By Adrienne Perron
Photographed by Danielle Sykes
From our October 2021 issue
Ellen Okolita has always considered herself a designer, but it wasn’t until 2014 that she discovered her ideal medium: felt. Her kids decided that year that they wanted to be an owl and a flamingo for Halloween, so Okolita sewed wings and masks on them, finding out every stitch that she was doing magic. By the following Halloween, Okolita was running a full-time costume shop, which since 2018 has been successful enough to financially support her entire family. Most of the costumes in Tree and Vine (named after Okolita’s daughters Olive and Ivy) reproduce real and fantastic birds, butterflies and other winged creatures, with colorful, textured wings and eye masks. . Okolita estimates that she has sold around 8,000 costumes to customers around the world through her Etsy store. In the two months leading up to Halloween each year, at her Pineland Farms studio in New Gloucester, she and her three seasonal employees will put together some 600 costumes.
As a floral designer at esteemed New York florist Ariston, Ellen Okolita learned a few things about creating art under pressure. A self-proclaimed “production machine”, it sews miles of fabric every month, sometimes 12 hours a day. Made with Eco-fi felt, a durable polyester fiber felt made entirely from post-consumer plastic bottles, Okolita’s costumes are machine washable and adjustable – the wings attach and the space between them can be lengthened as children grow older. Bestsellers include rainbow owls and naturalistic peregrine falcons ($ 42 to $ 92).
“Children have such a deep connection with nature,” she says. “You put a pair of wings on them and they will flap and fly like they think they are a bird. It is magic.”
TELL US MORE ELLEN OKOLITA
Your costumes are available in adult sizes. Are they popular with adults?
I make my costumes by age group: I offer sizes that are suitable for babies, from two to five years old, from five to ten years old, from tween to teenagers and adults. I had a family make a custom order once, it was so much fun making a whole family of birds. So many people have a connection to birds and wildlife, regardless of their age, but these costumes bring out the child in everyone.
Are there any pitfalls in selling online?
It’s really hard to separate the joy from what I do with the grief. In 2018, I was informed that identical costumes were being sold online through Alibaba, an online marketplace based in Asia – scams of my masks and wings, not made by me, and advertised with photos I took of my own children wearing mine. disguises. A stolen creative property like this is sort of just accepted. I could get a lawyer and fight, but I don’t have the finances. I sometimes feel helpless, but that doesn’t put me off.
Did your Maine roots inspire your costume designs?
For me, Maine has always been about nature and birds. I love my tit and kestrel costumes, and I love making costumes for the birds I have a connection with – the blue jay and cardinal costumes were some of my first, and they were cool because I got them. studied and watched them daily from my window.
What reactions do you get from new customers?
I asked a woman in England to work with me on creating a costume for her disabled daughter. Her daughter emailed me when she received the costume and said, “I can’t believe I own something so beautiful.” I think these costumes are a way for art to sneak into a house without people realizing it. And some clients send me an email like, “I can’t get my kid out of this costume,” which is totally my intention.
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