Emma Grede on Sizeism, the Kardashians, and Why Some Retailers Still Won’t Stock Good American

Emma Grede on Sizeism, the Kardashians, and Why Some Retailers Still Won’t Stock Good American

Emma Grede was a hero at 9 a.m., though she soon learned that her standing could only go down from there. It was Oct. 18, 2016, and as Good American’s first day in business became the largest denim launch in apparel history, the company found a bittersweet future. It had done too well. There were no jeans left to sell on day two.

Three years on, and Grede has never forgotten being at the center of it all—relishing a spectacular debut, facing a disappointed board, and what her Good American, which she founded alongside the reality star Khloe Kardashian, learned in the moments when no inventory remained. 

She had readied herself for moments like this. At 24, Grede founded her first company in the U.K., an entertainment marketing agency that was later acquired by Rogers & Cowan. Not long after her 30th birthday, she had become something of a hero in women’s fashion, rolling out Good American’s entire line in sizes 00-24 and insisting that no retailer could cherry-pick its goods. In order to carry Good American, stores had to commit to inclusivity, stocking every style in every size. 

From her Los Angeles office, Grede discusses reading reviews, having thick skin, how she's leveraged customer data to inform product decisions, what type of CEO she is, when it’s okay to use Kardashian’s Instagram account to promote Good American, and why not every retail partnership is the right partnership. “We don't want people that are using Good American as tokenism, just to tick a box and say, ‘Yeah, look, we're inclusive. We've got Good American,’” she says. “You need to be in it for the long run.”

(This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.)

Why don't we start at the beginning? Famously, Good American shot right out of the gate with $1 million in sales day on its first day. What is it like to return to regular business after that kind of debut?

Grede: Right from the beginning, there was no such thing as regular business. What happens when you sell $1 million on day one is that you then have no business, because we were not prepared for that. I had nothing [left] to sell anyone. And so for us it was this unique moment where you had to sit back and go, "Alright, I've got this really incredible community that's beginning to form, and people that are starting to talk to us, and yet we have nothing to sell them."

What I didn't realize at the beginning is having nothing to sell was a blessing for us, because it meant that we just talked to people. We were just like, "Well, we're really sorry we don't have anything and we'd love to put you on a waiting list, but what do you want? And, actually, when we get [it] back in stock, what color do you need it in? And what did we do wrong? What would you like to have seen?"

Let's be honest: My board [was] definitely disappointed. But it got us into these grooves that we now have, which is the back and forth, the sharing with customers, and the ability to actually listen to what people want. When you do get back into the more regular flows of business, which is not doing $1 million a day, what you're left with is this amazing relationship that you've created with people. And I think that probably means more than any numbers that we do.

How did you navigate the stakes and expectations that I imagine were easy to feel after such a big opening?

Grede: Badly. I'll just be honest with you: I wasn't an apparel CEO at that point. We're really thoughtful, and we came into the market with a really narrow assortment of products, and so for me it was really about taking a step back and going, "What's really important? What are my principles? What landed me here with a $1 million sales day in the first place? Isn't it better that I played to those things and those principles, as opposed to do what my instinct tells me as an entrepreneur, which is to sell as much as you can and do it as fast as you can, and react to what the market is telling me?"

Good American co-founder Khloe Kardashian poses with models wearing her denim.

So you go through these phases of like, "Oh, my God, it's the greatest thing in the world!" To then actually just being really reflective and going, "Actually, there are a set of principles that are attached to a business like ours.” Because it goes way beyond the idea of just selling clothes. And if that's what the audience responds to, then I better be sure to really abide by those things.

With an arrival like that, that is obviously a moment when you can see a very bright future for Good American. Was there another time in your company's history where you felt the opposite sensation—when you felt your outlook wasn’t so great?

Grede: I don't feel like there's been any enormously dark spots. What's really tough is: What we do is technically very complex. When you're trying to make clothes in this wider size range, you don't hit everything out of the park. I'm extremely thick-skinned. I listen to everything—every comment, and every piece of feedback. But ultimately I'm a gut instinct person. I lean into my gut and to what I believe as a woman, as a shopper, as a mother, as a person who just loves fashion.

There are never these huge devastating moments, because we're constantly hedging bets. As an entrepreneur, if you don't do that, then you would be doing something wrong. It's a big thing when you have 300,000 people sitting on your site and nothing to sell them. It wasn't my proudest moment. I went from being the hero at 9 a.m. when we launched, to people going, "Oh, maybe you underestimated the opportunity a little bit” [by] 10 or 11. And then by the afternoon it was like I was the biggest loser, and I completely missed the opportunity.

In any of those moments, you look back and go, "What could I have done better?" But I just glide over those things, [rather] than wallow. My job as the CEO is to mobilize the organization and to get everybody moving towards a common goal. [It’s also] based on managing problems. Nobody comes to me when everything's going the way that it's supposed to be, and you're growing over 100% year-on-year. I only get the s--t stuff. You have to deal with that every single day. And I tend to just take the bull by the horns and get on with it.

