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Business Observer Friday, Jan. 28, 2011 11 years ago

Sole Success

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Diana Kelly turned a childhood fascination with brooches into a trendy shoe line. Now her task is to turn trendy into a sustainable business.
by: Mark Gordon Managing Editor

Diana Kelly planned to get her graduate education in architectural and interior design at the University of Florida.


But Kelly, 24, left the program in 2009 after one year to run her own shoe design company. Her education ever since has been a fast and furious ride littered with lessons learned and big risks.


Kelly's business, Diana E. Kelly Inc., is also on the cusp of achieving a recession anomaly: Fast growth. The source of all the activity stems from Kelly's surprisingly novel idea to attach sparkling rhinestone-encrusted brooches to the tips of women's shoes.


“I always thought it would be so neat to put a brooch on footwear,” says Kelly. “So many shoes look exactly the same.”


Boutique owners and shoe buyers nationwide seem to agree. Sales, online and through more than 30 independent boutiques, doubled each month since Kelly launched the initial line last fall. The shoes are in boutiques in 11 states, mostly in the South and Southeast. Kelly declines to release specific sales figures.


“We want to be affordable and high quality,” Kelly says. “We want to give the designer look, without the $800 price tag.”


Kelly and her shoes have also generated nationwide and regional media attention in recent months. Kelly touted the shoes on local TV news morning shows in Fort Myers and Atlanta, for instance, and Lucky magazine plans to include the shoes in a fashion spread in February.


The shoes range in style from heels and pumps to flats, with brooches that include flowers, alligators and a fleur-de-lis. Prices range from $148 to $228 a pair. Kelly also sells handbags.


The daughter of two Sarasota physicians, Kelly has been in the spotlight before. Most recently, she was the first runner up in Miss Florida 2010, in which the winner represents the Sunshine State in the Miss America pageant. Kelly also competed in the statewide pageants in 2008 and 2009, saying the experience helped her gain self-confidence and hone her public speaking skills.


“I didn't grow up in pageants,” says Kelly. “I did it as a challenge to myself and to get up on stage and perform.”


Kelly spent the first half of 2010 creating shoe designs and meeting with potential manufacturers in China. She learned quickly overseas about quality control and the art of ordering the precise amount of inventory.


Back in the States, Kelly learned first-hand about government hurdles that can slow down a business. In this case, it was the U.S. Customs office in Tampa that thoroughly and painstakingly searched a container of 6,000 shoes — and then sent her a bill for the experience.


Kelly's current big challenge is to grow the line in boutiques and expand her brand in the industry without missing any opportunities. She spends a lot of her time going to trade shows, and she recently hired an industry consultant and publicist.


Kelly has no regrets about leaving the more comfy confines of graduate school to go into business for herself. “When you have the ability to do something totally on your own,” she says, “it's huge.”

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