By Sara Bauknecht
You could say Eugenia Kim’s career in millinery was sparked by a series of fortunate misfortunes.
The Monroeville, Penn., native who graduated from high school in 1992 realized she didn’t want to go into medicine like her father after a sled riding incident landed her in the hospital. She went on to earn a degree in psychology from Dartmouth College but soon after detoured into fashion, landing a job as an assistant at Allure magazine and taking classes at Parsons School of Design in New York City.
When she was fired from that position, she decided she needed a radical change and gave herself a haircut that turned out so badly that she shaved her head. To cover it she wore a feathered cloche she’d made to look like hair, which got people asking: “Where did you get that hat?”
Soon after, boutique owners in New York City started inquiring about her hats. She received an order from Barneys New York, and her brand was born. More than 15 years later, Kim is one of fashion’s premier milliners and a go-to for celebrities (Jennifer Lopez, Britney Spears and fellow Pittsburgh native Christina Aguilera, to name a few) and fine department stores wanting a classic hat with a modern twist.
Her pieces have been featured in numerous fashion spreads and recently on the covers of W and Vogue magazines, worn by Emma Stone and Sienna Miller, respectively. These days, she’s also focused on growing the scope and reach of her brand by adding a shoe line.
“We’re doing a combination of wearable and things that are not on the market, pushing the envelope a bit,” Kim says, adding that Lady Gaga, Kirsten Dunst and Mindy Kaling have been spotted wearing her footwear.
“Even the buyers are really responding, saying it’s different from things that they’ve seen.”
She dabbled in shoes early in her career, even winning the Council of Fashion Designers of America Accessories Designer of the Year award. But she discontinued them because the young brand wasn’t able to keep up with demand for both shoes and hats.
Now she says the business is “in a right place” to sustain it. She has about 45 employees and is expanding this year to occupy two floors in midtown Manhattan, a significant shift from her days of making hats out of her East Village apartment.
Despite her vision to evolve the brand’s offerings, hats still are at the core of what she creates. In addition to her Eugenia Kim line, she has ones for men, children and a diffusion line called Genie. She strives to stay relevant by coming up with a variety of styles at a range of price points.
“Each hat is different. They appeal to different people, and that’s the whole understanding of not just designing for yourself but designing for a lot of different people, the girl who wants a sunhat to go to a resort, a girl who wants to wear a beanie, or a girl who can’t afford Eugenia Kim and buys the lower-priced line.
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Social media has been another platform for her to help spread the word. But the instant exposure can come at a cost.
“Things get copied right away,” she says. “You always have to be thinking about the next thing.”
She envisions that “next thing” as adding more brand extensions in the years to come.
“We basically visualize ourselves launching handbags and jewelry and then competing with the shoes,” she says, with the hope of being a full-fledged accessories brand in the next decade. “The whole idea is to have the whole lifestyle.”
Shop Eugenia Kim hats and shoes at www.eugeniakim.com.