A Florida shoe designer pulls from the past to put a signature spin on chic coastal footwear.

By Marisa Spyker
August 13, 2013
Photographer: Bryan Kasm

While many little girls grow up treasuring their collections of dolls or stuffed animals, Diana Kelly spent her childhood enamored with something else: antique brooches from her grandmother. “She would often bring me a new one when she came to visit,” Kelly says. “Each one had a story behind it, and they felt especially meaningful to me growing up.”

So perhaps it was more than happenstance when, years later, those brooches thrust the former beauty queen into her role as owner and lead designer of Diana E. Kelly, her sarasota, Florida–based shoe line. “I was in grad school and struggling to figure out what I wanted to do,” says the 27-year-old designer. “Then one morning I woke up, saw a brooch on my vanity, and thought, ‘That would look so pretty on a shoe.’”

Drawing on an entrepreneurial spirit and a life-long love of fashion, Kelly returned to her hometown to launch her own line—a collection of brightly hued flats, leather pumps, sandals, and bags, each marked by a sparkling brooch. Kelly’s coastal roots provide her with creative fuel: Her designs are adorned with seafaring shapes such as palm trees, sea horses, sand dollars, coral, and starfish. “The beach is therapeutic for me,” she says. “I’ll often take a pad of paper out to nearby long Boat Key to clear my head and just start sketching. It’s where I can focus on designing.”

Today, Kelly’s beachy footwear and accessories are available online at her Web site, dianaekelly.com. They have caught the attention of shops in vacation destinations from the Bahamas to Nantucket, and have garnered her a partnership with the venerable Key West Sandal Factory, for which she designs flip- flops, jewelry, and beach totes. “Living on the Gulf Coast, I’m attracted to bright colors like corals and pinks, and I’m always thinking of new sea-inspired shapes for brooches,” she says.

But if Kelly ever does find herself stuck, she knows exactly where she can turn. “My grandmother lives in Jupiter, Florida, and she’s always sending me trends she loves, mailing me articles she sees in magazines, or passing along new brooches to help me come up with ideas,” she says. And for her grandmother’s influence, Kelly found the ultimate way to say thank you: “All of the shoes that I design are named after important people in my life,” she says. “The Ingrid wedge is my tribute to her.”