Years ago, before she learned how to sew, appeared on Project Runway, and founded her own fashion label, Kimberly Goldson used to work for a jewelry company with offices near Rockefeller Center.
Sometimes during her lunch break, she would walk one block east to Saks Fifth Avenue. She couldn’t afford to buy anything—though every once in a while she would “spend a paycheck [she] wasn’t supposed to spend” on Miu Miu shoes. “I would just walk around and dream,” she told The Daily Beast over Zoom.
Last month, the dream came to life, when Kimberly Goldson (the label) landed front-and-center in Saks’ famous window display. Goldson’s offering—a bright, patterned green tuxedo dress—stands out, especially as it’s sandwiched between other designers’ monochromatic pieces.
Goldson and her sister Shelly Powell co-founded the eponymous brand in 2012, after the designer had appeared on Project Runway. They live and work in Brooklyn (Powell owns the Clinton Hill home where they grew up) with Goldson as the head creative and Powell leading up business and branding.
When the Saks window unveiled, they dressed up for the occasion—Goldson wore red high-rise trousers and gold embroidered opera gloves—and headed uptown to view it for themselves. Their social media manager filmed the moment Goldson saw her work on the mannequin for the first time. In a very New York moment, she cries, hugs her sister, and gets cheered on by total strangers.
“People on the street were stopping us, and we weren’t supposed to be on the street, but there was a cop on the loudspeaker saying, ‘Congratulations!’” Goldson recalled. “It was so magical. It was emotional. And we’ll be doing it again, because when the clothes hit the fifth floor—they’re on pre-order right now—we’re going to go inside the stores to look.”
After nine years as a brand, the Saks moment is both a milestone and a new beginning for Goldson. The brand will show digitally on the CFDA’s Fashion Calendar this season, which isn’t exactly a first as she held a small presentation a few years ago and has worked with Harlem Fashion Row, which showcases designers of color during NYFW.
“But this time, now we’re here to stay,” Goldson says. “We like to say this is our first [runway] show on the calendar, but you can’t get rid of us now.”
Goldson, who is 45 and lives in Crown Heights, is an easy person to root for. She spoke to The Daily Beast via Zoom, wearing a leopard print sweatshirt, plum-colored lipstick, and sitting in front of a fabulous fleur-de-lis wallpaper. She describes her career as a series of stops and starts, one that sounds both exhausting and extremely fulfilling.
“I can’t give up, I can’t quit, because I’m not doing this for myself,” Goldson said. “Eventually our goal is that we want to be an all-encompassing lifestyle brand. Shelly likes to say that DVF [Diane von Furstenberg, whose husband is Barry Diller, chairman and senior executive of IAC, The Daily Beast’s parent company] is our north star. We want to be the Black DVF, if that’s possible. We want to have so many licensing deals so KG is in every aspect of your life. Fitness, kids, home, men: that’s our ultimate goal.”
Growing up in Clinton Hill and Bed Stuy, Goldson did not have many fashion role models. She knew women who dressed impeccably—her cousin Nelda, for example, who dressed “over-the-top, in the latest this and the latest that.” But she didn’t know of any designers who looked like she did.
“Back then, it was Halston,” she said. “We had [Black designers like] Stephen Burrows, but they weren’t mainstream enough for me to know about. I didn’t think I could be a designer, I didn’t know how to sew. So that led me to cut up jean jackets and t-shirts and air-brush things for my friends.”
It was partly a creative outlet, and also a need—Goldson’s family couldn’t afford the latest clothes. “I needed to look fabulous, so I made my own stuff,” she said.
Goldson’s mother, Yvonne, worked as a seamstress. But in Goldson’s teenage opinion: “I wasn’t into sewing at the time. I was into sewing—not fashion.” One of Goldson’s biggest regrets is not learning how to sew from her mother.
“I should have paid attention,” she said. “She was magical with creating garments. Saturday night, if she had nothing to wear in church, we’d wake up Monday and see she made a full ensemble, with a hat to match, all overnight.”
Yvonne died of breast cancer when Goldson was 17. “It was rough because at that point I suddenly had to navigate and figure [the world] out for myself,” Goldson said. It’s difficult for her to talk about her mother now, but she thinks of her often when designing.
“She’s my number one customer,” Goldson said. “She was very classic, and it’s a hybrid between that and my Brooklyn Girl Magic, which means more is more. We love bright patterns and colors and prints and gold. So I like to think my label is a hybrid of her classic style plus my Brooklyn aesthetic.”
A few years later, Goldson went to FIT night school, concentrating in merchandising and working odd jobs during the day. She put herself through school, but when the money ran out she left—she never finished her merchandising degree, but she’s recently thought about going back to college.
“When I realized nobody appreciated how I looked, I went as a plain Jane, which hurt my soul.”
— Kimberly Goldson
Afterward, Goldson worked for several fashion companies doing sales, product development, and production. “You name it, I did it,” Goldson said. “You needed your floor swept, I did it. I was in fashion, and that’s what mattered to me.” But she didn’t see herself “climbing” in a world she considered “very pretentious.” Feeling a bit adrift in New York, she moved to Atlanta and got a “regular job.”
