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Couture designer's mission to inspire next generation at her Timonium school

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As a young girl growing up in Soviet Russia with few playthings, Ella Pritsker learned to amuse herself with pencil and paper.

Her world revolved around sketching clothes for her handmade paper dolls since her parents couldn't afford to give her the real doll she yearned for until her eighth birthday.

The woman behind last week's "From Reality to Fantasy" fashion show in Canton — which featured "real girls who enjoy wearing beautiful clothes and having fun" in lieu of professional models — knew her destiny as fashion designer from a very young age.

Today, Pritsker, of Mays Chapel, who is the founder and director of the Maryland Center of Fashion Design in Timonium, focuses her energies on sharing the intricate sewing techniques she has mastered across her lifetime with those who appreciate artfully made, one-of-a-kind clothes.

"My mission is to preserve and promote the art of couture sewing," said Pritsker, 46. "I want to pass these skills on to younger generations."

Now starting her sixth year as an instructor, she estimates she has taught a couple hundred women (and a handful of men) the nearly lost art of couture, a French word that refers to hand-sewn, custom-made clothing with an emphasis on fine detail.

"Some of my earliest childhood memories were of doodling dresses," Pritsker said. "We didn't have much, so I had to be creative."

But she didn't draw "little-girl dresses" of fluff and whimsy.

Her sketches were of gowns with elaborate details like women wore in the early 1800s. Pritsker gives a quizzical look and a slight shrug as she says that, unable herself to fathom why those lofty silhouettes filled her head as a young girl.

Looking around her design center at 20 E. Timonium Road, which Pritsker founded in 2009, it seems clear that her fascination for distinctive flourishes and elegant lines hasn't abated.

A size 0 wedding dress in shades of off-white and beige silk and French lace, displayed on a mannequin, was custom made to fit Miss Maryland 2012, Joanna Guy, of Cumberland.

Guy, a petite brunette, modeled the strapless gown during her reign in a fashion show at Maryvale Castle, on the campus of the girls' preparatory school on Falls Road, and wore it again in the April 1 fashion show.

The immaculately hand-beaded dress features dramatic cascades of 3-inch roses with vintage pearls and Swarovski crystals. The designer describes it as her fantasy version of "the fairy tale gown Cinderella might have worn" for her wedding to Prince Charming.

Pritsker chose to ramp up the gown's drama quotient by adding more embellishments to it for the April 1 show, her first show since 2004, when she organized a benefit for the Alliance for a New Humanity in Puerto Rico.

"I am so focused on my students that I let time go by," she said of the lapse between shows. "But I decided it was the right time for another one."

A sheer overskirt of black tulle also got a boost a week before the event with the addition of hand-sewn, lipstick-red ribbon rosettes, spaced randomly to avoid a mass-production look. The skirt was paired with a black lace corset and worn over black boy-shorts.

Pritsker's by-invitation-only show, held at About Faces Day Spa and Salon, drew 125 enthusiastic people who came to see her latest work as well as the designs of Michelle Li Murphy, who hand-dyes silk for clothing, textiles and accessories.

Murphy, who is based in Hanover, Pa., took a class with Pritsker four years ago to bone up on her sewing skills, and the two have collaborated on-and-off ever since.

"Ella taught me more than just pattern making and sewing skills," she said. "Her classes empowered me with new skills and renewed my confidence in myself.

"Her drive, focus on details and high expectations made me push myself far beyond what I thought I was capable of."

Clothing makes the woman

At the rear of the studio, near windows that infuse the space with natural light, are six work stations with Juki industrial sewing machines made in Japan.

"This is where the magic happens," said Nicole Lovelace Gordon, Pritsker's personal assistant. Gordon, who pitches in wherever she's needed, said she thinks of her employer as "a second mother."

Magic is precisely what Pritsker is hoping to achieve in the classes she teaches — in beginning couture and pattern-making, to name two — as well as through her design line, Ella Moda Custom Couture.

She teaches students of all ages, though classes for kids aren't currently on the schedule. The center will host a summer camp Aug. 11-15, however.

Tori Burns signed up for Pritsker's very first class five years ago, and continues to take lessons.

"Ella's classes opened up a whole new world for me," said the Baltimore resident, who is currently enrolled in pattern-making class.

"I used to be intimidated by pants, but I find them to be so easy now," said Burns, who enjoys making her own, custom-fit business attire to wear at her job in fundraising.

Pritsker said she looks to European fashion houses for inspiration, and admires Coco Chanel's designs in particular.

"I like to create beautiful things," said Pritsker, who married salesman Eric Rockwood in 2005, but came to Baltimore in 1990 as a single woman in need of an income. The couple now have three sons ages 8, 23 and 35, a blend of "his, mine and ours," she said.

She initially made a living doing alterations before quickly moving up to dressmaking. When she opened her design center five years ago, it was the culmination of a long-held dream.

"When I was 21 and saw made-by-hand, custom couture clothing in Italy — with fine stitches, seed beads and perfect buttonholes — their beauty was breathtaking.

"I was so inspired that I was literally in tears, and even now I get chills just thinking about it," she said. "I wanted to be that good … and better."

So immersed is Pritsker in the world of fashion that she co-founded the Baltimore Fashion Alliance in 2010 to provide resources, networking and educational events for the local fashion industry.

These include a career day, a fashion block at Artscape in July, and a Fashion's Night Out event to showcase local talent.

Nowadays, when she looks at a piece of clothing, she immediately envisions ways to make it "even more beautiful and more perfect," she said.

Liz Shively, a longtime client, popped in to Pritsker's studio during an interview to show the designer some pieces of vintage apparel she hoped could be remade to look more contemporary without spoiling their charm.

"I didn't want to ruin pieces that were so well-constructed by hacking them apart," Shively, of Dickeyville, said. "That's why I'm so happy I found Ella. She knows it's the details that make these clothes special."

One thing Pritsker requires of clients is the freedom to design the way she sees fit.

"I don't like micromanaging. It takes the fun out of it," she said. "I need women to trust me to make them something beautiful."

That's the wonderful thing about custom couture, she says: there's never more than one of the same thing.

"When a woman comes here she reaps the benefits of that," Pritsker says of both students and clients alike. "It gives a woman a boost of confidence when she knows she looks good. Confidence is the best outfit you can wear."

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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