Monday, April 28, 2014

Meet the Maker - Ellie from The Costume Wrangler

My name is Ellie, and I’m The Costume Wrangler. And, like all good characters, I have an origin story too. Here it is:

I grew up feeling like I never quite fit in, never quite belonged.  In grade school, I liked to go on pretend adventures at recess, even though I was told girls couldn’t go on adventures.  I was the kid that got excited when the teacher told us to read.  I was that kid that went in super early to school so I could work on an extra art project. I was the kid that stayed up all night to get her homework done, and then had to sit in class with nothing to do while everyone else caught up. My differences made me the victim of bullying, being called every name in the book.  Ellie Elephant. Dork. Pig. Cow.  Nerd. Geek. I learned from an early age that to be seen as different was bad, but that I’d never fit in either.  I didn’t like the right things or look the right way. The world saw me as different, and that meant to them that I should be treated differently.  

I am so lucky to have a family that loved and supported me no matter what, that embraced my quirks and encouraged my interests. I also had a few close friends who, like me, didn’t fit in, didn’t like the right things and didn’t look the right way. So, we faced the world together, all the while feeling like outcasts. We banded together and survived all the way through high school.

After high school, I went to art school in NYC. I studied anything and everything, and consequently never quite fit in, not with the graphic designers, and certainly never fit in with the painters and sculptors either. Nevertheless, four years later I earned my BFA, having studied drawing, graphic design, bookmaking, sculpture, calligraphy, and photography (to name a few things). I was totally enamored with the arts, I couldn’t just pick one art form to study.

I went straight from undergraduate school right into the graduate program at KU for Scenography, the study of lighting, scenic, and costume design as a holistic process. And, for the first time, I felt like I’d found my place in the theatrical community, as an artist, a designer, and a technician. I could put to use my varied interests, my wide skill set, my unusual perspective. I was able to embrace my unique talents and interests and finally felt at home while working in theater.

After graduation, I worked freelance for a while, mostly in costume design, having discovered my true passion: costumes. Even when designing scenery, I look at it as if I’m costuming the space of the play. My creative explorations took me all the way to Western Massachusetts, to small state college, teaching some theatrical design and construction courses. I loved the challenge of teaching. The school put on one show a semester, which enabled us to let the design and the production develop organically over the course of the rehearsal process.  I got the opportunity to really challenge myself, to push myself as both a costume designer and a scenic designer.  I learned so much about myself as an artist and as an educator.  I worked with some of the most amazing students, kids that daily reminded me why teaching is such a joy.

But, despite all that, I missed my family and friends back in Kansas. 1500 miles was quite the road trip for me and my dog, Teddy.  But we did it, twice a year, for six years.  Even so, being away from my family and friends was taking its toll. I needed to be closer to home. The job market was not encouraging, but I finally got offered a job to work in Nebraska as a teacher and costume designer at a small private college.  So, I donated everything I owned to charity, packed up my dog, and moved back to the Midwest.  Taking the job in Nebraska was one of the best and worst decisions I’ve ever made. I was glad to be back in the Midwest (New England was beautiful, but living there I discovered I’m a Midwestern girl at heart.)  When I started my new job, I loved teaching.  I loved designing and building costumes.  I loved helping students realize their potential, to discover they were capable of creating something as exciting and dynamic as a theatrical production.  I loved the huge variety of shows we were doing.  I loved that I got to teach more design classes and work with students more directly.  There was nothing in the world I would have rather been doing at that point.

But the politics of academia slowly began to chip away at my joy of teaching.  The demands of designing and building costumes for 14 main stage productions a school year began to erode the passion I had for creating theatre, a passion I thought I’d never lose. I woke up one day and realized I hated what I was doing.  Designing and building costumes had become a chore, one that interfered with teaching and giving my students the best possible experience. The administration did nothing to help the situation. I felt frustrated and miserable, and had no business in the classroom without that passion for theatre and design.

I needed a change.

That’s when I opened my Etsy store, The Costume Wrangler’s Closet.  At the time, all I wanted was a creative outlet, a place to create clothing and accessories that people might enjoy, that might help folks feel good about themselves the way I wanted to feel good about myself.  But what started as something to do on the side quickly snowballed into a full time venture.  And pretty soon, I was quitting my day job and striking out on the exciting and terrifying path of running a small business.  I said goodbye to teaching, something I thought I’d never do.  And I bid farewell to theater too.  I rented a truck this time, packed up my dog, and moved back to Kansas.

That was just over a year ago.  And I’ve never been so happy.  I’ve realized that I don’t have to let the way the world sees me define who I am.  And that, to me, is what The Costume Wrangler’s Closet is all about.  It’s a celebration of all things different, all things geek.  

The most surprising aspect of my journey this past year has been my foray into fabric design on Spoonflower.  I have over 50 designs up so far, and I’m constantly surprised by how popular some of my original fabric designs have become.  A few of my designs have even made it to their “Hot Sellers” list, more than once.  How cool is that!?

When I started designing fabrics, I didn’t think it would be anything special. I really only wanted something unique for a corset I was building.  In fact, creating my own fabric designs to use in my clothing and accessories has been one of the most exciting parts of developing The Costume Wrangler’s Closet.  It’s so much fun to design the fabric I’m using, and it means I can create some really special, really unique and fun pieces. Plus, designing my own fabric lets me use all that art and design experience I have, while sharing my geek love with other crafters and artisans.

This journey has been amazing, and I wake up everyday excited to continue down this path.  I grew up believing being a geek was a bad thing, because it made me different, it meant that I didn’t fit in.  But the truth is, being a geek, and being different, is great.  It means I don’t have to let the way the world sees me, or sees being a geek, define who I am.  It means I get to wake up everyday and and share my creativity, help people feel happy.  And that’s what I want to do with The Costume Wrangler’s Closet: give people a chance to celebrate who they are, to love what they love without feeling like an outcast.  So, I’m on a mission to foster geek love, help folks celebrate their love of all things geek, and feel great about doing it!

1 comment:

  1. That's my girl!! Amazing, talented, brilliant, insightful, driven, creative, passionate, and just such a nice person. I'd like to call her friend, even if I WEREN'T related to her. :)