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.
In late 2016, Khloe Kardashian and Emma Grede launched a denim line called Good American. It was an immediate hit not just because it had a Kardashian's name attached to it, but also because it launched in a 00-24 size range right off the bat. It also reflected that inclusivity with a diverse group of women modeling it.
According to the brand, it was the most successful denim launch of all time, bringing in $1 million in one day. Yes, Kardashian's influence helped get eyes on the brand. But, says Grede, "Coming from a background where I've done a billion celebrity partnerships, that doesn't do it on its own."
Before Good American, Grede, who is British, ran a successful agency linking brands with talent; she only recently sold it to focus solely on her own brand partnership with Kardashian. From deciding to launch a brand rooted in inclusivity despite the many inherent challenges, to moving her family from London to Los Angeles, Grede has put a lot into Good American, whose rapid success even she couldn't predict.
"Khloe wearing stuff on Instagram is no bad thing," she notes (though the line is still going strong even as the youngest Kardashian sister has been a bit less prolific on the social media platform). Inclusive sizing is also driving sales: 00 and 18 are the bestselling sizes. It was such an important component of the brand that she actually forced the brand's launch partner, Nordstrom, to carry the entire size run in the premium denim section, rather than relegating the larger sizes to a different part of the store. It was a power move that ultimately inspired the innovative retailer to pressure its other brands to offer more inclusive sizing.
I caught up with Grede at the Good American headquarters in Los Angeles to discuss how she got started in fashion, how she got connected to Kardashian, how exactly their roles differ, the real challenges in launching an inclusive clothing brand and what she thinks of the movement she helped accelerate. Read on for the highlights from our chat.
Were you always interested in fashion? How did you get started?
I grew up in a very unfashionable part of East London. I was an old fashion nerd. I used to file the ads by brand, so I had a Chanel file and a Versace file. I don't know if that was so much about fashion or the supermodels. I think I lived in a place that was void of anything as beautiful and creative.
I studied business at the London College of Fashion, and I think I knew from a young age that I wanted to work in fashion, but I never saw myself as a creative. I was like, I'm good around creative people. My first job was as the assistant of a fashion show producer and I loved doing that because you were close to the designers and you were close to the people creating the sets, or the lights, but you also saw this other side of PR and marketing and the buyers and the reasons for the shows. So, that was really my first proper job.
At this fashion show event production company, I actually moved into the sponsorship part because what I found that I was very good at was contracts and negotiation, working with brands, and I found myself at this intersection of where brands and fashion designers come together. I did tons and tons of partnerships with the great and the good of British fashion from Christopher Kane, Charles Deacon, Alexander McQueen, and really putting brand partnerships together.
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What kinds of partnerships?
Most of it was fashion show sponsorships. There would be the hair sponsor, there would be a makeup sponsor. You know what it's like in London, right? The designers have these incredible reputations and there's not that much money, there's not that much sales, so we would be doing things with alcohol companies or telephone companies. It could be anything like, Christopher Kane working with Bombay Sapphire or whatever it was, but it was always really trying to understand how brands needed to communicate with a fashion-based audience and putting those things together.
I did really well, and kind of became the girl who was known for raising money for fashion designers in London and then I started my own company doing that. That was called ITB. Then it started getting into the talent space, and so I just went and did what my brands were asking: "Okay, instead of this artist, we'd really like to collaborate with this talent," and I was so young and naïve at the time that I would say, "Yeah, I can get you that person." My business actually morphed more into an entertainment-based marketing agency, and so for the last 10 years, that's what I've been doing. In fact, I just sold that agency last Monday, after 10 years.
How did you end up in Los Angeles? Was it because of Good American?
Absolutely because of Good American. I had an office here. We had our offices in New York and LA and in London, so I worked here for, I guess, the past 10 years, because if you're in the entertainment business, you're always coming to LA.
We had this phenomenal launch, and even though I knew it was going to be great and successful, I hadn't really anticipated… I did not think I would move here. I have two kids, I have a husband, no. I thought it would be more of a slow burn. If you've got two little kids, you could do worse than LA. It was a happy move, but it was purely because the business was growing and I was employing people and then not there.
