In our long-running series "How I'm Making It," we talk to people making a living in the fashion and beauty industries about how they broke in and found success.
More often than not, you'll hear stories from Asian-Americans about how their personal pursuits of a career in anything creative isn't exactly encouraged by their immigrant parents. Doctors, lawyers, engineers — those are the top choices when it comes to a successful (read: stable, prosperous, etc.) profession. For Eugenia Kim, her situation was similar. While growing up in a suburb of Pittsburgh, she recalls her childhood affinity towards arts and crafts, getting dressed and working with her hands. But coming from a family who works in medicine, Kim always thought being a doctor — a surgeon, perhaps — was the path she'd ultimately take.
Cut to Kim attending Dartmouth College and a month-long stint in the hospital as a result of a sled-riding accident. "It seemed really depressing to be in the hospital," remembers Kim. "I thought to myself, 'I don't want to spend my life in hospitals.'" She switched majors to focus on creative writing and eventually landed her first job as an assistant at Allure. Back then, Condé Nast offered to pay for enrichment courses for employees, and so Kim started to take classes in hat design on the side.
"I was fascinated with the idea [of making] something so quickly and you can make it all by hand because I was really bad on the sewing machine," says Kim. "I've always been kind of attracted to hats that were really close to your head, especially after I gave myself a bad haircut and then had to shave my head because it was all very crooked. I started wearing 1920s cloche-type hats that fit really close to your face to look like hair."
Kim was later fired from her Allure job. "I wasn't that great of an assistant," she explains. Kim kept the news from her parents but they eventually found out — "My mom had called [Allure]," she says — and later confronted her about it while she was home for the holidays.
"They totally accosted me. I remember I brought hat blocks to make hats and my dad said, 'What are you doing with your life? What are you going to do? Make hats?'" recalls Kim. "Then pan to me crying like a Korean soap opera."
By the following year, Kim did make hats — and her designs eventually caught the attention of store owners and buyers, one of whom was from Barneys New York. The major department store became one of Kim's first and longstanding accounts.
Of course, Kim's two-decade career is a clear testament to the value of hard work and navigating the ups and downs of the fashion industry. This August, Barneys debuted a special retrospective for Kim's namesake brand, launching an exclusive online and in-store collection of her best designs, including the hat that put the milliner on the celebrity style map — that'd be Jennifer Lopez's floppy hat from the 2001 MTV Video Music Awards — and her famous clientele's most memorable pieces, like Beyoncé's black leather beret.
Ahead of Kim's retrospective and New York Fashion Week, we stopped by the designer's Garment District studio to learn more about how she started her career, advice for young designers and launching into niche categories.
Did you have any mentors when you first started out?
My first buyer Sarah Blair at Barneys — she's now the DMM of Women's Accessories — gave me a lot of advice, as well as my friend Alvin Valley. He taught me how to make what I'm doing a business; when I was younger, I was more like an artist with no commercial value sense and understanding.
And then I taught myself along the way. I think I was my biggest teacher. Not to be an egomaniac, but when you don't go to fashion school, you don't study all of these things and you don't know anything about retail. You learn along the way and figure it out with common sense. It's weirdly learning the hard way.
What are some challenges that you had to overcome?
There are daily challenges, monthly challenges and yearly challenges. Flipping to become more direct-to-consumer-oriented has been a challenge, but also really successful. We doubled our web sales in the last year because we revamped our site. Every month our website is exceeding goals, which is great. I'm always rolling with the punches.
In 2008, when the stock market crashed, I doubled the size of my collection and that was the year that I gained a bigger percentage in all of the department stores because everyone else was receding. Every year there are certain moments that are challenges, but it's always me figuring out how to turn that challenge from a problem into a solution.
We recently did a piece on designers who launched during the recession and how they navigated through it. Can you talk a little bit about your own strategy?
I felt like every year, I'm this tortoise. I don't all of a sudden become a public IPO company in one year, like companies that really skyrocket. I was just growing steadily. So how was I going to grow this year because this is what's happening? If I stand behind my product more confidently, saying, 'My collection has 45 SKUs instead of 25.' It really says that I have confidence behind this collection. And when you're doing it in a time when everyone is cutting back, who are they going to buy? There's more to choose from in my collection.
