn’t really talk about business. Just ideas about fashion and politics,” Mitchener recalls. Shaw made it clear she wanted to hire him away from Stewart’s. “And that was it.”

Shaw was equally smitten—and still is—with Mitchener. “At that time no one had ever hired a man to do that kind of work,” says Shaw, now 91. But Shaw was never one to follow protocol. “It was never a problem—the fact that I had a woman’s store and he was not a woman. All the ladies loved him. I just felt comfortable with Ray—and I was right about it.”

In the 42 years that he has worked at what has become a clothing institution, a reputation has formed around Mitchener, and not always a flattering one. His husband, Brian Comes, co-owner of Ruth Shaw and the money side of the business, finds it ridiculous. The people who only know Mitchener as this caricature of an unapproachable salesperson don’t know “what a really genuinely kind, generous, and forgiving person he is,” says Comes. “There’s this image that he’s a snoot. There’s an image that he’s intimidating. It couldn’t be any further from fact. He’ll do anything for anyone within his abilities.” On some level, explains Comes, Mitchener could not care less about fashion. His relationship to people through clothes is what matters.

It’s hard to picture Mitchener, who wore a Thom Brown damask jacket and shorts with Jimmy Choo shoes to his 2013 wedding and has a personal shopper at Bergdorf’s, not caring about his own fashion, but he admits that he dons a pair of sweats after work. “The moment I go home, that’s exactly what I put on,” Mitchener says. Comes laughs, “It’s always very easy at Christmas to buy for him, because it’s always time to replenish.” It’s almost as if, in the comfort of his own home, he’s able to shed the fashion guru costume, and all the responsibility and image that comes with it, and just be a relaxed version of himself in front of Comes.

This August marks 22 years of the two being together, six of those married. “The year 2013 was the first year we could actually legally get married,” says Mitchener. What they thought would be a handful of guests exceeded 45 and packed their Cross Keys home. The two fit together like pieces to a puzzle—not an obvious match at first—but perfect counterparts upon closer inspection, with Comes sometimes working the shop floor alongside Mitchener and always making sure he’s had lunch. And most amusingly, Comes, who is about the same size and stature as his husband, is the couple’s fit model when it comes to their own wardrobe. “He hates to try things on,” says Comes. “He makes me try them on.” Mitchener grins. “I’m a 5-year-old.” With the exception of pants, due to different inseams, they share everything—shoes, tops, jackets.

Despite his sometimes blasé attitude toward his own fashion, Mitchener understands that when a woman walks through the door of this shop she wants to experience a moment of bliss as she slips something over her head that is beautiful and transformative. “I had a girl one day say, ‘I can’t afford any of these prices. I just want to try on pretty clothes.’” So they put her in a dressing room and let her do just that. “There is such a thing as retail therapy,” he says. It’s almost as though he’s undergone that sensation so many times with his own clients, he gets little pleasure from it for himself.

“I think now our society has become so permissive you can do anything and wear anything.”

What does bring him pleasure is his clients, who have become his family. He has dressed generations and tells stories, but in a very “what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas,” sort of way. He tells his staff it’s doctor-patient confidentiality, the curtain of the dressing room often acting as a confessional.

Even his customers—with their platinum credit cards and staff back at home—have their limits. Mitchener remembers one woman who paused in the middle of a transaction. “How much is that shirt?” she inquired. “$500? Take it off—even a train has got to stop once in a while.” He laughs.

What sets the Ruth Shaw shopper apart in a town like Baltimore, unlike, say, New York, is that those women who are dressed, like really dressed, are pretty rare. “It is easier to stand out here,” says Comes. “But that’s a blessing and a curse.” They almost get defeated, he says. It’s as if they have to apologize for caring about clothing. One client told him, “I just get so tired explaining why I look ‘nice.’ This is just how I look.”

Mitchener tells the story of taking a design rep out to dinner in Baltimore one night. They ordered wine and perused the menu, but she was unusually quiet. She finally said to him, “Ray, how do you stay in business? It’s Saturday night at 8 p.m. and people are in shorts and flip-flops. They look like they are going to wash my car.”

He sighs. As much as he’d like to, he can’t dress all of Baltimore. “Look,” he says, tapping the table. “I want to see people wear clothes that I want—not what they’re asking for,” he says, using leggings as an example. “Ruth used to say back in the day that if she had sold polyester pull-on pants she could have made a fortune. But she said, ‘I don’t want to see people wearing that.’” Shaw opened her store and filled it with what she wanted to wear. “Everyone finds their little niche. And whether that’s right or wrong, that’s just where you are,” she told him. He’s kept that general idea since he bought her out in 2008. Like a Chanel suit, the store has aged well, with a few adjustments. After more than four decades at The Village of Cross Keys shopping center, Mitchener moved the store to The Shops at Kenilworth for a fresh start in the fall of 2017.

Mitchener’s customers have followed. They tend to be smart, sophisticated, and loyal, with a heathy budget and an appreciation that fashion is art.

His customers tend to be smart, sophisticated, and loyal, with a healthy budget.

The move from Cross Keys has given the store a facelift and drawn in some new, younger customers. Tobi Thompson Chiampou is part of Mitchener’s plan to attract that next generation. Chiampou began working for Mitchener when he had just purchased the business from Shaw and she was earning her undergraduate degree. She started there part-time and is now the store manager and assistant buyer. Her effervescent personality is the perfect counter to Mitchener’s perceived character. “We always ying and yang with that a bit,” she says. She was involved in the creation of Cross Keys’ The Girl Next Door, a sister boutique that Mitchener had envisioned with curated brands that appealed to a younger client (her husband, Charlie Chiampou, of cW Design/Build, was even the lead designer). However, when the store moved to Kenilworth, The Girl Next Door closed. “Now I like to say that The Girl Next Door moved in,” says Chiampou. The Ruth Shaw shop at Kenilworth is more mindful of those younger patrons. “We’re trying our best to be more approachable,” she says. “Not everyone wants to spend $1,000 on a dress.” She knows someone walking in that door is also paying off student loans or private school tuition. “We all have to prioritize.” Mitchener sees Chiampou as the future of his shop—just like Shaw saw him. “It’s something that is exciting but intimidating,” says Chiampou. “His apprenticeship with Ruth was a long ride. And I definitely see us in the early stages.” She’s learning the business side of the shop, which is important, but she’s also enjoying the fun side of fashion. “I’m in a huge floral swing dress right now,” she says on the phone, “And a pair of dirty white Converse.”

That’s what Mitchener loves about fashion. “If you think you look good, you’re going to look good,” he believes. “We evolve constantly. I could talk about clothes forever. I seriously find it totally fascinating—why we wear what we do and how it changes our lives.” Even sweatpants.