A New Leaf on Maple

Veteran retailer Mark Keller has moved upstairs, where he sells Icelandic designs above Linda Dresner’s boutique
Photograph by David Lewinski

Mark Keller barely makes it through the door at Elie’s, a tony Mediterranean grill in downtown Birmingham, when a smartly attired blonde with the hint of a German accent leaps from her chair.

“Mahk!” she squeals. “Look at me! Do you recognize vat I am wearing? I miss you so much. I meees you! Where are you?”

The woman is not, Keller later explains, a lovesick admirer. Then again, in a fashion sense, one might say she was.

“That happens every freakin’ day,” he says, delighted resignation on his face, sipping an Elie’s cocktail he swears is named after him.

“Either they’re wearing something I sold them, or they want to tell me they have something from me that they still wear. Most of these people shopped with me for 30 years, so I’ve known them forever.”

The woman spins away from her companions and faces Keller again. “My girlfriend says I must have been a good customer for you. Was I?”

“A nicer person,” Keller replies, missing nary a beat.

He is smooth. From the mid-1970s into the ’90s, Keller, through his eponymous Mark Keller clothing store and its spinoff outlets West End and Basic Goods (all on Birmingham’s trendy Maple Road), adorned much of metro Detroit with stylishly functional, affordable attire. A long-haired, articulate Oak Park native, ’60s Wayne State radical and impassioned rock ’n’ roller, he delayed the September 1975 opening of his original store by two days so that he could attend a Bruce Springsteen concert. Keller has long stood as a paragon of Motor City cool, but now he’s ice, ice, baby — as in Iceland.

After more than a decade off the retail radar, a chance meeting with three women from Reykjavik at a trade show in New York has propelled the just-turned-60 Keller into the brick-and-mortar rag business again — High End Division. Occupying an unused second-floor loft above the boutique of Detroit’s best-known name in fashion, Linda Dresner, Keller in June opened a small Birmingham outlet devoted exclusively to Icelandic-made ELM Designs.

“Originally, I wanted to sell her the product,” says Keller, who handles sales, distribution, and marketing for ELM in North America. “She said, ‘I don’t want to buy another manufacturer, but I love your stuff.’ I said, ‘Tell you what: You’ve got this upstairs that is gorgeous; let’s do a little store up there.’

“The symbiotic relationship of Linda’s clothes and my clothes is perfect, because the aesthetic is the same. I don’t think there’s anything better in the city right now.” He pauses. “Of course, even before I got here, there was nothing better in the city, but now….”

These are not basic goods. ELM merchandise runs from $80 for a T-shirt to $500 for a suit jacket, $700 for a dress. Even so, Keller notes, “This is like an opening price point for her store. You can’t buy [items priced like] that downstairs, unless there’s a sale.” Dresner, the grande dame of Detroit couture whose product lines routinely hit four figures, proclaims Keller “the best neighbor a girl could ever hope for. I mean, he doesn’t bring me coffee in the morning, but he’s a great neighbor, polite and appropriate.”

While Keller launched with an extremely “soft opening” — postcards were mailed to his clients of years past — Dresner says his arrival has added a new energy.

“It’s a current, and a very positive current,” she says. “I’ve been in business in Detroit for 33 years, and I think it’s taken all these years for some people to find out it’s not bad to come in here, that we’re not scary. His ladies very much like coming in here, even passing through here, where they may have been a bit shy before. And we share customers, so our ladies are thrilled to see him here.”

From his upstairs windows, Keller can look across Maple Road to the building that once housed his West End store, representing the apex of his success in the ’80s. He believes the popularity of his original independent outlet “had a lot to do with being pretty egalitarian; it wasn’t pretentious, and we marketed it perfectly on WABX [FM radio],” then the city’s seminal album-rock station. Advertising included such stunts as having WABX air ace Karen Savelly broadcast live from Mark Keller’s front window. “I think it was his idea, and I mean the store was packed,” recalls Savelly, who’s now at WCSX-FM. “I bought all my clothes there.”

His undoing came with an expansion to Ann Arbor that ultimately resulted in bankruptcy. “I had no thought of failing, you know?” Keller says. “I made every conceivable mistake. It was the wrong town, the space was too big. I never did five-year plans, P&L statements back then. I’d just go to Europe and bring back the best stuff that nobody had. Couldn’t give the stuff away. In hindsight, it was a good learning experience.”

Fortune smiled when Keller ran into Erna Steina Gudmundsdottir, Lisbet Sveinsdottir, and Matthildur Halldórsdóttir — three former art students with virtually no experience in fashion retailing. “I said to them, ‘If you ladies decide you want some help, let me know,’” he says.

“At the time, they had four accounts in America. After we did our first show, they had 35, and they thought I was a genius.” Now ELM Designs (named for the first letters of the women’s names) are selling in Europe, Africa, and Asia, and Keller’s Birmingham shop is just the tip of the Iceland — uh, berg. Once the worldwide recession cools, he says the company plans to roll out a store in New York or London.
All of which means when Keller’s not spending time with his wife, Helaine, and their two children — Lucy, 18, a freshman at Grand Valley State University, and Jake, 22, a CCS grad and budding filmmaker — he’s booking a lot of flights to Reykjavik.

“It’s not that cold,” he says. “In January, it’s warmer there than it is here. And they have a lot of good bands there.”

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