Style and substance – Armed with business smarts and design savvy, Dee Keller is on the fast track to becoming fashion’s newest Southern star

Fashion design hasn’t always been so kind to Dee Keller.

During a home-economics class in high school, a buttonholing mishap once had her rushing to the hospital, where she received five stitches in a finger.

Oh, what a difference a few decades make.

Today, the 49-year-old mother of four is basking in the glow of two well-received collections of her own shoe and handbag designs and is embarking on yet another new adventure as a creator of chic ready-to-wear clothing.

It’s a seemingly unbelievable position for a woman who began her professional career as a real-estate attorney and then veered off into interior decorating. But this is a place that, somewhere deep inside, Dee always believed she could be. And—scars aside—she’s loving every minute of it.

Dee was on an anniversary trip with her husband, Steven, in August 2011 when she began to talk about the fantasy she had held for years—becoming a designer.

“He said, ‘You just need to do it,’ ” Dee recalls. It was all the encouragement she needed to finally make a big move. Upon her return, she visited her friend Aileen Dauterive, owner of Park Lane Boutique, who let her tag along on a market trip and steered her toward other footwear designers, who patiently answered her questions about turning rough ideas into leather and suede. 

Dee’s next key meeting was with the Italian Trade Commission. “I knew I wanted my shoes to be made in Italy because of their great craftsmanship,” she says. Two weeks later, she caught a plane to tour Italian factories, and her new shoe-centric company, Dee Keller Design, took flight right along with her.

Her creations achieved almost instant success during their spring 2012 debut in local boutiques. Dee’s shoes filled a niche she saw in the marketplace; they were finely crafted and supremely stylish but didn’t carry the luxury price tag that typically comes with those features. She produced 32 shoe styles that season, many in multiple colors and named for friends and family members.

“Sales my first season were much better than I expected them to be, and stores here were very gracious about supporting a new local designer,” Dee says. “I felt really lucky.”

Her fall 2012 line has gained even more fans—including buyers at the upscale Neiman Marcus department store, which placed a huge order and will have Dee Keller footwear in all its locations this season. The shoes are also available in more than 50 boutiques from California to New York, and discussions are in the works to place them with more big-name retailers nationwide.

But even as her original niche flourished, Dee refused to be relegated to one area of the marketplace. She set about creating her fashion designs, which are now being produced in Italy and Hong Kong with plans to be in boutiques next spring.

“Shoes and handbags have always been my biggest weakness, so I knew that was a great place to start,” she says. “But I always had a vision in my mind of moving into fashion.”

Like her shoes, Dee’s clothing reflects her personality: bright and bold, playful and energetic. In this way, her designs give a nod toward the past. “I’d say that my vibe is based on the classics and vintage pieces, but with a contemporary twist,” Dee says with a laugh. “I guess you could say I’m a little vintage myself.”

Much of that vintage vibe is derived from Dee’s style icons, including Jackie Kennedy Onassis, Audrey Hepburn and Lauren Bacall. She draws inspiration from “absolutely anywhere,” from children’s clothing and abstract paintings to elements of nature and even the décor in an ice-cream shop—“anything that makes me happy,” she says.

One of the signature garments in her new clothing line is a piece she’s dubbed the “butterfly dress,” a comfortable, drapey design that’s available in several colors and patterns. “It can truly take you from day to night,” she says. “You could even wear it with flip-flops to run errands.” 

The flirty little butterfly dress exemplifies Dee’s instinctive ability to translate haute fashion for a woman with a busy lifestyle. “While the majority of my children are in college or beyond, the days of running from this practice to that one, constantly being on the go, are not forgotten,” she says. “But why not accomplish all you have to do in a day—be a professional, be a mom, be a wife—and look polished while doing so?”

Her line features luxe fabrics including flowy silks, soft jerseys and laminated linens that look like they glow from within. The colors of the spring season range from blues and grays to chartreuse and pinks, with plenty of patterns and pieces to mix and match. 

“My muse actually transcends generations,” she notes. “I try to create things that my daughters would want to wear and that I would wear, too. I want the woman who wears my clothes to be happy and comfortable and confident and chic.”

Dee says staying on top of production schedules and maintaining her high quality standards are the biggest challenges she faces as a designer, but the hiring of a full-time consultant in Italy has made overseeing the factories’ work a lot easier than it was when she was managing it alone from 5,000 miles away. “We did experience some delays the first season,” she admits, “but now we’re trying to encourage our producers to ship early.”

She still makes her fair share of trips abroad, sourcing fabrics, directing fittings and managing the other little details of a growing business. She recently returned from Italy and Hong Kong, where she was making plans for the fall/winter 2013 collection while finalizing looks for the spring line. “I don’t get to do a lot of sight-seeing,” she says of these whirlwind jaunts. “But I’m loving every single second of this. It’s a neat process and one that I’ve really enjoyed learning.”

Her swift and total immersion in that process may help explain the meteoric rise of her label and its seemingly limitless potential. “Eventually, I would like this to be a lifestyle brand,” Dee says, evoking images of a perky and petite Southern version of Ralph Lauren or Kate Spade. She envisions expansion into evening gowns, jewelry and perhaps even home furnishings someday. But for now, her sights are set solely on introducing more and more ladies to her current collections.

“Clothing, just like a great pair of shoes, is an investment we make in ourselves,” she says. “I can’t wait to share my line with everyone.”