Meet the woman powering the Kardashians’ fashion empire
She’s the CEO of Khloé’s Good American brand and a founding partner of Skims – Emma Grede is the Brit entrepreneur on a mission to make the industry a more inclusive place
Thursday 14 July 2022 by Laura Craik
Emma Grede is one of the most focused people I’ve ever interviewed – and I’ve interviewed Beyoncé. No matter that our proposed time together is slashed in half: with Grede, you get a lot of miles to the gallon. If she was a car, she’d be a Honda Accord. Actually, no. She’d be a Rolls Royce Phantom – minus the chauffeur. And she’d always let you eat chips in the back.
But enough extemporising, because nothing anyone can say about Grede is as interesting as what she has to say herself. We could start by covering Good American, the inclusive denim brand she launched with Khloé Kardashian in 2016, which is on track to exceed $200m in revenue this year. Or with Skims, Kim Kardashian's shapewear phenomenon for which she is a founding partner, valued at $3.2bn. Or with Safely, the plant-powered cleaning brand she co-founded with fellow ‘supermom’ Kris Jenner. But they don’t need the publicity, so let’s start with her role at Fifteen Percent Pledge, the non-profit launched by activist Aurora James in the wake of George Floyd’s death.
As board chair, Grede’s role is to persuade retailers to reallocate 15% of their spend to Black-owned businesses. ‘Black people make up 15% of the population,’ she says simply. ‘I’m in a very privileged position because of the businesses I run. Without sounding like an arrogant tw*t, most CEOs and retailers will take my call. We’re working on building an enormous network of Black-owned businesses, and helping them get funding. It’s probably one of the proudest parts of all of my work. If you really want to do something, put your money where your mouth is.’
Grede got involved during what she calls ‘a moment of personal turmoil’. ‘I’d moved to the States, I was having a jolly old time building my businesses, but all of a sudden, I was aware of this huge onus on me being a Black woman in business. While I’m very aware of my culture and heritage, I never thought of it as a disadvantage, because growing up in England, it wasn’t. In a lot of ways, it was an advantage. But when I moved to America, I became aware of how many issues there were for Black people just going about their daily lives. Post-George Floyd, I found myself becoming an Instagram activist, but that wasn’t good enough. The time of good intentions is over. People have to stop making declarations that don’t have much meaning to them, and do something to create tangible change.’
Brands might talk the talk about diversity and inclusivity, but it’s often superficial. Not so with Grede’s brands. ‘We didn’t do anything revolutionary,’ she says of Good American. ‘All we did was think about every woman, and make our collection in lots of different shapes and sizes. There’s so much tokenism around inclusivity. Good American felt authentic at a time where a lot of brands were playing games. People looked at our campaigns and saw a version of themselves.’ And not just in terms of size, either. ‘A lot of women come up to me and say they love Good American because we show women with their hair texture. Inclusivity has such a broad meaning. Representation matters.’
As CEO, she oversees ‘the good, the bad, the ugly and everything in between. Khloé [Kardashian] is really focused on the design side, particularly in swim, because I don’t think anyone knows swimwear better than her. She’s obviously got a huge social presence, but what Khloé’s really good at is getting to the crux of what an everyday woman might want.'
Not content with overseeing a denim revolution, Grede is also chief product officer of Skims, which she co-founded in 2019 with her husband Jens Grede, the Swedish entrepreneur and marketing guru who also owns the denim brand Frame. ‘I have a different relationship with Skims because it was Kim’s idea. She’s the shapewear queen – she knew what she wanted to do and that she wanted me to help her. I’m so proud of Skims. I wear it every single day – look,’ she says, lifting up her Schiaparelli jacket to show me her black bra. ‘We literally can’t keep up with demand. It’s been explosive, and I apologise to people for things always being sold out, but there’s only so much you can do when customer demand is this insatiable. It took Nike 10 years to get to $100 million. It took us six months.’
Much of the brands’ turbocharged success comes from that unique Kardashian flair for creating viral moments. ‘Kim and Khloé are geniuses with this stuff. They know how to garner attention. People don’t give the family enough credit when it comes to business. There’s a lot of luck involved, but only so much can be a happy accident. Plenty of celebrities have created brands and fallen on their faces. The girls are so good at knowing what they don’t know, and partnering with the right people who do.’
