Aspirational Chat with Ella Pritsker
Fashion Designer Ella Pritsker is the President and Creative Director of Ella Pritsker Couture Studio, located in Timonium. As you might expect of a couture fashion designer, Ella’s style is elegantly simple. What I learned, while sitting in her studio, is that she’s humble, grateful and really enjoys sharing her gifts with others through education and giving back. The generosity of strangers made a huge impression on Ella when she arrived here from Russia 28 years ago. It’s safe to say she’s been “paying it forward” ever since!
As a side note, when you’re going to one of the Mid-Atlantic region’s most celebrated custom design houses you spend a bit of time worrying about what to wear! Now I know how my clients feel when they tell me they spent so much time getting their house ready for me to come over for our first meeting.
Read our Chat to find out about her experience with power tools, where she buys her clothes (I was dying to know this!) and what she enjoys about her home.
AFP: Thanks for having me in your studio today. It’s very cool to see the space where you create your gorgeous clothing. Let’s talk about your home. I’d like to understand how you live and how it reflects you. Do you live nearby?
EP: I live in Mays Chapel.
AFP: And how long have you been there?
EP: Since 2000. I always wanted to live in Mays Chapel. I came here to the United States 28 years ago as a refugee. Throughout the years, I've had some difficulties as I was assimilating into this culture. One day I was visiting this area and I thought, "Oh my gosh. I just love this area and I want to live here!" And then I found out that they have really good schools so that was even more of an incentive. Several years later, I got remarried and we had another son. So now we have three; his, mine and ours. [laughter].
AFP: I love that! How old are your boys?
EP: 38, 28 and 13.
AFP: What is it about the home that appealed to you? I know you said that you wanted to be in that neighborhood, but is there something about the house in particular that felt right to you?
EP: What I love about our house is that it has a loft bedroom. And the ceiling is 12' or 16' high and the airy space felt really good. It's very quiet and peaceful, hardly anything goes on there.
AFP: That's a good thing, right? [laughter]
EP: We are in a slightly older part of the Mays Chapel community, and so when I look out the window it looks like we are right on a golf course. There's these beautiful big, expansive spaces between groups of homes and then just across the street from us is Five Farms Golf Course.
AFP: How would you describe your home? Does it reflect that same sentiments or what's your style in your home?
EP: Very simple. I would probably best describe myself as very traditional and conservative, a quiet sort of elegance. We recently switched out our baseboards and crown molding, and because I love working with my hands, I did it all myself. And it turned out really well!
AFP: That's great!
EP: I even bought all the tools and a chop saw.
AFP: I love that! This is not something I would've expected. I understand the appeal of working with your hands because you use your hands to create clothing, but construction is the opposite of fashion and fabric!
EP: You know, what influenced me – HGTV. [laughter]
AFP: It influences a lot of people.
EP: I said, after I did all of that work,I will hire pro next time! I won't do that again myself, but it was just a bucket list thing.
AFP: It's empowering to take on a project with tools that seem intimidating. And then when you learn how to use them you realize they're really not, and then you know "Yeah! I can do that!".
EP: I satisfied my urge to do something, my nesting instinct. It was a lot of fun, it was very hard work.
AFP: Precision work, which is exactly what you do when you create your clothing. How does your home reflect who you are?
EP: It totally does. Family room is full of warm golds, oranges, reds and everything is in that very autumnal palette. It has a very traditional built-in bookcase and fireplace . We spend a lot of time there, especially around Thanksgiving and Christmas. It's a great place to play games or sit by the fire and read. My home studio is also located on the same level with my family room, so I can work there. On our main level we have a living room, dining room and kitchen. We recently laid new flooring – I didn't do it. [laughter]
Our kitchen is undergoing remodeling, so our house is kind of torn apart right now. The next project we are going to undertake is the upstairs bathrooms and bedrooms. Hopefully this winter we'll tackle those. I'll be gone pretty much most of the winter in Naples, working on business development. My husband will be home to manage the projects.
AFP: Do you have a home in Naples?
EP: No, we've just started looking into it and hopefully it will be a place where we settle in at some point. I'm not ready for it, but in the winters I'd like to spend some more time there.
AFP: Do you have a current client base down there?
EP: I'm working on it. I go there frequently to develop that.
AFP: Florida seems like a great area to receive your fashion. It's a very nice area and clearly people take an interest in their lifestyle. What's your favorite room in your house?
EP: My family room. It's warm, inviting and comfortable and has my favorite colors. It was the first room to be remodeled and I really put a lot of time and thought into, it really reflects me. It was really fun to work on it, too. I made all the draperies, pillows and throws.