I think at the time, we probably only had about four or five [staffers]. They need managing and you need to be with them, and this is my third business, so I was like, I know that ain't going to work without me there.
How did you get connected with Khloe Kardashian, and how did the idea for Good American come about?
My husband has a denim brand called Frame Denim, and so I had some kind of inclination about this space, but I was very passionate about doing something that was inclusive. It wasn't so much about denim. It was that I'd like to be able to service this market in a way that wasn't about it being plus or wasn't about being what they call "missy" sizing in the industry. I just wanted to create clothes in all sizing because in my head, the stigma attached to plus made it somewhat less interesting. I was just like, I want to do stuff that's for all women. My best friend in the world would be considered typical plus size, but that's not how we shop; that's not how we behave. You don't choose your friends that way, based on their size. And why would you shop that way?
Denim was something that I thought, "This is easy. I can figure this out." It was something that I could get my head around much more quickly than doing something more complex.
I actually didn't know Khloe. I knew Kris and I'd worked with pretty much all the sisters, barring Khloe and Kourtney, but all the rest I'd worked with because if you're in the entertainment marketing business, you need to be in business with Kris Jenner. [Laughs] Goes without saying.
I used to meet [Kris] every fashion week in Paris for a little drink and we'd talk about whatever we were working on at that point. I've done Kendall's Calvin [Klein] deal; we've done lots and lots of things together. And I kind of pitched her in a way that was like, "Hey, I'm doing this thing, and I'd really love Khloe to be my partner," and she loved it. She was like, "This is a great idea, but you have to talk to Khloe. This is not for me." I came to LA and I had a meeting with Khloe, and the rest is history, as they say. As soon as I started speaking, she started joining in on things. She had all these stories, and she'd been bigger. She'd been at different sizes. And I think, immediately, this idea that we were going to do this super-empowering, inclusive brand, she was like, "That's it, I'm in," and she started work immediately. No contract, no anything. She was just like, "Yeah, count me in," so it was great.
What was your role and her role in launching the brand?
We do different things, and I believe the reason I've been able to be successful is because I know exactly what I don't know. I have an incredible head of production who's like, 65 years old; he'd been in the business forever. What I'm really good at is that initial [part]. I raise the money; I understand intrinsically marketing, influencers, how to work with talent, how to take businesses from nothing to something, and so that's what I did. I got the business literally off the ground, employed the staff. And Khloe was really involved. She has an incredible appreciation and understanding of her market, her fan base, and so I think where she was really good was coming in and looking at everything that we were doing in marketing, in social, around the campaign.
What transpired is that we also both, despite not being experts, had a big opinion about the product. We were both in there with the products saying, this is what we like and this is what's wrong with what we currently have. It was that whole me on the business side, her working across marketing and anything that was based around publicity and her audience, and her understanding of that audience.
Obviously it was hugely successful when it launched — to what do you attribute that now?
So, two things: Khloe, of course, has this incredible audience, right? It is what it is. You've got millions of people following you. I think coming from a background where I've done a billion celebrity partnerships, that doesn't do it on its own. That definitely sends customers your way once, and you definitely have a lot of people looking. It doesn't mean they purchase, especially at our price point. You're primarily talking to an audience that have bought Topshop and Zara jeans; they're spending 40 bucks. It's not a premium, denim-trained audience.
As soon as they started seeing the brand, and they started seeing a girl who was a size 18 [in the marketing], and the difference in all the women that we were using, that piqued people's interest. People don't come back two, three, four times and re-buy unless the product is good. In my opinion, denim is tricky. It's a bit like swimwear: Women kind of loath trying jeans and you wear the same ones a lot, and then you see a new trend. I think we took a lot of the pain out of it. We went, "You want to have good legs? This is what it looks like. Good waist? You do this," and there were so many technical differences in our jeans. You just put them on, and they worked. It was that combination of just a really good product, really well thought-out, real simplicity, and again, the fact it was available for everybody.
How did you land on Nordstrom as a launch partner?
That was an easy decision. I didn't grow up with Nordstrom, being English, so I did a lot of research — who is going to give the best service, and that was my only question. I think that, in this country, there's a ton of great department stores. I shop in all the department stores, and have my own ideas about what is great, and the one consistent thing is that at Nordstrom, you get great service.
