When Alexandra Litowitz came to Miami last October to visit her family, her new hairdo caught her twin sister’s eye.
Nestled in her long, wavy brown locks were three black-and-white feathers, known as grizzlies. They were slim and nearly a foot long.
“The first moment I saw them, I wanted them,” said Donya Litowitz.
The sisters soon took a gamble that other women would crave Alexandra’s look too: using rooster feathers like hair extensions. Only these accessories would provide a splash of color, pizzazz and novelty for women who wanted a fresh look.
Three weeks later with a business plan in hand, Alexandra and Donya Litowitz launched Featherlocks.
Based in Wynwood, the company is a wholesale retailer of rooster feathers. It supplies them to beauty salons and stylists across the country as well as Canada, Mexico, Argentina, the United Kingdom, Australia and Dubai.
Featherlocks puts Alexandra and Donya, who grew up in Kendall, at the center of a hot fashion trend that hasn’t shown any signs of slowing down.
“They are so popular because they are so versatile,” said Alexandra Litowitz. “You can wash, curl, blow-dry them and style them and put them in your hair.”
Rooster feathers have been the staple of the fly-fishing world, where fishermen use them to tie their flies. The feathers mimic aquatic insects that sit atop the water or lie below the surface. They are prized for their durability and sheen.
Eighteen months ago, hairstylists such as Alexandra Litowitz found another, more stylish use for the feathers.
“I started doing them last year,” said Litowitz, 32, who worked at Jua Salon in Denver at the time. “Other people in the salon wanted to do it. And then other salons flocked to me to buy feathers. I became the feather maven.”
She tied the feathers onto her clients’ hair using a microbead with a clamp attached to it. Feathers can stay in women’s hair for up to four months.
These days, Featherlocks sells rooster feathers in 64 colors from dark gray to neon yellow. They are usually available in packs with different hues.
In the beginning, the company sold feathers from 8 and 12 inches long. Over time, salons were clamoring for 16-inch feathers, known as premium feathers. They cost about $20; shorter ones cost $15 a feather.
Litowitz started buying feathers from Whiting Farms, the nation’s largest producer of fly fishing feathers, in Delta, Colo., on the western slope of the Rocky Mountains.
“I did my research,” she said, pointing out that the farm did not feed its roosters antibiotics or hormones. “I drove out there and filled my car with feather and drove home.”
For 22 years, Tom Whiting, owner of Whiting Farms, breeds roosters for fly fishing feathers. He identifies himself as poultry geneticist, and cultivates birds for different traits, such as their length or their appearance.
Whiting estimates that he sells half a million individual feathersevery month. The majority of his stock is exported overseas. The remaining one-fourth is reserved for the U.S. domestic market. Whiting said he’s hoping to hold off increasing demand from overseas markets because he cannot fulfill current domestic orders.
He admits the shift from fishing to fashion has caused a furor in some corners.
In the past two years, prices have shot from $50 a saddle (a group of 160 feathers) to $200 to $300 a saddle, Whiting said. In some extreme cases, a saddle can fetch $1,500.
“There has been a lot of press about how enraged fishermen are because they are tired of people buying feathers for hair extensions,” he said. “The reaction runs the gamut.”
Capt. Bill Curtis, who works at the fly fishing department at Bass Pro Shops in Doral, said while women have flocked to the store to buy feathers for their hair over the past year, it hasn’t caused a shortage.
Whiting finds the new fashion craze ironic.
“For 20 years, I tried to find other outlets. I sold some feathers for Las Vegas showgirls’ costumes or for Hawaiian leis. It was negligible,” he said. “Then, these hair extensions came along and took on a life of their own.”
At Featherlocks headquarters, dogs sometimes roam the offices, which have an airy, modern feel. There’s a bank of computers and phones, where customer service representatives take orders or answer questions.
A large space behind the foyer is a sorting room, where employees assemble packets of feathers. The company employs between 25 and 30 people.
The building, it turns out, had once been owned by their great-grandfather, Donald Lavigne, a tailor originally from Russia. He manufactured uniforms for hotel workers, police officers and firefighters there from the 1950s through the 1970s.
“It made me feel like it was meant to be,” said Donya, who wears two hats: chief financial officer and chief operating officer. Alexandra comes up with design ideas and new products.
The sisters have launched other products, too. There are Puppy Locks, or feathers for dogs. Those come from female roosters, which have shorter, wider feathers, Whiting said.
Whether or not the feathery extensions will fade as a fad is anyone’s guess.
Meanwhile, the sisters are coming up with new items. Feathers in fall colors: golds, browns, reds and yellows. Also in the works: braiders, or feathers that can be attached to people’s braids.
“People like the path of least resistance,” Donya said. “If someone has it available, they just buy it.”