AFP: I can imagine, with your time and talent, that they're beautiful. I wondered if you did any sewing work in your home.
EP: Hopefully, my next favorite will be the kitchen. [laughter]
AFP: A kitchen renovation is a challenge, I know. Do you like to cook?
EP: I love to cook, but I just don't have time.
AFP: Does your husband enjoy cooking?
EP: My husband does the majority of cooking, he loves to cook. We really do love to entertain, but we don’t do it as frequently as we'd like.
AFP: Well, maybe when the kitchen gets refinished! It would be a great way to celebrate the new kitchen. What is your favorite or most comfortable chair in the house? You mentioned sitting by the fire and reading a book, is there a place that you love to do that or spend time?
EP: I don't have a favorite chair, although my husband would argue that I do because I'm always at my dining room table in one particular chair. He leaves the house I'm in that chair, he comes home I'm in that chair [laughter]. Because I'm working! My favorite is the sofa in the living room. It is the most comfortable and like a burnt orange-red, my favorite color. It's well-lived in and has many memories.
AFP: What are your aspirations for your life for the next 5 years? Between business, home and life, what are you looking to do next?
EP: I love what I do. There's nothing else that I ever dreamed of, I pretty much live my dream life. There's nothing else I want to do professionally, except probably just continue to do what I do and expand to Naples. In the next five years, I'd like to be able to live somewhere between Nemacolin, Baltimore and Naples, having those three points to do business and grow the company. I'd like to be more involved with my charity work, which brings me joy. I'll tell you why.
I came here 28 years ago and we arrived at the very end of that wave of refugees that came from Russia. The Associated Jewish Charities decided to do a little bit of PR around all of the immigrants that came into the community. They hired The Baltimore Sun to do a story. For whatever reason, they choose our family. Myself and my ex-husband, and at that point I was pregnant. The photographer and writer followed us for months. They came in and took pictures almost daily and observed how we were living. They published a big article about how who were and what our dreams, goals and aspirations were at that time. The writer asked me through an interpreter, "What do you miss most about your home?" And I said that I missed my sewing machine. The article was published on December 9, 1990 and the next day there were several sewing machines at my doorstep.
EP: It touched me in a way that led me to tears because of the generosity of American women. It made such an impact on me that that was the day I said to myself that when I can, when I make it, I will help all the women that I can. This is why I opened the school, why I make beautiful clothes. I want to help women feel and look beautiful, so they can be empowered to do and achieve and accomplish and fulfill their dreams, just as my dreams have been fulfilled and realized here. That's what drives me, makes me get up every morning.
AFP: That's an amazing story and really touching. It’s great that you've been able to do just that, come to a place where you can give back and still do what you need to do. In 2013 you were awarded the Spirited Woman in Business Award, for leadership and devotion. Tell me a little bit about that and what that meant to you. It’s quite an honor!
EP: Monyka Berrocosa established that award and the funds raised go to The Giving Spirits Foundation. The category of Spirited Women probably resonated with me mostly because I've always believed that if you love something and if you want to do something, there's no reason to wait. You just have to go and do! I think that it only comes with age when you realize that there's nothing stopping you, nobody's judging, and if they are they're not your people.
Everyday and I think to myself, "My gosh, just pinch me. My life is a dream." I definitely work hard, 15 or 18 hours a day. But because I'm doing what I love, I think there's so many more happy people around me. Image if everybody did that. And if we all were just happy doing what we love and enjoying our trade or work, whatever it might be, the world would be such a happy place.
AFP: Congratulations on winning that! We’re meeting in one of the offices of your Maryland Center of Fashion Design and then you also have the Baltimore Fashion Alliance. You have a lot of things going on! Tell me about these two organizations.
EP: In 2008, when my son started school, I decided that it was time for me to go back to work. I wanted to start teaching because I had been contacted by so many people asking sewing- related questions. "Can you teach me how to do this?” or “Where can I learn this?" I recognized that there's not a lot of classes for a casual sewer or someone who wants to learn the skills. So I decided to open a school to teach skills.
I started teaching classes and the very first year we had a fashion show with our first group of students. At the end of that first fashion show, I made an announcement that if there's anybody in the audience that is interested in creating a platform with me for all of the fashion-minded entrepreneurs in Baltimore, to contact me. There was a lot of interest and it grew organically.
Then we created a nonprofit organization. We had amazing events throughout the city, like Fashion's Night Out. Now part of that organization is Sharp Dressed Man, they donate suits to people that are looking for a fresh start. It's been an amazing journey. I have enjoyed being part of it and just really grateful for everything. (links)
AFP: I read that you said your best work comes when you really get to know a client and her lifestyle. I do the exact same thing when I'm designing a home. I want to know how someone lives, how they interact and how they relax. What questions do you ask clients to get to the information you need to design their clothing?
