As cofounder and CEO of Good American and founding partner of Skims, Emma Grede is willing to do a lot for the Kardashian-powered brands. Uproot her family from London to L.A.? Yes. Obsess over the fit of a garment until it’s perfect? Absolutely. Hop on Zoom for this interview, minutes after someone in her household tests positive for COVID and everyone is scrambling to follow safety protocols? Not a problem. But appear in an ad campaign for Good American’s bodysuit range or flood her Instagram feed with selfies
in a Skims bralette? Don’t hold your breath.
“I’m just not that girl,” Grede says. “I can’t do that stuff. And I think that’s probably one of the reasons my partnerships with the girls work out so well, because they do that. I never think about myself as a face of the brands—I’m the brain of the brands.” How that came to be is a story that starts in East London’s Plaistow neighborhood, where Grede was raised by a single mother alongside three sisters.
Though she grew up in a famed fashion capital, its beauty and glamour were “far away from the reality of my life,” she says. A young Grede lost herself in magazines, marveling at the supermodels and designer collections that defined the gilded fashion era of the ’90s. “I think [that] because everything was so bleak and grim around me, I was drawn to fashion…it was escapism for me.” Aware that her strengths leaned more corporate than creative, Grede studied business at London College of Fashion. And though school was a challenge for her—“I’m super dyslexic, which I didn’t find out until my midtwenties,” she says—work placements at PR firms and emerging labels inched her closer to a full-fledged fashion career. Part-time retail jobs also bedecked her résumé, though the paychecks rarely padded her bank account. “I’d spend every penny I made back in the store,” she says, laughing. At the luxury boutique MiMi London, “I would literally work three days a week, get paid at the end of the month, and come home with one shoe that I owned 90 percent of.” (It was usually a Louboutin, and subsequent checks went toward paying off the rest of the pair.)
After a stint working for the since-shuttered London-based label Gharani Strok, Grede joined Inca Productions, initially producing shows for London Fashion Week and later heading up its endorsement and sponsorship division. “I was putting brands and talent together, brands and designers together, figuring out ways to get them sponsorship and collaborations.” In 2008, she ventured out on her own, opening the talent marketing firm ITB Worldwide, where she served as CEO and chairwoman. “I knew there was a niche for what I was really good at, which [was] bringing two different groups together to find something mutually advantageous.” Christopher Kane and Vivienne Westwood landed on her client roster, and the company profile grew substantially when Grede brokered a deal between Dior and Natalie Portman. Much of her job was “to be in the mix in the entertainment business,” meeting with agents and managers to learn what types of fashion opportunities celebrities were open to. Some of those meetings were with Kris Jenner, “and we would always speak about all the girls and what their ambitions were,” Grede says. By 2013, the two were friends, meeting up at Paris Fashion Week and having frank discussions about business and life over lunch.
“Kris was honest with me early on. She said, ‘I am looking for opportunities for my girls to have meaningful participation in what they do. This is not about just taking another endorsement for them—we’re past [that].’ ” When the idea to develop a size-inclusive clothing line struck, Khloé immediately came to mind. “She just finished my sentences and she got it,” Grede says, adding that at the time, it was common for Khloé to arrive at a family photo shoot and see racks upon racks of clothes for her sisters, and five or six options for herself.
The plan was to launch Good American “with lots of different things,” but Grede settled on denim as the initial offering when she fell short of her fundraising goal. “I wanted to raise a couple million dollars, and I managed to raise one and change, so I was confined by the reality of the money that I’d raised and my capabilities as a first-time apparel start- up CEO. At that point it was like, ‘Okay, what can I get out?’ And what I could get out was two styles of jeans.” Jeans that she and a small team painstakingly developed, partly through insight gleaned from her husband, Jens Grede—cofounder of L.A.-based denim brand Frame—and his business partners and colleagues.
