Local Couture Designer, Ella Pritsker, Reflects on Her Extraordinary Journey
Ella Pritsker talks a lot about dreams, and that stands to reason. Nearly three decades ago she was a recent immigrant to the United States from Soviet Russia, waitressing and babysitting to make ends meet. Today she is one of the region’s most notable couture designers, dressing powerful women like former Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and Maryland’s first lady.
When describing the remarkable milestones along the way, she says things like: “And then I had to get a bigger dream, make new plans, new goals to stay active and productive.”
Indeed, Ella is one of Baltimore’s most productive residents—and biggest fans.
Not content with simply running her own clothing line, Ella Pritsker Couture, Ella has worked tirelessly to pass her good fortune on to others. In 2009, she established the Maryland Academy of Couture Arts (later named the Maryland Center of Fashion Design) to teach women how to create custom clothing and start small businesses. A year later, she co-founded the Baltimore Fashion Alliance (BFA), an organization that provides professionals in the local fashion industry access to superior education, networking, and resources within the Baltimore community. A cornerstone of the Alliance is giving back through charitable programs and contributions. The BFA and its members have helped dress thousands of homeless men and women for job interviews.
It may all seem like a dream, but Ella’s impact is very real. From those she dresses to the ones who work and learn alongside her in her studio, she has inspired legions of women to nurture themselves as well as their passion.
Towson Lifestyle (TL): How did you get your start?
EP: I came here 27 years ago as a refugee from Russia. The Baltimore Sun was writing an article about refugees immigrating to the United States, and for some reason they picked me. A reporter and a photographer followed me for an extended period of time. One of the questions that the reporter asked me was what did I miss the most about home? And I said that I really missed my sewing machine. The next morning [after the article was published], I had five sewing machines at my front door. And that’s how I got started. I charged 50 cents for my first job. It grew organically from there.
I feel that throughout the last 27 years, most of the dreams that I’ve had have been realized. I’m very happy.
TL: How did you go from hemming pants to creating couture?
EP: It was all word of mouth. I made something beautiful for a customer and it started from there. I never had to advertise. Happy customers referring other customers—best kind of marketing there is.
TL: Can you talk a little about your work establishing the Maryland Center of Fashion Design?
EP: In the early 2000s, I took a break from business so that I could raise my son. When he went to school, I thought it was time to go back to work. I was not interested in just making clothes; I wanted to pass on my skills, to teach women to start their own businesses or simply enjoy a new hobby. I wanted to start a school. Classes expanded organically, and we started offering different courses for different skill levels. Some of my students became assistants and teachers. My students who wanted to pursue [couture] as a career were wondering where they could go to work, and if I could help them find a job. So then I thought I’d better start making clothes again so that I could offer opportunities for meaningful employment in the industry. That’s when I got another dream. I decided we really needed to get the garment industry back to Baltimore so that we can have prosperity again. That’s where the Baltimore Fashion Alliance came from.
Nearly 10 years later, there is so much stuff happening. Small, pop-up shops are opening, manufacturers are opening, and the city and state are encouraging industry again. It’s been rewarding to see that dream coming to fruition.
TL: What would you say to women who think couture is expensive or inaccessible?
EP: Because my pieces are timeless and made to last for decades, couture is an investment. But beyond that—what I have found over the last 25 years—women that I’ve dressed have expressed a higher level of confidence and a better self-image, and that alone is a huge testimonial for what we do. We create garments and wardrobes for women that empower them. And when you feel confident, you are able to accomplish so much more, to take chances, to speak your mind, to live a better life. We dress women who have a high level of influence—in business, law, finance—and I can tell you, underneath all the titles, we’re all the same. We’re all just girls trying to get dressed in the morning. It doesn’t matter if you’re the president of a large company or a clerk, we’re all the same. When you have a wardrobe that fits you beautifully, you can be all that you can be. It’s just that simple.
TL: How does the process work?
EP: It starts as a conversation. The best work that I do comes when I get to know a person, their habits and lifestyle. The more I know, the better I can design something special for them. Sometimes we present them with a choice of fabrics, sometimes I have a specific vision. Everything we do is one of a kind.
TL: What is your proudest professional accomplishment?
EP: The fact that I am so fulfilled. I could not be happier. (Ella begins to tear up.) That’s not something everyone can report. And I feel that is success. When you go to bed every day knowing that you have helped somebody, that you’ve helped empower someone, helped them to be more confident, that you’ve given them something they wouldn’t otherwise have had. Not just women we dress, but women who work here. I couldn’t ask for more.
TL: What does this area mean to you?
EP: I have traveled all over the world. But I love this area. It’s experienced an incredible growth since I came. It’s so beautiful. People are friendly and there’s so much talent. So much creativity. So much opportunity. I am so thrilled to have experienced that and to have had the opportunity that this country offered me. It’s been incredibly rewarding.
TL: It’s Saturday morning, you’re making breakfast for the family. What are you lounging in? Would we ever find you in sweatpants?
EP: I don’t even own a pair of sweatpants! I wear golf clothes when I want to be casual.