You mentioned you have thick skin. Where does that come from?

Grede: Maybe it's something that comes from my upbringing, coming out of a pretty tough part of East London. You had to protect yourself on a daily basis. I also spent the first 10 years in my career as an agent, basically. So you spend your life in a cycle of pitching and winning, or pitching and losing, and you have to put yourself up for those things over and over again. 

But also just my experience in business has not been smooth sailing. Before Good American, I launched [my agency, ITB Worldwide] in London. Then I opened an office in New York, and then I opened an office in L.A. Then I shut an office in L.A. I didn't do the right thing. And so, that spirit of trial and error, and just trying to get stuff done, as opposed to always being overly concerned, [wondering], "Am I doing the right stuff all the time?" It just leads you into that place. I think I'm pretty alright with critique, and I'm okay with failing, so long as I'm doing, you know?

A Good American store is shown.

In the early days of getting Good American’s products into stores, you said retailers told you, “We'd love to carry them, but we don't have plus-size hangers, or we don't actually have an area in our stockroom big enough for your sizes.” How many retail partnerships fell apart because of a lack of willingness to stock the entire size range?

Grede: Honestly? Loads. And even to this day.

It still happens?

Grede: Absolutely. There was one last week. They loved the idea of what we do, but the reality of [stocking our line] is something very, very different. 

There is an inherent sizeism in fashion, and I do think that we've done a really good job of being able to weed out the real tangible issues that are stopping [retailers] from getting in business with us. We've been very commercially successful from the beginning, so it's not like we have to beg for wholesale accounts to come on board.

But by the same token, we don't want people that are using Good American as tokenism, just to tick a box and say, "Yeah, look, we're inclusive. We've got Good American." You need to be in it for the long run, and you need to be able to support the business, and the messaging, and that's where you get into all of those other, more technical things. Like, “Are you willing to show clothing in different sizes? Are you willing to use our campaign imagery? Are you ready to support and stock all sizes?” And so that weeds out a lot of retailers that might otherwise want to work with us, but not really be in it for the right reasons.

You’ve suggested that you grow irritated when you see other brands offering plus sizes, but only for select styles—not its entire line. The quote you gave was: "That's not the point. In fact, it's the opposite of the point." What do you feel when you see this happening?

Grede: I just feel like it's a gimmick. I hate to get really deep, but to understand this, you have to understand why we started Good American in the first place.

The idea of female beauty, female sexuality, has always been presented as almost incompatible or opposite with strength, with ambition. And if you are a really ambitious woman, you almost have to hide your femininity in order to succeed. It's like, if you are Hillary Clinton and you're running for president, you have to wear these really dowdy suits. And if you're Emily Ratajkowski and you decide that you're going to go and do a protest, the fact that you don't wear a bra means that you're completely insubstantial.

Good American models of all sizes pose with the company's inclusive range of denim.

And then you add the size issue onto that [and] it becomes even more complex, because people can't imagine that you would be a size 18 and happy, and proud of yourself and confident about it. So what we did was very complex for people to [process]. I think there are very complex, layered, emotional things around compassion and size. And what we ultimately did at Good American was redefine what's allowed. And I think that is really what the heart of our success comes from.

At the end of the day, [our customer] loves the idea of feeling really confident, and she wants clothes that accentuate her body, and she's not going to be confined by these very rigid body ideals that have come out of the fashion industry. And so I think that what happens with Good American was more than like, "Oh look, they do jeans in lots of sizes." It was actually [addressing] this deep-rooted feeling. It was this wonderful celebratory thing for customers.

What are the unique economic challenges of manufacturing a line that spans the size range that you do?

Grede: For us, it's easy, because we made a business plan. We made a promise. We operate on a set of principles. Size inclusivity was always baked into the business. If you're trying to do it from the base of a regular missy-sized business, it's complex, because if you are making bigger sizes, they take more fabric. And if you're operating on slim margins, then that becomes an impossibility without hiking up prices. We know that it's not the right thing to do—to charge different prices for different sizes, even though a lot of brands do it and they seem to get away with it. It isn't what we should be doing in this day and age.

There are lots of complexities, and sometimes they're technical. Sometimes it's things like the knit machines can't knit without seams in that large [of a] size. Sometimes it's really just about the logistics or the costs associated with shipping. If you're shipping 20,000 garments and half of them are double the size and double the weight of regular [garments], then guess what? Your shipping costs go up. 

But I do think, at the end of the day, the customer votes. The statistics talk for themselves: 68% of women in [the U.S.] are above a size 14. If you decide to ignore 68% of the female population, you're already curbing the size of your commercial intent, which doesn't make sense if you're in a business and your ambitions are commercial. 

