For most women who shop at Gap and J Crew, maybe Nordstrom or a local boutique for something fancy, couture is simply a foreign concept. They might have caught a glimpse of it during a television awards show, but not many have run their hands over true couture quality, and even fewer have been lucky enough to wear it.
But in a Timonium office building, of all places, women for have been learning for the past few months how to ply the elusive trade.
Ella Pritsker, a Russian native who immigrated to the United States in her 20s, started the Maryland Academy of Couture Arts last year. With the Towson Town Center nearby and York Road's discount shops around the corner, she is introducing women to the world beyond ready-to-wear, where with fine fabric and meticulous attention to detail, a dress, Pritsker likes to say, "can cost as much as a house."
With the school, Pritsker hopes to preserve what she considers to be an all-but-lost art, the high art of sewing.
"We just want to keep it alive," says the self-taught Pritsker, who is 42 and also has her own custom clothing business called Ella Moda.
Asked if there's a market for couture in Baltimore, she says dryly: "Are there women in Baltimore?"
At a recent class, a few students, all women, bend over work tables, fabric spread before them. One is making a winter coat from nubby purple wool, another a navy cashmere coat with delicate embroidery.
Books about Chanel, Pritsker's icon, fill bookshelves, and a vintage white jacket by the designer hangs like a tribute on a dress form.
Pritsker says fashion-oriented TV shows such as "Project Runway" have helped turn some heads toward the idea of making one's own stylish pieces. However, she adds, the show's emphasis on hurriedly slapping together entire outfits in just a few hours is sort of the antithesis of couture.
It can take as many as 40 hours to make a couture jacket. The student making the cashmere coat spent two hours just delicately stitching one butterfly onto the back of it and more time putting another between two pleats, where most people won't even see it.
Lavishing time and detail on all aspects of a garment - not just the obvious parts - is a couture hallmark. The workers will stitch by hand instead of by a machine, they'll line a jacket not just once, but twice - and even the hidden lining might be silk.
The painstaking work is mainly what makes couture so costly. And though making one of these garments is certainly less expensive than buying one, the concept of saving money has little do with couture.
Rosemary Epperson, the student making the butterfly jacket, is taking the courses because she wants to make clothes that fit her body with precision and express her personality.
"I want to use it to say who I am," says Epperson, the retired director of Towson University's campus store. "It's an investment in you."
Pritsker says people don't need to know how to sew to take her beginner course. She's even teaching a Young Couturiers Summer Camp this summer for kids interested in fashion.
The academy will also be sending a few outfits down the catwalk this summer during Baltimore's Fashion Week.
"You can make something so unique and so beautiful, and do it yourself," Pritsker says. "It's an amazing feeling to look at garment you just made and say, 'Wow, I just did it. It's beautiful.' "