Keely Murphy has lost count of how many dresses she owns. She tells me there are approximately five racks of vintage clothing just out of sight in the next room of her Los Angeles apartment-turned-design studio. Then, there are a couple more closets of clothes here and there. Oh, and a garage full of bins. “I've always loved buying. I probably have a hundred dresses, maybe more,” she says. “It’s a problem.”
But it’s not really a problem. Murphy operates in an if-you-know-you-know space in the fashion world, as the one-woman operation behind her namesake clothing brand Keely whose dedicated fans include fashion power players like Kendall Jenner and Emma Chamberlain. Keely is where Murphy lives out her dress-up fantasies through her made-to-order designs, each hand-painted with electric colors reminiscent of vintage textile prints from floral motifs to remixes of plaid on hand-picked deadstock vintage silhouettes. There’s elegant, long-stemmed roses cascading down a slip dress; big, pouty, candy-apple-red lipstick kisses on bright white tights; orange California poppies bursting in a 2-D superbloom on a classic, crisp tank top; oversized button-downs with abstract, David Hockney-adjacent splashes of water; or cozy sweatpants featuring a slick martini, with one perfect green olive.
“I’ve always been into collecting. My parents collected antiques and so they would take me to Rose Bowl Flea Market as a kid, and then once I was shopping around on my own, I started going to the clothing side and just loved playing the dress-up part,” the 30-year-old says. “The way I've structured my business kind of allows me to scratch that shopping itch when I'm sourcing these vintage pieces.”
As the not-so-athletic child of a very athletic Manhattan Beach family, Murphy opted for a different extracurricular route: art class. Murphy began taking weekly painting lessons in the fourth grade, and honing her fashion taste through trips to the Fairfax Flea Market. Eventually, collecting vintage pieces turned into curating them. Upon graduating from UCLA with a degree in Studio Art, Murphy’s closet had grown with enough eclectic, vintage, and designer pieces that she was able to pivot into commercial and editorial styling for brands like Jeffrey Campbell and Nasty Gal. “It sort of started because I had so many clothes,” she explains. “I'd get hired to do styling jobs and just be working with my own vintage.”
But styling quickly became a drag, and Murphy began weighing her career options; she wanted to continue working in fashion on her own terms, and no longer with just her closet. She began plotting how to launch her own clothing line, and once the 2020 lockdowns took effect, she had the time to make it a reality.
Murphy’s first iteration of Keely hit the internet later that fall: It was called Birthday Girl, with the same splashy visuals and DIY ethos of her present-day collection. First came the primary tulips, a grooving of yellow, red, and blue flowers heavily influenced by an original Marimekko print Murphy had seen of an ‘80s bedroom that had it on the wallpaper, curtains, and bedding.
“I thought it was really striking,” she says. “I've always had a scholastic or elementary color palette [in my work].”
Her second launch was the poppy print, born as Murphy was trying to think what her friend would like for her birthday; not long after, Jenner was photographed on a yacht by Italian paparazzi wearing Murphy’s tank top design. A few days later, Joe Jonas wore the same tank top on tour. At this point, Chamberlain had already been wearing her hand-painted Keely tank for months.
“That was very lucky,” Murphy says. “I think it was kind of a time and place on Instagram when stylists were pulling from there and there was this craft trend happening.” She credits the connections she made as a stylist for getting her design into Jenner’s suitcase. It’s since gone on to become her dominant and most successful print, with Murphy painting multiple poppy designs each week.
The absurdity of it all is not lost on her: “Kendall Jenner's tank top still pays my rent to this day.”
Murphy has since expanded to upwards of 20 hand-painted print options, a process that oscillates between her own creative vision and a “response” to the garment on which she’s painting. “With vintage clothes, some of them have original color tones or details on them, and so that might help me come up with new color combinations, shapes, or the placement with the composition,” she says. “I try to do a bit of research, but I spend a long time sort of picturing what something could look like in my head.”
The brand is an obvious hit with Gen Z shoppers who value its sustainable slow fashion spirit — but it’s equally a hit with women in their 60s and 70s. Murphy believes that the vast age group of her customers reflects how her designs are reminiscent of vintage textiles while also existing as a trend to the Gen Z customer. “There are women who enjoy the wearable art aspect of it. They send me little letters and cards,” she says. “They collect things [like this] and it's so cool. They’ll say, ‘Oh, this reminds me of my grandmother's favorite flower, a yellow rose.’ I love it.”
“Kendall Jenner's tank top still pays my rent to this day.”
Keely is a balancing act for Murphy, which keeps things interesting for her. Each week, she paints her orders, and then keeps a lookout on eBay for new silhouettes and fabrics to build out a new design. There’s nothing fast about Murphy’s fashion, and her independent artistic practice has bloomed into a powerful feeling of creative control and confidence as a textile artist.
“I've found it to be really rewarding and good for my mental health. I have so much time to work alone and have a lot of freedom,” she says. “If I don't feel like doing something, I know I should just wait a couple days until it is inspired.”
Murphy’s method is paying off creatively — and established retailers like Urban Outfitters and Lisa Says Gah are taking notice. In 2022, Lisa Says Gah licensed a Keely print for a cut-and-sew collection, returning again this year for a hand-painted run of their best selling denim, tanks, and tees; for Earth Day 2023, Urban Outfitters tapped Murphy as one of four emerging vintage and handmade designers to create a one-of-a-kind capsule collection.
“It’s exciting to use their existing resources, and my artwork, to create elevated products and be introduced to their customers,” says Murphy. “It affirms that I’m making artwork that is both interesting and commercially viable.”
As Keely continues to grow as a brand, Murphy is keen to innovate; she has a dream of eventually adding cut-and-sew pieces to her collection, upfront costs pending — especially occasion wear, like dresses, that can still serve as a canvas for her prints.
“A dress is a really effective singular item. Wear a great dress and you're kind of done,” she says. “I find there's something really very safe in that when I'm getting dressed, especially seasonally, if it's hot time and it's too complicated to think about anything else, I love that I can put on one of my dresses and feel really done up. People love to see a dress on someone. It would be really cool to add my version of a cut and a print into that history of dresses.”
This article was originally published on