ANCHORAGE - Leslie Pruett-Walters dropped out of fashion design school and thought her future in haute couture was over. Turns out, she was just focusing on the wrong leggy models.
From her studio in east Anchorage, Pruett-Walters turns out eye-popping dog and cat collars.
Lots of people do. What sets Pruett-Walters apart is the astonishing number of choices she offers.
She has what she calls a serious obsession with jacquard ribbon - more than 1,000 varieties she can sew on 27 shades of 1-inch wide dog collar webbing.
"I don't drink. I don't smoke. OK, I buy ribbon," Pruett-Walters says.
Not every color combination works, she says, but her customers easily can have 5,000 collars to pick from for a colorful stripe on the neck of Lucky, Lady or Scooter.
There are collars with rich brocade that looks like the trim on an Elizabethan dress, and metallic ribbon with gold and silver thread that catches light like facets of a jewel.
One shelf in her studio holds Southwest designs. She has polka dots and swirls that look like they escaped from a '60s T-shirt.
Her most popular collar is a Tlingit Indian design of black, gray and burgundy.
She has ribbon of polar bears, otters, ducks, squirrels, turtles and giraffes, plus camouflage for hunters, fish for anglers and planes for pilots. There are patterns for Christmas and Halloween and St. Patrick's Day.
Want ribbon on a green collar? You can pick aqua, teal, emerald, olive or apple green. Ribbon looks different on each shade.
"It's like matting a picture," Pruett-Walters said. "It's the same effect. What do you want to show?"
A visit to her Ribbonworks studio, where collars cover a wall, can be disorienting. Pruett-Walters helps narrow choices by asking questions: Male or female dog? Hearts? Flowers? Subtle or splashy?
Each collar comes with a charm. The collars can be laundered, they come with a lifetime guarantee against defects, and they can be had for $18, which leads some people to indulge their pets and their whims.
"I have four dogs and one cat that wear her collars," said Maggie Joyner, a pharmaceutical sales representative. "You could say we're regulars."
She buys new collars about every six months for Meg, Annie, Roy, Sam and Indiana Jones.
"Everybody's got the same webbing," she said of her animal family. "This last time it was olive. Then I pick out individual ribbons for each dog."
Her pets are rescue animals and she donates used collars to the Anchorage animal shelter.
"This is going to make me sound like a crazy dog person, but it's fun," she said.
"We're not Paris Hilton up here, buying frou-frou, but it's affordable."
Pruett-Walters sewed as a child, made clothes in home economics class and dreamed of design school. She was accepted into the acclaimed Virginia Commonwealth University program. She lasted one year.
"I can't draw," she said. "I had to draw stick figures. That's how bad it was."
But she had a sewing machine and she put up signs offering to replace zippers and repair jeans.
"I was making $600 per week," she said. "What I realized was, I'm not a starving artist, I was an entrepreneur."
She eventually repaired costumes for a Renaissance fair and was introduced to jacquard ribbon, named for the French inventor of the loom on which it's created. The hues and weave fed her love of color and texture.
When she moved to Anchorage in 1989, she looked for ways to make money and cobbled together ribbon to make evening bags - tiny clutches and purses. At her first craft fair, her booth cost $500 and she made $490.
"Little did I know, this is Alaska," she said. "I came from Washington, D.C. Little evening bags - everybody has a lot of them."
She switched to ribbon bookmarks. A bookstore owner suggested dog collars.
Her first collars were sewed with fishing line. Cheap buckles were snapped by a 150-pound German shepherd mix named Diva who ran miles on a cable run. When Pruett-Walters made a collar Diva couldn't break, she was ready for customers.
That was 15 years ago. She took only custom orders at first. She devoted 13 summers to the Anchorage Saturday market, an assembly of open-air booths downtown. She slowly made enough money to build up inventory, including the dazzling collection of ribbon.
She still sells collars at the market, plus the Alaska State Fair, and by appointment, from her studio. She also sells by e-mail.
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