Departments — 09 August 2019
How Zola Keller built a business one ‘yes, we can’ at a time

By Eric Barton

Photography by Candace West

City & Shore Magazine

If you happened to find yourself sunbathing on Fort Lauderdale Beach back in 1972, you might remember the 25-year-old girl selling bikinis. She had crocheted them herself, and she’d go from beach towel to beach towel.

You might also have spotted her in the souvenir shops along A1A. To get the sympathy of the shopkeepers, she’d drag along her mother and the baby she was raising by herself. A medical technician by training, she had just moved here from Chicago. After trudging home in a blizzard one day, she decided to pack up for Fort Lauderdale, with no idea how she’d make a living.

The bikinis she knit in her apartment came with an unlikely warning: don’t swim in them. Yarn stretches in water, and so customers who didn’t listen would find themselves inadvertently skinny dipping. Just the same, nobody else was making crochet bikinis at the time, and she’d often sell out of all that she could carry.

It was a simple, unplanned beginning for the woman whose storefront on Las Olas you might know today, the woman who is an icon in fashion locally and to many nationally. She’s become a shopkeeper, a dressmaker for extravagant affairs and a tailor for pageant winners.

But Zola Keller never desired much when she was hawking crochet bikinis. “All I wanted to do was play tennis all the time,” she says. “I had it all planned. I would work four hours a day and then play tennis.”

Somebody recommended she cut costs by buying her yarn wholesale, so she found in the Yellow Pages the only place in town with wholesale fabric. Ave Keller owned the place, and he couldn’t believe the business Zola had created on the sands of the beach. He agreed to bankroll her, supplying machines and fabric in exchange for a cut. “For someone with no formal training in fashion, she really had a sense,” Ave says. “She really had a fashion sense.”

The business took off, and soon Zola recruited the women in her building to help with the crochet work. Within six months, Zola started thinking about what else she could do with her new workforce. She started sketching out dresses, something nobody ever taught her to do, and she cut them from Ave’s fabric.

With the dress prototypes, Zola went to the Galleria’s Saks Fifth Avenue. The clothing buyer was so impressed she sent them to her boss in New York, who ordered the dresses for five Saks stores. Zola spotted one of her dresses later on an actress in The Stepford Wives.

The deal with Saks lasted six months, and it was enough to push Zola into a new career. In 1974, Ave gave her a portion of his store on Oakland Park, and she started a shop selling the dresses she was making and others. She had been in Florida just two years.

Early on, Zola developed a specialty: never turning down a request. “There is never a no in my store,” she says. “If I hear someone say, ‘No, we can’t do that,’ I say, “Yes, we can. Let’s figure it out.’”

Somewhere along the way, Ave took Zola to Coral Gables to meet people in the industry, and they stopped at a Spanish restaurant before heading back. Now, they call it their first date.

“We were together 24-7 right from the start,” Ave says. “People don’t know how we do it.”

They were married Christmas Day in 1974 – the only day Ave’s five fabric stores were closed. They had their son, now a writer, in 1976, adding to their two kids from previous marriages. In 1981, they moved the dress store to a two-story shop on Las Olas, where Zola became the face of the store that bears her name and Ave took on the role of handling the business side. Zola specialized right from the beginning in elaborate gowns, for everything from charity galas to weddings.

One of her specialties was simply finding a market no other dress shop had targeted. At the time, Zola recalls that the types of dresses worn by mothers of the bride were dowdy and boring. She wanted to offer them something better, something beautiful. She also knew how to work with women of a certain age who maybe wanted to hide a part of their body, so she would steer them to a higher neck line or longer sleeves that allowed them to look fashionable at any age.

The store remained largely a regional draw until 1993. Miss Florida wore one of Zola’s dresses when she won the Miss America pageant that year, and the attention it garnered brought beauty contestants from around the country. It was a gift and a curse, Ave recalls, as the Kellers slowly became soured by the pageant scene when the girls brought into the shop became younger and younger.

These days, nearly four decades now on Las Olas, Zola and Ave have seen the same women come in for their bat mitzvah, quinceañera, prom, wedding and mother-of-the-bride dresses, a progression of their lives in fabric. Aside from prom dresses, Zola doesn’t compete much with online retailers. Mostly her dresses require seeing them in person, touching the fabric, taking a ballerina spin in front of the mirrors outside the dressing room.

“When they come in here, this is probably the most important dress a girl is going to buy in her life,” Zola says.

In their 70s now and married for 45 years in December, people keep asking Zola and Ave if they’re thinking of retirement. Sitting at the high-top seating of a bar that runs along the wall in the downstairs of their shop, they both shake their heads. “I want to keep going,” Zola says. “We are building a legacy.”

Just then, two women come in, and one says she’s looking for a wedding dress. “Excuse me, would you?” Zola says, accompanying the women upstairs.

Ave explains that she’s got a tough task ahead. The bride-to-be is 4-11, and it’s unlikely an off-the-shelf dress will fit. Wedding dresses can’t simply be hemmed from the bottom, so Zola will need to find a creative solution.

The women’s voices carry from upstairs, the bride-to-be speaking animatedly about the dress of her dreams, describing the one she’s pictured since she was a girl, a dress that almost certainly does not exist yet.

“Yes,” Zola says, “we can do that.”

IF YOU GO

Zola Keller, 818 E. Las Olas Blvd, Fort Lauderdale, 954-462-3222, zolakeller.com

 

Photo by Candace West: Zola, Ave and his mom, Mildred, at their storefront on Las Olas Boulevard in Fort Lauderdale

 

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