“I honestly believed that Good American was going to be a slow burn,” she says, but the message sent to would-be customers—“We’ve thought about you, we’re going to represent you, and we’re going to give you the best-fitting product for a curvier body type”—resonated to the tune of $1 million in sales the day the brand launched in October 2016. A slow burn it was not, and roughly nine months later, Grede and her family moved to L.A., where Good American is headquartered. While she admits that “it sounds ridiculous” given how famous Khloé is, Grede is adamant that Good American wasn’t conceived as a celebrity label, but rather one meant to fill a long-standing gap in the market for size-inclusive pieces marked by superior fit and fabrication. Plus, she says, a celebrity can only do so much for a brand; countless famous-faced labels have faltered. “I knew that I couldn’t rely on Khloé to get the customers to come back a second time. She could push somebody to that first purchase because they might be a fan, but you’ve got to create an amazing product.”
Two years after the launch of Good American, Grede helped Kim Kardashian achieve a similar level of success when the two collaborated on the cult shapewear and loungewear brand Skims. Both rely heavily on a dialogue with customers to remain relevant and profitable. “We always speak to the customer,” she says, through focus groups and post- purchase surveys. Instagram, where Good American boasts 2.1 million followers and Skims 3.7 million, is another crucial means of connection. “I give all the credit to KKW,” she says of the numerous Skims campaigns that have gone viral, often hitting the internet at the perfect time. “We work pretty far out, believe it or not, so it’s amazing that sometimes the stars align and those things happen to catch the moment.” Last year, during a meeting at Kim’s house to discuss a new Skims range, Kim suggested a shoot with her sister Kourtney and Megan Fox. She called them on the spot, Grede remembers, kicking off one of the year’s most talked-about campaigns. “That’s usually how it happens.”
While Grede has a sizable social media following herself, she tries to “create a little bit of distance between church and state,” she says, leaving the viral moments to the Kardashian-Jenner sisters and their cadre of famous friends. “When we first started Good American, Khloé said to me, ‘Is there a reason you don’t post? Do you feel like you’re ashamed?’ ” That couldn’t be further from the truth, Grede says, even with the near-constant criticism of the siblings and their “momager.” There are too many instances of ire toward the family to list, but among the most common is that they unapologetically adopt and exploit Black women’s aesthetics. Last year, beauty and pop culture reporter Darian Symoné Harvin hosted a Clubhouse discussion about Black women who wear Skims but are conflicted about supporting the brand due to their unfavorable opinion of Kim. (Harvin is one of those women.)
When I ask Grede for her thoughts on the discussion and similar instances of criticism, her response is measured. “I’m very proud to work with Kim and Khloé and Kris; they are incredible business partners. I see and hear the criticism every day, but do I sleep well? Do I have peace with what I do? Absolutely.”
In October, Grede’s peace of mind was bolstered when Good American became B Corp certified. That same month, she became the first Black woman investor on Shark Tank. “That for me was a real departure. I was like, ‘Oh my God, I’m on TV, what is happening?’” Before filming, she told producers that she was most interested in ideas from women of color. It was a full-circle moment for her as an entrepreneur, and also one that spoke to her desire to make the private sector more equitable. While disparities certainly exist across the pond, the divide between white and BIPOC professionals has been especially glaring to Grede since she relocated. “I have known that I am a Black woman my whole life, but I didn’t feel it in a negative sense until I moved to America,” she says. During the summer of 2020, in the wake of a national racial reckoning that eventually spanned the globe, she came across Aurora James’s Fifteen Percent Pledge initiative—which calls for retailers to devote at least 15 percent of shelf space to Black-owned businesses—and reached out to offer her help. After a number of Zooms and phone calls, Grede was named chairwoman of the board. “She should honestly win the Nobel Peace Prize at some point,” Grede says of James, “because we are going to shift the economic makeup of this entire country.”
Before logging off for a meeting, Grede takes a moment to discuss another title—that of mother to four. “They’re so cute,” she beams. A few months ago, her eight-year-old son, Grey, and five-year-old daughter, Lola, became big brother and sister to twins Lake and Rafferty, a girl and a boy, born via surrogacy. A homebody who enjoys watching TV and reading to her kids, Grede has already started to teach her children the importance of self-fulfillment, mostly by example. “I’m supposed to do stuff that makes me happy and fulfilled,” she says, which includes the many facets of her work. “I think it’s really good for my kids to see that every day, you know? It’s real life.”
Styled By Simon Robins; Hair By Lorenzo Calderon; Makeup By Christiana Cassell
This article appears in the April 2022 issue of ELLE.
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