Fashion designer Heidi Elnora Baker had a busy morning, even ahead of her 9 a.m. call with Inc.: "Sorry if I'm hoarse," she said. "It's Birmingham Fashion Week and I've been screaming at models." 

Don't be fooled by the fact that Baker deals in soft whites, sleek cuts, and overall elegant bridal wear: The 35-year-old has demonstrated business acumen, too. She launched her own fashion house in 2006, which has since expanded to 33 locations worldwide and saw a 300 percent sales uptick between fiscal years 2013 and 2014. Baker, who was featured in Season 2 of Project Runway, is now the star of a new reality-TV series on TLC: Bride by Design, which premiered in March of this year.

Baker's brand has three signature collections, each with a distinctly southern influence: the luxury "Heidi Elnora," the "Hello Darling"--which Baker says is inspired in part by singer-songwriter Stevie Nicks--and the customizable concept, "Build-a-Bride." Describing the latter as the classic "all-American girl next door," Baker explained that clients can choose from a selection of 15 basic dresses, and then 25 add-on pieces (a lace bodice, a peplum, etc.). From a budget standpoint, clients can make their own adjustments: "It empowers the bride not to be stuck with a sticker price ... and take ownership of her dress," she explains. Her dresses begin at around $1,500, with the high-end designs going for as much as $8,000. Not exactly meat-and-potatoes pricing, but most are still less than your average designer wedding dress from Monique Llhuiler or Vera Wang. 

Although this season's wedding trends tend to be more complex--think detachable tulle overskirts and capes--Baker says that a relatively simple, country upbringing has informed her professional aesthetic: "Down South we do things pretty easy," she lilts. "It's a pretty relaxed life. I like clean lines, I don't like a lot of fuss, I don't make things too exaggerated. Growing up in Alabama, it's a lot of sitting on the front porch drinking sweet tea. That's how my whole design philosophy is when it comes to brides."

Southern charm has influenced her practice in other ways, too. For one thing, Baker names each of her wedding dresses after an influential figure in her life. Gabriella Milad, for instance, is the producer on Bride by Design, as well as the name of a peplum-overlay wedding gown with a chapel train. Baker explained that everyone in the south has a double name, so naturally her dresses do too.

It's worth noting that Baker's southern upbringing, although influential, was by no means glamorous. Her mother was a nurse and her father was a truck driver. When she was first starting up, Baker had to go through a local nonprofit for women just to raise enough money to launch her business. At the time, she was also recovering from a car accident. She was hit by a drunken driver during a brief stint in New York City, after which point she decided to move back home to Alabama. 

Managing a global fashion brand from a three-square-mile suburb--Baker, her husband, and two children live on a hayfield in Morris, Alabama--also poses a unique set of challenges. "It is hard being based in Alabama because things aren't right at my fingertips," she says. There are very few direct flights to Birmingham from places like New York City and Los Angeles, for one thing, and as you might imagine, Baker says that even basic tasks like shipping her products requires "additional planning and additional organization." Adding to that, her business currently operates with a team of just eight full-time employees. (When she launched, there were only two.) 

Despite the headaches, Baker wouldn't trade her digs in Birmingham for anything. "It's an amazing city," she says, adding that society ought to stop "misjudging" people based on where they live. "I don't think where you live defines you. That's something that I always preach to my team. You don't have to move to the big city to follow your dreams."

She's also committed to creating more jobs for local residents: According to the Alabama labor department, unemployment hovers at 6 percent statewide (around 6.7 percent in Birmingham), compared with 5.4 percent nationally. The Alabama Film Office reports that more than 40 jobs have been created thus far during production of Bride by Design, 18 of which went to local Alabamians. Baker also aims to capitalize and expand on Birmingham's local culture: "It's a very tight, little niche community where we have all of these artistic people," she says, citing a wealth in sculpting, food, iron work, and more. 

At least for Baker--who says she loves to drive her own car--entrepreneurial success should not (and does not) come at the expense of family life, or a rocking chair on the front porch. 

Published on: May 11, 2015