I definitely feel that what [we] get back from customers, in terms of loyalty and them choosing Good American, far outweighs the costs that are associated with making the garments. And that is just a fact. It's the reason we've had such explosive growth, so I stand by those decisions even though I fully appreciate that for other brands it might not be so simple if you're not doing that coming right out the gate.

Good American co-founder and CEO Emma Grede at her desk in Los Angeles.

We touched a little bit earlier on the things you are responsible for as a CEO. In your estimation, how have you observed yourself in that role? What kind of leader do you find yourself to be?

Grede: I'm a very passionate person. I’m a very loyal person. My job is ultimately, I believe, a job of vision and a job of strategy. And I really let people get on with stuff. But with that, I have extremely high expectations. So it's great when it's working, and maybe not so great when it's not.

I think of that management style as being very clear and very considered about what I'm doing and the strategy that I'm trying to achieve. But also just really allowing people to do the best that they can actually serves me really well. I have surrounded myself by a lot of people with a lot more experience than I have. But they're all very happy to listen to me because I give them something else. 

I think ultimately I push people to do their best, and I reward people really, really well. So I think it really does work out in the end, even if it's annoying on a day-to-day. But I think in the end, people are overwhelmingly happy because they see themselves doing their best work, and that's got everything to do with me in the beginning, but nothing in the middle and the end. 

You've said a few times that the best piece of advice you ever received came from your husband (author’s note: Grede is married to the Swedish entrepreneur Jens Grede, above; they have two children.) He told you, “Make a decision and move on.”

Grede: (Laughs) I wish I never said that. I hate to give him the credit.

What’s your favorite example of you having put this advice into practice?

Grede: I feel like I do it every day. There [are] small things where I have an instinct about a crimp on a piece of denim, and I'm just like, "Just do it."

But I definitely think [the advice] comes more into play when I have difficult decisions to make. Things that are troubling to me—mostly decisions [that are] people-related. I think that over-procrastination doesn't help anyone in the long run. And I think that my style of, if you want to call it human resources or whatever, is that usually if it's not working for me, it probably isn't working for the other person, either.

I think that the law, quite rightly, is very protective of employees, as it should be. But I like to try to take a very, very straightforward approach. I think sometimes that helps—being very focused and making decisions, and making them swiftly. Then people respect it. They might not understand it right in the moment, but a couple of weeks after, when you've got through whatever it is you're going through, you definitely respect people having made swift decisions, and being able to move on.

You've said that you've been amazed at the knowledge and learnings other founders and CEOs are willing to share if you just ask them. Who are some people that you've reached out to for counsel about running a business?

Grede: I ask all the time. Andrew Rosen is probably my number one. Andrew, who founded Theory and is an investor in my business and in many other fashion-based businesses, is someone that I can call to talk about how jeans are best displayed in an 1,800-foot store—or the biggest, most strategic decision of the year. He's just somebody that's at the end of the phone and has so much knowledge. And he's so clever, and he's just seen it, and done it, and has the most unbelievable instinct for product.

The only other person I call all the time is Natalie Massenet, who founded Net-a-Porter. She's a constant source of inspiration, but also just a fountain of knowledge and somebody who did it back in the day. [She] wasn't sitting there, resting on all the amazing technology at her fingertips. She was grassroots. She's definitely somebody that I call and rely on a lot.

Good American co-founders Khloe Kardashian and Emma Grede.

As I was preparing for this interview, I swore to myself that I wasn’t going to ask you what it’s like to work with a Kardashian.

Grede: (Laughs) It’s okay!

At the same time, the family is such an undeniable presence, and I think what people miss sometimes is that its business bona fides cannot be dismissed. So let me tiptoe around a different phrasing: What is the reality to partnering with such a cultural force like Khloe Kardashian?

Grede: I have huge, huge respect for the family, and I love the way you asked that question. Because we really aren't talking about some famous people, right? We're talking about a complete cultural phenomenon. And if we go back to the very roots of Good American’s existence, it's about confidence. It's about female empowerment. I don't think there are people that you could look at in that family where you could deny or question those two things. And certainly when we start to talk about body ideal, they fundamentally changed what is acceptable and seen as beautiful.

For me, being able to partner with Khloe (pictured above left, with Grede) wasn't just something that commercially made sense. It's been fundamental for the belief in what we do, because what you've seen is, over the last 10, 15 years, they have really been responsible for an enormous cultural shift. Being able to be close to that, and to understand it, and to really take that into consideration in the way that we're doing things, has been massive for Good American. 

What I have with Khloe is a really great business partner. Khloe is an amazing girl, and she's very smart and she's very business orientated, and I have a lot of respect for her. But I think the broader culture impact the family has is what's really interesting. I think, in years to come, we'll all look back at that as being the big, defining thing—how much of an impact [they] actually had, and how widely positive that's been in so many ways. 

