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Though Liz Hostetter calls Hong Kong home these days, it was back in her hometown of Osterville that the clothing line Ellie Kai was born and her showroom now stands. With prints and silhouettes that have a decidedly Cape Cod look to them, Hostetter's versatile (and entirely customizable) designs translate well to the locales which inspired her Spring/Summer 2014 collection: Bali, Osterville, and Paris. Launching with a runway show last night at Space 57 in the Revere Hotel, the audience looked eager for warmer weather to arrive after seeing models strut in colorful tops, elegant gowns, and beachy totes. We spoke with Hostetter about her decision to pursue a direct selling trunk show model, her customization concept, and which Ellie Kai style every New Englander needs this summer.
What made you start the line?
I moved to Hong Kong about five years ago, and I started making my own clothes because it was hard for me to shop there. It became obvious to me when I came back to the Cape in the summer that women wanted to have some say in design and ownership of the process. I worked over a year to develop the model in terms of production.
Did you have any design background prior to that?
I was actually an agent for professional athletes, so I have no technical training in fashion but I think that's been a good thing because there really is no ego here with me and the collection. Some of the greatest things we've designed came from women raising their hand and saying "I wish you did that." For example, the Ginger maxi in a knit was inspired by a woman who loved the top and wanted to make it floor-length. And I could say, "We can do that!" A lot of our designs evolved like that.
The collection comes from three chapters of my life. I've spent a lot of time in Bali, lived in Paris for a few years, and Osterville is home. I think you see a range in style. That same Ginger maxi in black or a blue and white stripe—one thing is Paris, in another fabric it's Cape Cod.
How have you built clientele? Are they from these different locales?
We're across the US and we have sales consultants who have opened their homes to do trunk shows. It's been word of mouth and organic growth. My mother-in-law was on a plane yesterday and said she saw a woman wearing Ellie Kai and it became a long conversation. A friend can often turn into a client, who can turn into a hostess.
How does the trunk show model fit your vision and product?
It's such an integral part. Direct sales speaks to the idea that you can be in front of the customer as she's working on her garment and get feedback for designing the next collection.
If someone doesn't have access to a trunk show can they shop online, and if so, how does that experience differ?
We've been a hybrid business from the beginning. When we approached e-commerce it was very much that we want to make it easy to buy, but still emphasize that going to a trunk show and trying on the clothes helps you know your size. In an ideal world, we'll see women go to the trunk shows, get to know the clothing, and then throughout the season buy online. Online is definitely a new frontier for us, starting with this season.
And you can customize items. To what degree does that apply to sizing?
We follow a very standard 0 through 16 sizing. You try on a garment, learn what body fits, what you want. Then you customize the fabric, and the next level of customization is very important—the length. One woman's mini is another woman's to-the-knee. With some of our garments you can choose sleeveless or elbow length sleeves. We have the ability to interchange sleeves and hem lengths.
Is there a particular item from the collection that New England women need to have this summer?
I think the Priscilla maxi. Maxis are tough; if you're going to go for one, that's the one.
· Stock Up on Staples During Ellie Kai's Online Sample Sale [Racked Boston]
· Ellie Kai [Official Site]