Then price-point-wise, I would offer more of a range because I do notice — like in 2001, right after 9/11 and then in 2008 — that people do gravitate towards accessories when there is a situation like that. I know those are two totally different situations, but those are both years that I've grown. With accessories, if you have the right price points and a bigger range, you can offer someone something that's just a slice of happiness. Also in 2001, it was my first year doing trade shows, which did really well. Before, I was just selling to six stores, just people who would hear about me and email me. Doing trade shows was really putting me out into the bigger realm of [retail].
How have you approached expanding into other categories?
We've been doing hair accessories for a while and right now it's a really big trend. Our bags have really taken off. We started that two years ago with four or five SKUs, and now we have 30-something.
I approach each category the way I approach my original line, which is basically a Malcolm Gladwellian approach. You need to figure out your niche and what's not in the market, because what's the point of doing something that everyone else is doing? You're just saturating the market with more product.
Your embroidered straw hats are such a signature of the brand and have become a social media success.
It's so crazy. People love words on T-shirts, and I was like, 'Let's do it on a hat.' I designed one with 'Do Not Disturb,' and then our sales director was like, 'I don't know if we're going to sell that many.' We were thinking of editing it, but I wanted to try it out. It's something new. We only sold about 100-something when we showed it for Resort 2015. Then all of a sudden whomever was buying it was Instagramming it, so it became socially viral. By January, people were ordering, and in February I was trucking in thousands of them. Every week we had to stop market to see how many units we had left and order more and more.
How have you adapted to social media over the years?
We have a very good voice right now with social media because of these word hats and because we have such a resort following. People equate the brand with 'I'm on vacation.' It's an Instagram thing, which has been happening from 2015 until now. It's always [someone in] bikini in a field of lavender in Provence and here's this hat that matches in lavender. It's come to the point where we don't have to really work with influencers. They just naturally post their own content and we re-gram it. It's a dream because people pay these people to do this.
Looking back on your career, do you think that same path is still possible with the current state of fashion?
I think it was possible when I did it. It was being at the right place at the right time and that was the late '90s, early '00s. It's even really hard to launch a new category now. I equate that with being a new designer even though I have a brand. You can't just be an idiot like I was back then and just be like, 'Okay, I guess I'll open this store since I can live in the back of it.' Now you have to be like, 'This is our business plan for the next five, ten years and this is how we'll get investors.' You have to be the complete package. You have to be really good in interviews with editors and with buyers, you have to be able to take a lot of criticism and then not cry.
I don't think you can be as unplanned as I was. I was still very intense when I was younger. Every morning I was calling buyers, but I don't think I operated with a real plan. Now, you really need to have everything behind you and then start it. In the late '90s and early '00s, youth culture was just beginning because of all of these public IPOs and tech companies and everyone was like 22, so it was this whole frenetic moment. The '90s were all about Calvin Klein and big designers and everyone wanted to run away from that, or were reacting to it. There were always stories about discovering a new designer. My story is not unusual but it doesn't happen now. Do you read those stories anymore?
Everyone who really succeeds has good backing. It's a whole different world now. I can't even imagine. I don't know if I would succeed if I started now, but I might be a different person because I'd be 22 instead of 42.
Do you have any career advice for young designers, especially launching in a specific, sometimes niche category?
It's helped me so much to become really good at designing for my customer because I do a lot of trunk shows and personal appearances. When I had that retail store, I was always talking to people. I always want my design team to work our sample sales for a little while because I think the more we spend time around customers, the more we really understand, 'Oh this hat is for this girl, this is hat is for that girl.' I know every single type of customer because I've met so many people, and that's really important to be one-on-one with your customer. It's one thing where you say 'this is what I want my brand to be,' but I'm at a point now where my brand is I want it to be. I also have customers reacting and I can see how they're part of the Eugenia Kim ethos.
Do you have an ultimate goal for your brand?
My goal is to expand our accessories. People like our aesthetic and ethos behind the brand, so applying that to other categories just makes sense. I'm just an accessory person. This new category that we're launching that I can't mention yet, it's a perfect niche that no one is doing. Why is no one doing it in the way that I'm doing it? There's a lot on the market in every category, but why has no one has done it before? That's where you want to start your brand.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.