Willy Zelowitz, the Featherbrain Behind 'Mother Pluckers,' Makes High and Low Fashion Out of Plumage

updated 07/15/1985 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/15/1985 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Like a benign fox in a chicken coop, Willy Zelowitz stands beaming in a veritable sea of feathers. A long wall of his second-floor shop on Hollywood Boulevard is piled with boxes of them: ostrich plumes from Africa dyed pink, rose, white, red and purple; silver pheasant tail feathers from China; iridescent peacock feathers. A table is heaped with the end products of all this plucking: epaulets for nightgowns courtesy of the roosters, a rare hat ablaze with bird of paradise plumage ("That bird's extinct now!" Willy crows), an enormous mask of ostrich, pheasant and chicken feathers that sells for $800. In the next room, three workers busily stitch boas and lingerie for customers ranging from the cautious at Chicago's Marshall Field to the daring at Frederick's of Hollywood and the shameless at a Sunset strippery called The Body Shop. But why do these workers appear to be disguised? "They're wearing surgical masks," Willy explains. "Otherwise they'd be sneezing all day long, and there'd be feathers all over the place."

Actually, of course, there are anyway. Willy Zelowitz's business, Mother Pluckers, is to plumage what De Beers is to valuable rocks. Mr. T drops into Willy's roost for those 20-inch-long guinea hen and rooster tail baubles he hangs from one ear. Zelowitz, 38, offers about every sort of feather a bird can produce. The longest are from Lady Amherst pheasant tails and measure three to four feet. The smallest are from the neck of a ring-necked pheasant and are 1/16" long. After 11 years as a feather merchant, Zelowitz expects to gross about $300,000 this year.

Zelowitz was born in Germany of Czech-Hungarian parents "who went through the camps" and moved to California when he was 8. He eventually entered Los Angeles City College as a marine biology major, but dropped out when he discovered he liked making feather earrings better. His first shop was a card table near UCLA, where he sat with his dog offering the plumed jewelry. "I took in 40 bucks my first night," he recalls. "The dog and I had dinner afterwards." For several years Zelowitz worked arts and crafts fairs all across the country, but with the help of mismanagement, he says, his shop fell into debt. Putting all his feathers into his small house, he started over. In just a year he was back on his feet and moved to his present location last year. But doesn't the company's name make some people turn up their noses? "The name's a real advantage," Willy clucks. "It breaks the ice. People just laugh and snicker." And feather his nest.

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