Khloe has more than 100 million followers on Instagram, and the last time she posted anything to do with Good American, it got over a million likes almost instantly. What is the calculus you use in terms of being tempted to use that platform anytime you want to launch a new product or collection, but also wanting Good American to stand on its own two legs as a brand?

Grede: Khloe and I were very clear about that from the beginning. I come from 10 years of having worked with talent and celebrities from all different backgrounds. Obviously, [fame] gives an enormous acceleration to a brand from the beginning. But I think we're in a very, very different time now where celebrity endorsement alone doesn't translate into sales over and over again. It might work once. You might be lucky and it works twice.

But while I would say it's undeniable that Khloe has really accelerated the profile of this business, if the message wasn't something people were ready for—[if] it wasn't something people were feeling passionate about—that would have just fallen on 100 million deaf ears. It's not like just because you say it, they love it. You have to be true to [your] values, and we are very consistent at Good American in thinking about what we should do.

We don't need to say yes to everything because it might be successful. What we have to be is really consistent, and true, and really rely and link everything back to our purpose. And when that happens, you have a hit. And if that works, and Khloe Kardashian posts about it, as well—well, maybe you have a mega hit. But you can't have one without the other.

Good American’s brand power is quite strong. Your customers appear to identify with the brand; they appear to be incredibly loyal to it. What are some other brands, when you look out into the market, that you're impressed with?

Grede: Oh, there are so many. I'm such a brand fan, I have to tell you. I think Everlane is amazing. That was an incredible job. I love that brand, and I love everything that they stand for. I love SKIMS, Kim [Kardashian]’s new venture, because it just feels so great. I think she's really filled and awoken a beast there in terms of the shapewear market being a bit of a dusty one, and I think that's really impressive. 

I love what the direct-to-consumer space has given birth to. There are so many brands I really admire. And not just the product but also the way they come into the market, and the way they're positioned, and the way they market [themselves].

Good American's $99 jean was a first denim offering for the company at a lower price point.

Good American created the size 15 based on customer feedback and customer return data. You launched a cheaper jean, the $99 jean (pictured above), again based on customer feedback. What other kind of similar data-informed or feedback-informed decisions has your company made?

Grede: We do them all the time, and it really can be as small as, “Which color do you prefer?” Then you'll put out a dress collection in black, and then we just wait and see what people say. And they say, "We like red.” And, “We like leopard print." Or, "We would like longer sleeves." There are those [examples], like low-hanging fruit.

Probably the best example has really been— and it’s not so much customer data, but it's more about response—our open casting, [which] has been something that for our brand is a real pillar of what we do.

Good American participates in casting calls for models of all looks and sizes.

I think we've done our fourth open casting to date. Now we have tens of thousands of girls that apply to those castings. And that's really a response to the excitement about wanting to be part of Good American. And we believe that we should be embracing all women, not just our customers. That's something that, personally, I'm really proud about, and something that is great for the community. Because you end up with this incredible group of women that are able to represent our brand, and it's pretty unique to us. So I love that.

Last thing, and it’s somewhat personal. You'd said in an interview once that you're an all-or-nothing person when it comes to the concept of balance. When you're at work, you're at work. When you're at home with family, you're not taking work emails.

Grede: That was taken a little bit out of context, because when I say that I don't believe in balance, [I mean that] I don’t compartmentalize. I definitely do emails at home while I'm with the kids, and I definitely would take a call from a teacher while I'm in the office.

What I mean is that I think that women have been fed this idea that there is some golden thing at the end of the tunnel, where you're going to reach this incredible place of equilibrium and everything's going to work perfectly. Your house is going to be clean, and your business is going to be on fire, and your kids are going to look beautiful and be performing at school. And I'm just like, "That's just rubbish. That's not it."

You can have it all. You just can't have it all the time. I think that, in general, we need to just stop putting so much pressure on ourselves. So when I say I don't believe in balance, it's just that I don't believe in this incredible moment where I'm going to feel incredibly balanced. I just believe life is life, and we have to be a little bit easier on ourselves.

Has there been a moment when you knew it was time for a more strict division between work life and home life? 

Grede: Yeah, [that happens] every day. And then I make changes. But that's part of being an entrepreneur. You're constantly pivoting. You're constantly changing. And then new challenges come up. Your children get older, and the demands of life become different.

I honestly believe that if you're not changing, you're probably not doing anything. You're probably not moving, in fact. And so I just feel like it's all inevitable, that I should be changing every day. Good American should be changing every day. My family definitely changes every day. And so I'm fine with that. If it's all staying the same, something's wrong.

About the author

Jason Buckland

Jason Buckland is a content marketing manager at Shopify Plus. His feature writing has appeared in the New York Times, Sports Illustrated, ESPN, Playboy, Time, the Toronto Star, and elsewhere.