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Makin' It: Pet gear designer Deena Kalai

Thursday, March 09, 2006

When East Austin resident and entertainment lawyer Deena Kalai, 33, couldn't find a Texas-themed collar for her dog Fiona, she took action. With dogged entrepreneurial spirit, Kalai began the arduous process of researching and designing her own brand of Texas-style dog collars.

She now sells them online at and has plans to offer more Lone Star-themed gear for pets. Kalai is originally from South Florida but has lived in Austin off and on since 1995. Nine-year-old Fiona, who is part golden retriever and part border collie, is a native Texan and serves as Kalai's model and muse.

Matt Rourke

Deena Kalai uses her pet, Fiona, as her creative muse, and plans to send part of her profits to a selection of charities.

Austin American-Statesman: Why and when did you start making and selling dog collars?

Deena Kalai: The idea first came to me about five years ago. Fiona needed a new collar, and I've always been fascinated by the pride Texans have for the state. So, I figured I'd get her a Texas-themed collar since she was born in Texas. Long story short: I hit every pet store in town and was shocked that all that was available was University of Texas or Aggie stuff. That was the lightbulb moment. I realized that if my Texan dog was going to have a Texas collar, I'd just have to do it myself. Five years, a bunch of brainstorming, drawing and researching later, here I am.

What about making the collars appeals to you?

I love that it's all about animals. I plan to have cat collars soon, too. I've always wanted to be a vet, but getting another degree and incurring even more student loan debt is not exactly feasible. This is faster and more fun. And I've never had a business before, so it was a fun challenge. Plus, after having a few other great ideas that I saw other people later develop, I figured I needed to jump on this one.

What materials and tools do you use?

I don't make them myself. I'm too busy and shouldn't be trusted with sharp objects. So, I design them, consult closely with my producer (Pet and Horse Products, an overseas manufacturer) on colors, materials, design etc., and then they make it for me. The materials are all durable nylon — animal friendly.

Can you walk us through the process?

(The) first step is the design concept, which literally is my sketching out patterns on a piece of paper. I have two patterns right now, with more in the works. Then, either I or a friend turns the sketch into a digital graphic, which becomes the basis for the actual template for the pattern. Next is material selection and hardware selection (metal versus plastic), and then there's the back-and-forth of sample creation until I have a prototype that's to my specification. Fiona is my test model. It took a year to come up with the final approved prototype for my first run of collars.

You plan to send part of the proceeds from the collars to Texas-based animal charities. Which charities did you choose and how much of the sale of each collar is donated?

The plan is to rotate the charities so that I can help as many organizations as possible. Besides, it's so hard to choose just one. The first ones lined up are the Town Lake Animal Shelter — I really love how generous they were to Hurricane Katrina pets — and Utopia Animal Rescue Ranch because they're very egalitarian and give the animals a wonderful place to roam about. The business isn't even 6 months old yet, so we're not profitable, but as soon as we are, the plan is to give around 5 percent of profit to charities.

What other pet products do you have planned if any and when will they be available?

Dog collars for small and toy dogs in three months, cat collars in six months and matching leashes (in) nine months. I'll be adding another couple patterns in a few months. I may expand to animal beds and some other accoutrement depending on my assessment of the market.; 912-2519

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