Goldson began working for Nielson, traveling around Georgia signing people up to participate in market research studies. She hated it. “I would go to these meetings as fabulous as I could be, which no one appreciated,” Goldson recalled. “Then when I realized nobody appreciated how I looked, I went as a plain Jane, which hurt my soul.”
The only plus side was that she worked from home, which meant she suddenly found enough time to gain a hobby. She bought a sewing machine and instructional book from Walmart, and got down to teaching herself how to make clothes.
Within a few months, Goldson would wear her clothes around and get compliments. “People would love what I made and asked where I got it, then ask me to make something for them,” she recalled. “I was kind of smelling myself, feeling myself, so I thought: I could be on Project Runway.”
This was 2008, when the show had just switched over to the Lifetime channel; Heidi Klum and Tim Gunn were still hosts. Goldson had quit her Nielson job: “Somehow I thought I could make money off of designing.”
Her friends banded together to get her from Atlanta to the auditions in Miami. Someone lent Goldson a standby buddy pass for her flight down, and another found her a place to crash in the city. “It was like a village project to get me down to Miami,” she said.
But then her accommodations fell through. Goldson had no idea where to go, so she got on a bus from the airport and headed to the hotel where castings were taking place. “This was not like the South Beach party bus glamour,” Goldson said. “No, it was a city bus going into the reel weeds of Miami.”
“I just played that hotel restaurant and lobby as long as I could. I had my Louis Vuitton bag, so I still looked good.”
— Kimberly Goldson
Goldson only had $50 in her pocket for the two-day stay. “But I did have my Louis Vuitton luggage,” she added. A “bright idea” dawned on her: she’d seen people on reality shows camp outside the night before casting. “I thought ‘OK, I’ll rough it and that’s fine.’”
When she got to the hotel she expected to see a line of hopefuls sleeping on their luggage outside. That wasn’t the case. She noticed other Project Runway hopefuls, but they were staying in the hotel. So where would she sleep that night?
“I ordered a salad and chilled for a second,” Golson recalled. “I just played that hotel restaurant and lobby as long as I could. I had my Louis Vuitton bag, so I still looked good.”
When it got late, Goldson wandered around the lobby and noticed a dark conference room. It had a wall divider in it that was pulled back a bit, there was just enough space for her to nestle up in there for a few hours. “I tucked myself right up in there, put my bag in front of me, and went to bed.” The next morning, she got up, freshened up in the public restroom, and got in line for casting. They sent her home.
“Tim Gunn told me he loved my aesthetic and saw where I was going, but no,” Goldson said. “I wasn’t defeated—I gained some experience, and came back.”
“I learned how to persevere, how to have thick skin to get through the show”
Three years later, Goldson auditioned in Houston—this time she made sure to get a rental car and a place to stay. She was cast in season nine.
“The thing for me going into it was that I didn’t really give it much thought about being a reality TV show as much as I thought it was about me showing my design skills,” Goldson recalled. “I soon learned that wasn’t the case. It was 90 percent about it being a reality show, 10 percent about design.”
The schedule was brutal—contestants were locked down for six weeks, with no access to phones, magazines, books, journals, or alcohol. They rose at 5 am and filmed until about midnight or one. Goldson endured 16 or 20 hour days, all in front of a camera. “They do it that way so you go stir-crazy,” she said. “That’s what brings out the drama.”
Still, Goldson doesn’t think she was portrayed unfairly or cut out of character. “One episode I cut into my finger and I lost it, and they actually tamed it down compared to the way I actually lost it,” she said.
Filming was a lonely experience, Goldson said. “I learned how to persevere, how to have thick skin to get through the show,” she said. She also learned what to design: pants.
“Before the show, I was all about these cute dresses,” Goldson recalled. On a whim, she took a pair of pants—the second she’d designed, ever—to casting. The judges loved them. “That’s why I started making so many,” she said. “I got better at separates, and now it’s hard for me not to design separates. I can make a suit, but a dress? My sister always says, ‘We need more dresses!’”
Goldson ultimately came in fourth place, and thought she might go work for a fashion house as an apprentice to learn more. But then Zappos asked her to do a capsule collection. She said yes, but that meant Kimberly Goldson, the human, had to become Kimberly Goldson, the brand. She had to become a vendor, do the paperwork, and create a collection.
Her sister, Shelly Powell, had graduated from Hampton University, a historically Black university in Virginia, and got her master’s in business from Columbia. “My sister thought, ‘Why don’t we just make KG a thing? People love the pants, they need them,’” Goldson said.
“My customers, they like the bolder, the bigger, the better.”
— Kimberly Goldson
Goldson wasn’t so sure. “I knew what a mental and emotional strain it would put on me, not to mention the financial pressure,” she said. But Powell had some seed money set aside, which helped fund the Zappos collection. They reinvested the money they made off of that collaboration into their own brand.