‘Post-George Floyd, I found myself becoming an Instagram activist, but that wasn’t good enough. The time of good intentions is over’
Grede’s own route into fashion was standard, even if her success is anything but. Born to immigrant parents from Jamaica and Trinidad, she and her three sisters were brought up in East London by their mother. Even as a teen, Grede was as interested in branding as she was in fashion, faithfully compiling files of Chanel ads torn from her favourite magazines. ‘I came from a place that was so devoid of glamour that fashion was a means of escapism. I always loved fashion, but not just the clothes – I loved the supermodels, too. I was obsessed. I knew every show, every season, every print, every piece. I just wanted to be around it.’
She dropped out of her business degree at The London College of Fashion after six months, and went to work in a shop. ‘I was a poor kid – I needed the money. I did a work placement and learned more in two weeks than I had in a whole term at college,’ she laughs. ‘I’m not here for the accolades, so I was very purposeful about my way in. I started in show production at a time when British fashion was on fire with designers like Mary Katrantzou, Christopher Kane and Giles Deacon, and I was doing sponsorship deals for them, partnerships with high-street brands, makeup brands, Nokia; Always Ultra, I think it was, in the case of Julien MacDonald. London designers had to hustle. The support systems around them just weren’t there. They had to do the deals, which was amazing training for me. I learned what is actually needed when starting a business, because creative is one side of it, but the funding, strategy, marketing and running of the business is something very different.’
I wonder whether the fact that Grede didn’t come from money is the reason she’s so diligent in paying it forward. ‘I don’t know if it’s directly correlated. Making money has always been really important to me, and I’ve been unashamedly truthful about that. I’ve never sat here going “I’m in it for the love of the stitching and the craftsmanship”. I love all of that too, but I was very clear that I did not want to live in East London, in a flat, trying to make ends meet. I wanted to make money and live a life that would afford me the opportunity to actually do things with and for other people.’ This year, she was included in Forbes’ America’s Richest Self-Made Women List. ‘I don’t know if I did things much differently to everyone I went to school with. I was just in the right place at the right time. I’ve become a bit obsessed with the idea of that sliding doors moment. You turn left or you turn right. How can I be on the right side for people who otherwise might not have the opportunity? I don’t know if it’s so much about where I’m from as a state of mind.’
She’s a firm believer in manifesting. ‘There’s a great saying: luck is where preparation meets opportunity. I’ve spent a long time preparing myself for the opportunity to arise. I’m going to be 40 this year. I’m not an overnight success story. I’ve been at it since I was 16. I think I’ve done the right amount of preparation to be successful.’
After being a guest judge on Shark Tank (the US equivalent of Dragon’s Den), she was bowled over by the number of DMs and letters she received from Black women. ‘Thousands of messages, people even stopping me in the street saying their daughters used to want to be influencers, but now they want to be investors.’ She smiles. ‘That made me happy, because a lot of people don’t even know that it’s a career. Investment banking can seem to be the preserve of the few.’
That’s because rich white men gatekeep the finance world, I say, just as they do with politics. ‘Right. But I’m a glass-half-full person. That doesn’t mean I’m ignorant of everything that’s going on the world, but I think that everyone really can make change. Go out and vote. Get out and march. When I think about Good American, part of our reason for launching it was that there’s way more important things for women to be focused on than not being able to find their size of clothes. Like wage inequality. Fast forward five years, we’re sitting here with Roe v Wade having been reversed, yet we’re still talking about fashion brands that don’t want to cater to women. We’ve got bigger fish to fry. One of the things I know, being a Black woman and having moved to America, is that anybody’s rights being trampled over should make everybody offended, because you’re only a step away from your own rights [being affected]. Every white woman in the world should be outraged at what happens to Black women when they go into custody. Every woman and man in the world should be outraged at Roe v Wade being reversed. This idea that what happens to one group of people doesn’t affect another group of people is madness.’
As a mother of four, she’s horrified by America’s meagre maternity laws (‘I’m sorry - how many weeks off?’) and ensures new parents at her companies have generous packages. And while she clearly has her hands full helming fashion brands, chairing charities and raising kids, so effective and heartfelt is her activism that it’s natural to wonder whether politics might figure in her future plans. ‘I don’t know if I’ll do another company,’ she muses. ‘There’s part of me that thinks I should I retrain as a lawyer. Some kind of work in civil rights is probably in my future. But politics? Can you imagine?’ she hoots. ‘I don’t think the Prime Minister is paid enough. Isn’t he paid 200 grand in the UK?’
When you put it that way, why would she bother? She can make that money in her sleep. In a day. Oh well. Politics’ loss is fashion’s gain.