We needed somebody that would come to the plate from the service point of view, but also [from the sizing point of view], because I was like, "I don't want this brand to be split up and put in two different sections of the store. You're welcome to display it in plus because there are a lot of customers that are going there and that's what they're used to, but this needs to be next to Rag & Bone, next to Frame, next to J Brand, in the full size range. You need to buy the full size range." And you would be surprised at how many people were like, either, "No," or, "We'd love to do that, but we don't have plus size hangers," or literally, "We don't have an area to stock them in the stock room that's big enough for your sizes." So, you're actually starting to realize that all of this, really, like the minutia of the detail was the thing that was stopping people, like the way the fashion industry systematically works on that side of things, was actually stopping people, as opposed to them not necessarily wanting to.
And Nordstrom was willing to go, "Well, yeah, we don't have this, but we're willing to do it." They are very open, and when we have things that we need to discuss, or we're talking about sizes, or we're talking about challenging items, they're the first people to go, "We'll find a way," and figure it out.
You were at the forefront of what has become an inclusivity movement across fashion and beauty. Do you think this is a trend or do you feel like this is what's going to keep happening?
I'm very, very happy that we set a trend. One thing that Khloe and I said right from the beginning is, real success will be when everybody else follows. We're happy to be a trailblazer, but you don't want to be so much of a trailblazer that the rest of the industry doesn't catch up.
My opinion is that I'm happy a lot of brands are doing it, but I also think that this is not somewhere you can dip in as a marketing exercise. And what I see is a lot of other brands going, we'll take our four best-selling styles and we'll offer those in the full size range. That's not the point; in fact, it's the opposite of the point. The point is that, who's to say that at a certain size you need a sleeve, or it needs to be cut on the bias, or it should be more modest in some way? That's not my experience. Girls just want what they want; they want the trend, they want the thing that's cute. It's up to you if you want to cover your arms, I shouldn't tell you that.
I know that for Good American, it's something that was baked into our original business plan. It's the reason we're able to do this because we set out to do it in the beginning. And there are lots of costs associated: Jeans in much bigger sizes take extra fabric yield, and shooting things on three different e-com models takes a lot more time, which is a lot more money.
I think it's definitely difficult for all brands to do that, but let's call it what it is: There's also reluctance in the fashion industry to do it. New brands would probably have a problem starting up and doing it that way. Old brands don't necessarily want the cost of it, so I think that you have to separate them.
We just need more and more and more.
Does it ever happen that Khloe will wear something on Instagram, and then that piece sells out instantly?
Totally, yes. She's such an influence, but also, we have this incredible squad of girls and it happens with all of them. We're very good at making sure that we send our girls the products, and they try everything, and they love it. And I think the girls that get sent a lot of stuff, they don't need to wear anything. We don't pay anybody; we send them nice product, and we hope that they like it and they wear it. Khloe wearing stuff on Instagram is no bad thing.
Where do you see your own career heading? Do you have plans beyond Good American?
I'm unashamedly ambitious, but I'm having a lot of fun doing this now; I'm also learning a lot, which is always my thing. The minute you stop learning, you're done, right? You just need to get out if you feel like you've reached that point.
I think we have an amazing opportunity and we have this amazing platform. Plus, I moved my whole family from London to be here. [Laughs] So, I need to give it a chance. But, yeah, this is really what I want to do and it honestly feels like a little dream come true.
I cannot tell you the emails or even letters — people still send letters —and the feedback that I get. It's enough to send you into dreamland. People are so appreciative and I get stopped all the time with people saying, "I love your brand. It's so positive what you do. It's so empowering," and that stuff makes you feel great.
What advice would you give to someone who wants to run a clothing brand?
Well, first of all, I think that you need to have done your research. It's very competitive. The most important thing is that you shouldn't let that override what you're really passionate about.
I've been lucky that in my job, I love fashion. And when I was a fashion show producer and I had to pack up benches and pick the stickers off the makeup mirrors, all I could think about is how amazing the show was and how lucky I was to be backstage. If you do the things that you really, really love, you're always going to feel good about it.
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