Australian Fashion Labels designer, Carmen Dugan from Keepsake the label

carmen dugan

The first time I meet Keepsake designer Carmen Dugan, it's at a grungy bar in what used to be a two-storey house.

"You should meet Carmen; she's a designer," somebody says.

I ask her about her label, but Destiny's Child is blasting through the speakers, and conversations  are always a second priority in the presence of Beyonce. 

What did you say your label was called again? Never mind. 

We dance.

Later I realised she was the head designer at Adelaide's own Keepsake. If you're a young woman in Australia and not familiar with Keepsake, you'd certainly know of its sister labels at head company Australian Fashion Labels, Finders Keepers and Cameo. Heck, it's stocked worldwide, and everyone from Hayden Panettiere to Nicole Richie, Nicky Hilton and the Kardashians have been papped wearing the label's dresses. That's more than most 23-year-old designers could say about their work - and probably more than any designer based in Adelaide.

"I was just very lucky," Dugan says, adding that she didn't expect to be able to stay in Adelaide. "Even our TAFE lecturers told us, 'you're probably going to have to move.'"

Indeed, many of her graduating class of 2009 had to move interstate in pursuit of success, or leave the business. Even Dugan's co-designer at her former label had to give up design, and now works in fashion retail. Widely considered among the most promising young designers in Adelaide at the time, Dugan and her friend Kayla Bath formed Frankie & Bath in their final year at TAFE. The duo was placed beside labels as big as Ellery, Alexis George and Bowie at local trade shows, their reputation quickly snowballing. But it wasn't long before the label was put on the shelf, and Bath hasn't released anything since. Adelaide's tough conditions serve to magnify Dugan's success. 

Dugan had already been working for Australian Fashion Labels when the company's design director Melanie Flintoft formed Keepsake to hit the trendy formal wear market at a low price point. 

"It started off as an admin job and then I just kind of moved up," she says. "I have a general brief of what needs to be arranged each month and the type of customer that is."

Carmen Dugan

After about ten months of behind-the-scenes work, the label's first collection was released in October 2011 and has only grown since.

"So far the collections that have been seen at retail - the brand's changed so much from even that. So the range that's in store now is still early days."

With 90 per cent creative control over the label, the designer can hint at what we can expect from the brand's November drop, whose lookbook was photographed last week.

"I'm starting to do exclusive prints each month, which is really exciting. We've got some quite thick jacquard fabrics and some rose gold sequins and a lot of beading."

The label drops 28 garments every month but December - 308 garments a year - so it's a wonder she can even remember what's in the November drop, which she started designing in January.

"We're working on probably three different ranges at a time at different stages of the range. For example, at the moment I'm designing April 2013 and then Tuesday I'm shooting for November this year, and then I'll also be working on fittings for January, and so there's a lot going on."

So how much time is actually spent putting pen to paper for a fast fashion designer?

"You don't get a lot of time really dedicated to it," says Dugan. "Unfortunately we just have to get the designs out. But I try to spend as much time as possible (designing) because it's the most important time, really."

With so many dresses, Dugan says she doesn't always recognise her work when girls wear Keepsake on the streets. But when she does, surely it must be difficult not to criticise the way the dresses are worn if they aren't styled the way she had originally envisioned? Dugan is more gracious than I: "That's the risk you take putting it out there. No one's going to wear it exactly how you would wear it, so you just have to take it as it is."

Fortunately for Dugan, there'll be no questionable styling on Saturday, September 1 when she shows the upcoming Keepsake collection at

Fashion Avenue

in the Queen's Theatre in Adelaide. The label will be flanked by local and national designers including Porcelain, Alannah Hill, Gorman, Alex Perry, Lisa Ho, Morrison, and more. Tickets are from $60 and available online.

*****

I wanted to show you a couple of Dugan's designs from her most recent collection, so I took a couple of quick snaps for you. Initially I was really intimidated by what seemed to be Lilliputian waist sizes, but they're actually extremely flattering, comfortable and right on the standard size.

Below: Keepsake's 

Have It All dress

, $99 and

Good Intent dress

, $139 (both gifted), available from new Australian online boutique Freez. There's an extensive bargain section with plenty of

dresses under $30

, so it's well worth a look.

keepsake dresses