By ABBY KASS
The Columbia Missourian
(COLUMBIA, Mo., AP) — The phone rings. It’s Beyoncé’s manager, asking for 80 white ostrich feather fans for the singer’s upcoming tour.
On the other end, Abby Arauz catches her breath and looks at the calendar. She has just 10 days to put together the elaborate showpieces.
But her team of 20 will make it happen. They will work long hours gathering the feathers, washing and dyeing them, and sewing them together with dental floss. They will, through sheer determination, meet the deadline.
In the past few years, Arauz has fielded dozens of similar requests — masks for Mardi Gras, headdresses for Carnival in Brazil, feathers for the costumes in “The Hunger Games,” thousands of wings for Victoria’s Secret holiday displays, The Columbia Missourian reported (http://bit.ly/1jUNA8T) .
Arauz and her family own The Feather Place, a far-flung operation with an office in Columbia, showrooms in New York City and Los Angeles, and a wholesale business in California, Mo., called Zucker Feather Products.
A former Rockette at Radio City Music Hall, Arauz opened her first showroom in New York in 1998, added another in Los Angeles eight years later and moved to Columbia four years ago to run the venture while raising two children.
She is the third generation of her family in the business, founded by her grandparents in the 1960s as an outlet selling feathers to fly fishermen. Her parents added the wholesale business in the 1980s, and Arauz has taken it to the entertainment industry and beyond.
As a leading U.S. supplier of wholesale feathers, Zucker Feather Products sells to a variety of businesses, including big-name retailers such as Hobby Lobby and the Jo-Ann Fabric and Craft stores.
The Feather Place is the retail side, assembling ostrich plumes, peacock “eyes” and a variety of bird feathers into fans, headpieces, lingerie, jewelry, masks, holiday feather trees, wreaths and more.
To market the business, Arauz collaborates with Broadway producers, fashion designers, pop stars, big chain craft stores and others who need feathers for costumes, retail displays and high-end couture.
“We keep thinking of new ideas that you can do with feathers,” she said. “I think it’s our responsibility in the industry to keep providing new uses.”
Every year, she works with Victoria’s Secret to create the wings models wear for the company’s annual fashion show.
Last year, Arauz’s crew used ostrich plumes, pheasant and peacock feathers, and long, droopy rooster tails to create the elaborate wings on the backs of angels during the fashion show. Her company also makes the extravagant holiday displays seen in outlets worldwide.
For “The Hunger Games” movies, costume designers visited the Feather Place showroom in Los Angeles to find feathers for costumes. According to the New York Times, feathers and flames were used in clothing for Katniss, the heroine, “to keep her the Girl on Fire while also representing the Mockingjay.”
To see how the feathers are stored and dyed requires a drive on Highway 50 to California, Mo., about an hour southwest of Columbia. If you head down the main street, with its red-brick store fronts, restaurants and corner gas station, you’ll reach the Old Heck Saddlery Building on the outskirts of town.
From 1978 to 2004, the old saddlery building held the entire operation. Ten years ago, another building was added 5 miles away, and the old place became the dye shop, where feathers are cleaned, bleached, dyed and dried. The new building became the location where feather products are assembled.
Most of the business’ 65 employees work in either the dye shop or the factory in California, Mo., with the remainder in the New York and Los Angeles showrooms. Many have been with the feather company for more than 20 years.
All of the feathers are by-products of industries that would have otherwise discarded them. Most are from farms across the nation, with the exotic ones imported from other countries, including the ostrich feathers from South Africa.
Turkey feathers are the most common staple of the company. The feathers are stored in one room of the old saddlery building in large canvas bags. From there, they are hauled downstairs to be washed and bleached, a process that takes about a week.
The dye station sits next to the washing and bleaching station. All of the color samples are kept in a box with a binder that holds the recipes for different shades. An employee will match a recipe with the exact color requested by the client.
Once the perfect match has been made, the feathers are dyed, typically in bright primary colors, then taken upstairs to be washed again. Finally, they are placed on shelves or hung on clotheslines to dry.
When the process is complete, the feathers are driven to the factory 5 miles down the road. There, sewing machines are used to assemble the variety of feather crafts the company offers.
Arauz’s grandfather started the company in the 1960s to serve the fly fishing industry.
“They were dyeing feathers out of the basement in their washer and dryer,” Arauz said.
Her grandparents traveled around the country for years, selling them out of the back of a van. From a young age, Arauz tagged along in the summer and learned all about the business.
In the 1980s, her father purchased Zucker Feather Products, a wholesale feather business that allowed the company to integrate the operation from feather to finished product. Now, Arauz and her brother, Anthony, run the company, along with their parents. Anthony is the CEO.
“I enjoy traveling to meet suppliers and customers in all parts of the world,” he said in an interview.
Abby Arauz said the family aspect is important to her.
“It’s all about having a team; that’s for sure,” she said. “I have really dedicated people who are enthusiastic about their work.”
Diane Puig is one of those people. She began working for the company nine years ago in the New York City showroom. Now, she focuses on customer service, sales and information in the factory in California, Mo.
“I really love it here,” she said. “I get up every morning and don’t mind coming to work.”
In college, Arauz was a dance and accounting major. After graduating from Stephens, she moved to New York City and toured with national theater productions, including “Singing in the Rain.”
When she became a Rockette, she spent 10 years touring and performing in the Radio City Christmas Spectacular. During that decade, she began consulting with costume designers and realized she had the knowledge to purchase feathers at competitive prices.
While still a Rockette, she opened The Feather Place in New York City. With just one subway stop between her two jobs, she started to cater to Broadway shows and fashion houses.
When her career as a Rockette ended, Arauz teamed up film designers and opened another showroom in Los Angeles in 2006.
Four years ago, she became pregnant with her second child, which prompted her and her husband to make a change.
“I loved growing up in Missouri myself,” she said, “so we decided to move back to Columbia.”
Arauz lives in town with her husband, Jack Chase, and their children, Sophia and Gus. Three days a week, she commutes to California, Mo., to oversee the factory operation.
She opened The Feather Place on West Broadway six months ago as office space; Arauz calls it “a feather think tank.” She and one employee work together to create do-it-yourself projects and to work with schools on crafts and events.
Recently, they supplied feathers for the Lee Expressive Arts Elementary School’s production of “Seussical the Musical.”
“I deal with large-name designers on Big Bird’s feathers, as well as for little crafters,” she said. “There’s something for everyone.”
Her biggest challenge is moving quickly enough to keep up with the latest trends, she said. But Arauz is also pleased that her business has deep family roots.
“Looking back, it makes me kind of proud to continue the business that my grandparents started,” she said.