December 14, 2018

Heard About the Feather Salesman? He Brought Hollywood Down

Standing at his booth in the Los Angeles Convention Center, Willy Zelowitz looked like any middle-aged salesman: a button-down shirt, ordinary pants and a warm smile.

And then there was the feather boa.

Zelowitz, 71, seemed right at home among the fans and drag queens at RuPaul’s DragCon, an annual two-day event for devotees of “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” the popular reality TV show.

Chatting up anyone who dropped by, he invited visitors to try on the feather-laden headdresses, jackets, coats and angel wings filling his racks and shelves. When he learned it was one customer’s birthday, Zelowitz handed him a pen topped by a long, red plume.

Since 1975, Zelowitz has made a career of designing with feathers for Hollywood, the fashion world and beyond. His Mother Plucker Feather Co. has adorned the costumes of stars from Bette Midler and Queen Latifah to Miley Cyrus and Jennifer Lopez. If you’ve ever watched the “The Muppets” or flipped through a Jenny McCarthy Playboy spread, you’ve probably seen Zelowitz’s work.

“As my career evolved, I became more passionate about it,” Zelowitz said. “I had to pay my dues, but I keep doing this because I love my work.”

The son of Hungarian-born Holocaust survivors, Zelowitz started the business while attending Los Angeles City College. Taking note of a friend’s feather earrings, he decided he could design a better version.

“I knew I could improve on that design — more integrated textures and colors,” Zelowitz said.

When he did, he started selling from a table at a Westwood open-air market, earning $80 in his first weekend — nearly enough for a months’ rent at the time.

Soon he left school to pursue the business full time. His best friend came up with Mother Plucker’s catchy name, and a designer who had worked for Coca-Cola was so amused by it that she offered her services for free, creating a logo featuring three birds, rears in the air. “I’m very lucky,” Zelowitz said.

Zelowitz was soon showcasing his feather jewelry at craft shows, swap meets and eventually retail stores. He branched out to design custom skirts and jackets for clients, but it was his initial angel-wing creation that brought him his first big deal with Victoria’s Secret. It took a year to develop, and a great deal of time to make the wings balanced and to perfect the shape, Zelowitz recalled.

“I did all the windows for Canada and the U.S.,” Zelowitz said. “I installed approximately five wings in each window in about a thousand stores and it took three and a half months.”

He has adorned the costumes of stars from Bette Midler and Queen Latifah to Miley Cyrus and Jennifer Lopez.

Over time, Mother Plucker grew to create items for production companies including Disney, major designers, recording companies, retail boutiques, Cirque du Soleil and for countless commercials and TV shows. Its clients have also included the likes of Britney Spears, Ricky Martin and Katy Perry.

That glamorous work has taken Zelowitz a long way from his humble beginnings in a U.S. military-police barrack in Bamberg, Germany, where he was born to Margaret and Jacob Zelkovic, both natives of Budapest. His mother survived three concentration camps, including Auschwitz and Dachau. His father, a tailor, was also in the camps.

“They were picking up strays off the street,” Zelowitz said. “Nobody had money, clothes, shoes, food, nothing. The U.S. military police had four square blocks of buildings and they took in everybody they could grab that was homeless.”

After being liberated, the family returned to Hungary, but realizing they had no future there, they immigrated to the United States. An immigration officer at Ellis Island changed the family name to Zelowitz.

“I got here when I was 3 years old and I didn’t speak English,” Zelowitz said. “My first language was Yiddish.”

Jacob Zelowitz, who changed his name again, to Zell, took his trade as a tailor a step further, producing a fashion line.

No doubt that helped inspire young Willy Zelowitz to launch his own fashion career. When working with entertainment industry clients, Zelowitz and his teams work collaboratively. They review the budget and timeline, plan the color scheme, and select the feathers — all the while considering important questions, such as, will the feathers be on a wall or are they going to be on a Brazilian dancer’s Carnival costume?

Zelowitz said Mother Plucker harms no birds in gathering its feathers. It collects them from molting birds, or it takes the byproducts of birds used for food.

Lelan Berner, an Emmy-winning designer, is Mother Plucker’s lead designer. She met Zelowitz when he was starting out by hawking feather earrings and she was in her 20s selling leather bikinis decorated with feathers.

“He taught me how to wash my feathers in a pillowcase,” Berner said. “I’ve known him ever since. He’s a helpful and kind person.”

Betty Lo, Zelowitz’s “right hand,” has worked for Zelowitz since she and her identical twin came to work for him after spotting an ad in a local Chinese newspaper.

“Betty is so honed to my values that I’ve got four hands when we’re standing next to each other,” Zelowitz said. “We don’t have to talk.”

With a Los Angeles showroom open to the public, Zelowitz enjoys interacting with everyday people. Ginger Pauley, a vintage bandleader and vocalist, said she always gets a great deal on feather boas.

“On my last trip to Mother Plucker, I got to meet and chat with Willy,” she said. “We talked about Vegas showgirls, angels, how to care for feathers and snorkeling in Maui.”

All in a day’s work for L.A.’s king of feathers.

“It’s been a fun ride,” Zelowitz said. “I’ve worked hard to turn myself into the person I want to be.”