Ellen Okolita always thought of herself as a creative, but it wasn’t until 2014 that she discovered her ideal medium: felt. Her children decided that year they wanted to be an owl and a flamingo for Halloween, so Okolita sewed them wings and masks, discovering with every stitch that she was making magic. By the next Halloween, Okolita was running a full-time costume shop, which since 2018 has been fruitful enough to financially support her entire family. Most costumes from Tree and Vine (named for Okolita’s daughters, Olive and Ivy) replicate birds, butterflies, and other winged creatures, real and fantastical, with colorful, textured wings and eye masks. Okolita estimates she’s sold around 8,000 costumes to customers all over the world through her Etsy shop. In the two months leading up to Halloween each year, in her studio at New Gloucester’s Pineland Farms, she and her three seasonal employees will stitch together some 600 costumes.
As a floral designer at New York City’s esteemed florist Ariston, Ellen Okolita learned a few things about making art under pressure. A self-described “production machine,” she sews miles of fabric every month, sometimes for 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 tie together and the space between them can be lengthened as kids grow. Bestsellers include rainbow-colored owls and naturalistic peregrine falcons ($42–$92).
“Kids have such a deep connection with nature,” she says. “You put a pair of wings on them and they’ll flap and fly around like they think they are a bird. It’s magic.”
TELL US MORE ELLEN OKOLITA
Your costumes come in adult sizes. Are they popular with grown-ups?
I make my costumes by age range: I offer sizes that fit babies, two to five, five to ten, tween to teenagers, and adults. I had a family make a custom order once, it was so much fun to make a whole family of birds. So many people have connections to birds and wildlife, no matter their age, but these costumes bring out the kid in everyone.
Any pitfalls to selling online?
It’s really hard to separate the joy of what I do with the heartbreak. In 2018, I was informed that identical costumes were being sold online through Alibaba, an online marketplace based in Asia — rip-offs of my masks and wings, not made by me, and advertised with photos I took of my own children wearing my own costumes. Stolen creative property like this is somehow just accepted. I could get a lawyer and fight it, but I don’t have the finances. I feel powerless sometimes, but it doesn’t keep me down.
Have your Maine roots inspired your costume designs?
Maine to me has always been all about nature and birds. I love my chickadee and kestrel costumes, and I love making costumes for birds I have a connection to — the blue jay and cardinal costumes were some of my first, and they were cool because I’ve studied them and watch them daily from my window.
What reactions do you get from first-time customers?
I had a woman in England work with me on creating a costume for her daughter who is differently-abled. Her daughter emailed me when she got the costume and said, “I can’t believe I own something so beautiful.” I think these costumes are a way that art can sneak into a household without people realizing. And some customers email me like, “I can’t get my kid out of this costume,” which is totally my intention.