STAFFORD, Va. — Top of FormBottom of FormSome people thought it was a bird-brained idea when Lorraine Moore invented what are essentially diapers for birds.
“We got a lot of nasty feedback on the internet,” she said. “They were so mean, saying, ‘How could you possibly love your birds and do this to them?'”
But in spite of ruffling a few feathers in those early days, the FlightSuits and other creations by Avian Fashions — the business started in a Stafford County basement by Lorraine and her husband, Mark, in 1997 — have taken off in a big way, with $5.3 million in gross sales to date.
“We’ve actually made it so you can have a much closer relationship with your bird,” Lorraine said, as her cockatoo Madeline, sporting a Santa Claus-themed flight suit, roosted comfortably on her shoulder. “They can be with you all day, really be a part of your family.”
Back in the early 1990s, the Moore family had a problem. Lorraine, who grew up in Falls Church, loved birds and wanted her cockatiels to be free to roam the house, especially now that their young son and daughter were starting to have an interest in caring for their winged friends.
“But Mark wouldn’t allow it, he didn’t like the mess,” Lorraine said. She and her husband met in Norfolk at the Navy base there, where Mark was serving and Lorraine was studying to be a Navy nurse.
Back then you could buy protective clothing for yourself, big overalls that could handle the kind of discharge produced by a large bird.
But that wasn’t a solution for Lorraine. “It just made so much more sense to go to the source, to have something on the bird that would contain the droppings,” she said.
By that time, the family was living in San Diego, where Mark is from. The area is known for its bird breeding, with a high population of feathered pets.
“I had a Filipino friend with parakeets,” Lorraine said — Cely Giron. Together the women experimented with different fabrics, tried different designs, and developed a prototype, testing the products on their own birds.
They finally settled on a tiny jumpsuit in a breathable, ultra-lightweight fabric with a special “poop pouch” and disposable liners_isolating the bird’s droppings away from the bird and away from you. The liners are changed every 4-6 hours.
“We started to think this might actually work,” Lorraine said. “Mark was so encouraging, he never thought we were wasting our time.”
Mark, who has an MBA, secured a patent. They got a toll free number (888/412-POOP), and they started to advertise.
“It was slow going at first,” Mark said. “The internet was brand new, it was back in the day of the dial-up modem.”
But as time flew by, their FlightSuits started to fly off the shelves. Not only that, but the sheer uniqueness of their product began to win appearances on shows like “Animal Planet,” ”National Geographic Explorer,” ”Good Morning America” and the “CBS Early Show.”
“When Dave Barry listed us in his holiday gift column, I thought that was the ultimate success,” Mark said. The popular humor columnist featured the flight suit in his annual list of wacky and unusual gifts, appearing near Christmas of 2003.
More recently, Avian Fashions has paired up with Jokgu, the piano-playing chicken of “America’s Got Talent” fame in developing a diaper for chickens, to be rolled out in January with the help of Jokgu’s people, Shannon Myers and Seiree Arii of Germantown, Maryland.
Internationally, customers have flocked to the flight. A Japanese game show re-enacted how the business got started, hiring actors to play the Moore family. Avian Fashions has distributors in Australia, France, Belgium, Sweden, the Netherlands, Canada, the Czech Republic, Israel, Kuwait, South Africa, South Korea, and Thailand.
The company’s offerings have expanded, and now include special leashes that attach to the flight suits so pets can be taken outdoors without fear, hoodies, sweaters, costumes that include tiny bird bonnets to match (birthday hats, bunny ears, Santa hats), and a complete line of feather protectors for birds who suffer from plucking their own feathers or self-mutilation. They even make suits with a red cross patch for service birds who help people with PTSD.
“The birds are trained as a calming influence or to alert others if a seizure is coming on or if a person is getting too stressed in a crowd,” Lorraine said.
Mark and Lorraine, who retired from the Navy as business picked up in 2002, have 12 staff, all of them part time, many of them neighbors. The business is operated out of the Moore’s home in Stafford’s Austin Ridge subdivision.
An additional 12 workers sew the suits, half of them here in Virginia. The other half are in the Philippines, friends of Lorraine’s flight suit co-creator Giron, whose name is also on the patent.
For their 20-year anniversary in October, Avian Fashions launched a brand-new mobile-friendly website. “Most of our sales now are online,” Mark said, “on Amazon or through Doctors Foster and Smith, or through pet shops and wholesalers.”
“It’s been an exciting ride,” Lorraine said. “Who would have thought we would do all this?”
It just goes to show, Mark said, “Not everything has been invented. Not everything that needs to be invented has been yet. If you have an idea, work on it, develop it.”
“If you think outside the cage, you can do amazing things,” Lorraine added.
Information from: The Free Lance-Star, http://www.fredericksburg.com/