EP: Most people are a little bit reserved at the very beginning and I need to get to know that person a little bit more. I always say, "Why don't we just start with our measurements? It takes a tremendous amount of faith, I realize, for someone to sign a contract without knowing what we're going to do. But when people have faith and trust that I'm going to deliver a beautiful result, it's going to be just that. It's going to be beautiful and exactly what they're comfortable in, but I need to get to know that personal a little bit. I tend to step away and watch them looking at themselves in the mirror, or get them to talk about themselves and their lifestyle.
AFP: Getting to know someone’s lifestyle, how they feel about themselves and their body is an intimate experience. I love how you can then interpret that through clothing. I am curious about your process because it's a similar to mine, but with a different delivery (clothing vs home). My clients trust me to create rooms in their homes without knowing what I’m creating. I do the same thing with my clients. I learn so much about them that when I present a design it's going to be exactly what they want and need. There are some practical things like looking at colors and fabrics, like you said with measurements. I can know the space plan, just like you know their measurements and the style they like, but you almost have to get a little bit deeper on how far they're willing to go style-wise. You're showing them their best selves. That's really neat.
You work a lot, you spend time giving back and you've got a family. When you have free time, what do you like to do?
EP: I like to spend it at Nemacolin. [laughter].
AFP: I love it, I've got to get up there! Is this somewhere you go with the family?
EP: Yes! I like to play golf, spend time with my boys and I like to eat.
AFP: Is that your favorite vacation place ?
EP: Absolutely, that's my favorite.
AFP: I love a woman who knows what she likes.
EP: You know, it's funny. People ask me, "Why don't you explore other places?" I say, "I don't need to!" I've been to a lot of places and I've found the one that works for me.
AFP: That's wonderful, and it's not too far!
EP: It's about a two and a half hour, if I drive. If my husband drives it could be three or four. [laughter]
AFP: I'm laughing because my husband and I are the same way.
EP: There's an old, old Russian quote that's roughly translated as, "What Russian doesn't like a fast ride?" I think it's from Tolstoy.
AFP: So you exude so much gratitude and positivity, when or if you're having a bad day, what do you do to kind of cope and kind of turn that around?
EP: I listen to Joel Osteen. I'm not religious, spiritual but not religious, and his very uplifting and encouraging sermons help me to get through bad day, if I have one. Another thing that really helps is to reach out and encourage somebody else, because when you do that you yourself are encouraged. It bounces right back at you.
AFP: I'm dying to know where you shop for clothes.
EP: You're going to laugh at me. [laughter] I do not shop for clothes, but when I do it's only golf clothes and I shop at Nemacolin. I'm really not trying to be a commercial for them, but that's where I buy most of my golf clothes. And another place that I shop also is Tiburon Golf Club's pro shop.
AFP: Now, is that only because that's a type of clothing you won't make and you make everything else?
EP: I make everything else. Coats, jackets, everything. Golf clothes are something that have to be washed and they are rather inexpensive to buy. I don't really make things that have to be washed. I do a very, very minimal amount of purchasing online and it's only things like tools for the business. The majority of my shopping is done at places that matter to me or owned by people that matter to me.
AFP: Now I have a few fun, easy questions!
Coffee or tea? Both. I drink two or three cups of coffee in the morning and then all day long I drink tea.
Cats or dogs? We have a cat but I prefer dogs. [laughter]
Morning or night person? I wake up every day between 2 and 3 AM. Definitely not a night person!
Cake or pie? Cake.
Netflix or movie theater? Going to the movie theater, but I mostly watch Netflix.
Summer or winter? Well, summer of course. But I love the winter for the holiday season, it's my favorite.
What's your favorite holiday? Probably Thanksgiving. Although, I do love Christmas because it is just so festive.
Chocolate or vanilla ice cream? Vanilla.
Favorite food? You'll probably laugh at me, I have two favorites. I eat eggs and asparagus, almost daily, and the other favorite is pizza. Pizza, Utz potato chips and Coke. Very American.
Favorite restaurant? Bluestone.
If you could live in a different state or country, where would it be? I'm just loving my life just the way it is.
AFP: That's my last official question! Thank you so much for your time and graciousness.
I hope Ella’s story has inspired you to pay it forward in your own way. And if you’ve always wanted to learn to sew and create clothing visit her website to find out more about her classes — no experience required. Thank you for sharing your studio, story and time with me and my readers, Ella.