The Rise and Fall (and Rise Again!) of Gemma Kahng April 19 2022
Sometimes fashion is about what’s new and hot, and sometimes it’s about the underdog. Sometimes it’s about the seasoned designer, sometimes it’s about the newcomer, and sometimes—like today’s profile—it’s about the comeback kid.
Gemma Kahng was born and raised in South Korea. Growing up, her mother made all of the clothing for Kahng and her sister. Kahng’s father was a mechanical engineering professor who was invited to teach at a school in Michigan when Kahng was 14—the whole family moved to the US, despite the fact that Kahng and her sister didn’t speak any English. It was at school—when art class became easier because she didn’t have to speak—that Kahng discovered her creativity. After graduation, she attended the Art Institute of Chicago where she decided in her second year that she wanted a career in fashion.
After graduating from the Art Institute, Kahng moved to New York City and got a job working for Cathy Hardwick designing modern sportswear—she stayed there for 4 years and then did some freelance work before deciding to launch her own label in 1989. She had created the collection (which debuted at the Art Institute of Chicago that same year) with the $35,000 her parents had given to her as a down payment on an apartment. It turned out to be a worthy investment of the money since 30 retailers picked up her line from that debut. To keep up with the demand of these retailers, Kahng turned her sister’s Salt Lake City’s home basement into a workroom. Her designs largely featured bold jackets and suiting, while paying homage to her Asian roots. Two years later, she had become successful enough that not only did she have four people on staff, but she was able to move her business to Seventh Avenue in New York City.
Throughout the 90s Kahng’s clothing was featured in many magazines, was worn by the likes of Sharon Stone and Madonna, and stocked the shelves at many of the big department stores—Neiman Marcus, Bergdorf Goodman, Bloomingdale’s. Although it was apparent Kahng had talent enough for the designing aspect of the business, she didn’t have a business manager and was unsure about the practical side of running a business. By the end of the decade, the business began to fail—according to Kahng herself, the business started to break down because at that point she was acting as the company’s financial advisor and found that it restricted her creativity. From there, the brand really began to spiral down, and soon there were no substantial orders coming in from large retailers any longer.
In 2000, Kahng left her Seventh Avenue workshop and leased a tiny space in a costume shop in the city. In 2011 she was featured on the show “All on the Line,” which saw Elle’s creative director Joe Zee counseling new and failing designers struggling to make their brand work. This exposure served to slowly revitalize the brand. With the support of Zee, Kahng began to incorporate as many of the old fabrics from her line’s heyday into her new designs. Her lines since this revitalization have featured more of a feminine, chic aesthetic, mixing texture and layers.
Although Gemma Kahng has seen her share of highs and lows throughout her career, to her it really is all about the fashion. “I love everything about fashion—from sketching to sewing,” Kahng told Elle in 2011. “I have cuts on my fingers like a ballerina who has blisters on her toes. When a woman wears my designs and loves them, it makes everything worth it for me.”
Written by Heather Cox for Rice and Beans Vintage.