For the past nine years, Kimberly Goldson has sold her clothing mostly through her own website, direct to consumer. “My customers, they like the bolder, the bigger, the better,” she said. Heavy embellishments, plenty of sparkle—pieces that are “a nightmare” for retailers to mass produce.
So when Saks—the first major chain to carry KG—picked up her line, Goldson felt like she was “learning a whole new process” of working with brands.
“When the opportunity came [to show clothing to Saks during market week], I had to hurry up and make a whole new season,” Goldson said. “So I made pieces and I didn’t think about the long-term production aspect of it. I had one embellished dress, and now I know not to do a heavy embellishment for the retailers.”
Goldson’s best-selling collection to date came out last fall, and it features a lot of ornamentation. Called “Hairitage,” it was the rare moment that Powell, who usually sticks to the business side of things, gave creative advice.
“My sister had a dream, and she texted me the next morning,” Goldson said. “She said, ‘I dreamed about our next collection, and all I saw was hair, afros. Maybe we can use some sort of tulle to use as texture for the hair.”
Goldson liked the suggestion, but didn’t think much of it. But a few months later, after the murder of George Floyd reignited global Black Lives Matter protests, Goldson kept thinking about the idea, and decided to go with it. She made sweatshirts and tops with three-dimensional hair falling off the fabric—“highlighting and revering every curl, kink and coil,” show notes said.
“Then I realized, this was our part to play in this movement. We have to be the example and we had to be the business that had our products for people to support.”
— Kimberly Goldson
Last summer, as the fashion industry faced its own racial reckoning and many customers wanted to support Black-owned businesses, Goldson saw a surge in sales and a flurry of new customers. The recognition, after years of work, felt “bittersweet.”
“There were some instances in which we felt guilty about it,” Goldson said. “Then I realized, this was our part to play in this movement. We have to be the example and we had to be the business that had our products for people to support. We had our own tribe, and now with allies that’s a bigger tribe of supporters.”
There were “other ways” to support BLM without “being on the frontlines of protest,” Goldson said. “It felt selfish to capitalize off of what was going on by selling clothes, but then I soon realized that we were playing a part in it. There had to be Black businesses in order for people, especially allies, to stand up and take notice.”
After “a huge summer, fall, and holiday season” sales “went back to normal,” Goldson said. “We’ll see another pick up in the Spring. In the meantime, we’re engaging on the retail partnership front.”
As Business of Fashion reported, the boost Goldson saw last summer was not ignored by major retailers. Her spring 2021 collection, which was presented by Harlem’s Fashion Row last fall, was attended by buyers from Net-a-Porter, Nordstrom, and Intermix. Goldson will admit: “We haven’t come far enough” in terms of making the industry more equitable.
“People are comfortable with people who look like them,” Goldson said. “When you saw the [BLM] protests, it was all of us. When you saw [the riot at the Capitol], they were all together. So you can see there’s still a huge divide. I think the fashion industry is just like the world. For fashion, we still want to be seen as equal, as creative, as enough. We feel like our style is cool to take, but not cool enough to give us credit and put our faces on it. There’s still a long way to go.”
The fashion industry has promoted a whitewashed idea of luxury since its inception. “Building a brand in that environment has been difficult, mainly due to lack of access,” Goldson said. “[Lack of] access to capital, access to contracts, access to exposure. There is a tangible shift at the moment and our hope is that it is not momentary but a true change in how the industry sees and addresses designers of color.”
Goldson feels buoyed by the new administration’s apparent commitment to promoting young, Black designers—Kamala Harris wore Pyer Moss, Christopher John Rogers, and Sergio Hudson at different inauguration events—but Goldson has never felt pressure to get her clothing on celebrities.
“Don’t get me wrong, celebrities are amazing, but I don’t need to be famous. I just want to make clothes people actually want to wear.”
— Kimberly Goldson
“My biggest joy is when our customers wear something and post it on Instagram, as corny as that might sound,” she said. “When people love it, post it, share it, that’s when I get total satisfaction. Don’t get me wrong, celebrities are amazing, but I don’t need to be famous. I just want to make clothes people actually want to wear.”
That said, Goldson will do whatever necessary if her “forever first lady” Michelle Obama needs an outfit. “She’s always been a dream client,” Goldson said. “We had an opportunity to dress her during her book tour, but we missed it by a bit in terms of making it work. But Michelle can absolutely call me today and say, ‘I have to run to Target, do you have anything I could wear?’ And I’ll say, ‘Absolutely, what do you need? I’m on my way.’”
Goldson would also love to dress Kamala Harris, who she calls “history right before our eyes.” “Everyone’s calling me, saying ‘you need to get Kamala in some pantsuits,’” she said. “I can’t make the lady wear some pantsuits!”
The clothes Goldson will debut this fashion week is something of a victory lap, created just after she learned her designs landed in Saks. “The collection is about us being hidden for so long, and finally being seen,” she said. There are many printed pieces, but a closer look reveals the pattern is actually a repeated “KG” logo.
“It reflects where we’ve been—hidden in plain sight, but people are finally getting to know who we are. We feel seen, but we’re still moving incognito.”