Entrepreneurial superstar Kym Gold is obsessed with innovation, not copycats
“You know you’ve done something right when you get knocked off.”
—Kym Gold, founder of Style Union Home, who sold True Religion Brand Jeans for $835 million
BY ALYSON DUTCH
Kym Gold approaches business and intellectual property with unapologetically maverick style.
Since running her first business—in which she sold clothes on the Venice Beach boardwalk and around college campuses for $50,000 a month—Gold has started five fashion brands. Most notable is the iconic True Religion Brand Jeans, whose company sold for a historic $835 million in 2013.
The author of “Gold Standard: How to Rock the World and Run an Empire,” Gold is one of a triplet set of determined Taurean sisters who crave nothing but the best whether it relates to appearance, smell, sound, touch and taste. She’s a powerhouse of creativity with an unusually non-linear business mind who has turned virtually everything she’s touched since age 18 into, well, gold.
Recently, she moved away from style for the body and toward fashion for the home. Her newest venture, Style Union Home, launched in 2020.
SUH is a line of luxurious, handmade ceramic art pieces from the imagination of a famed designer. Gold said her latest endeavor requires the same set of business skills as fashion, only that now the medium has gone from fabric to clay.
The line, inspired by her mother’s Sunday night dinner Caesar salad bowl, is filled with SKUs that serve dual functions and are so substantial they are meant to be passed from generation to generation.
Gold’s uncanny business smarts come with an unconventional perspective on intellectual property that is often shared in the fashion world.
“It’s tough and very expensive to patent something that with one tiny tweak can become distinctive and saleable by a copycat,” she said. “You know you’ve done something right when you get knocked off.”
Gold told a couple of stories from the early-2000s days of the denim empire that illustrate this style industry dilemma.
She walked out of the New York City True Religion store one day and saw a cart street vendor hawking a copy of the company’s white saddle-stitched, large back-pocketed jeans.
Never at a loss for words, Gold approached the seller and said calmly: “Those are my jeans … I designed them.” She asked the vendor to give the jeans a chance to grow before undermining what True Religion built, “or at least go to Canal Street and not sell this stuff in front of my store.”
Gobsmacked by the candid exchange, the rogue vendor obliged and moved off.
Gold also related a funny story about a megastar NBA player with whom she was designing a signature line of clothing. During their meeting, he wore True Religion jeans.
The outspoken designer asked: “What size are those?”
“I’m a 38,” he replied.
She shook her head. “Those are counterfeits. We never made that size.”
Gold found it ironic. “What’s interesting about designer brands is, customers won’t stand for anything that’s not real. They don’t buy fake Cartier or Fendi.”
Although she is one of many fashion entrepreneurs who parrot that IP is not something they spend time and money trying to defend, she did eventually patent the True Religion look.
IP’s fuzzy areas
True Religion was known as one of the first designer jeans that was selling like hotcakes for a whopping $200-plus—among the court of names such as 7 for All Mankind, Paige Jeans and Lucky Brand. Designer jeans were not anything new at that time; before them came industry behemoths such as Chemin De Fer, Jordache and Guess. But True Religion claimed a different kind of red carpet status.
Because the very nature of fashion is to be unique, IP is built into every designer’s creations. In the case of True Religion, Gold engineered jeans with many specifics that made them a favorite for curvy women, attracting voluptuous celebrities such as Jennifer Lopez and Beyonce.
Building for fit was part of her natural creative instinct and something she did for herself.
“I was never model thin, but I did have a booty. Look, anyone can make a stick-thin woman look great, but designing to accentuate the favorable and downplay the flaws of a normal body is no easy task.”
Gold remained true to that commitment in 2014 when she became the first licensee of the Fitlogic Sizing System, invented by Cricket Lee.
By answering five online questions using the internationally patented system, 95 percent of women around the world are able to find their exact size and shape, Fitlogic says. This confidence in perfect fit sizing increases sales and reduces returns to 10 percent or less. The system identifies three basic shapes: high hip curve (slimmer thighs), hourglass (mid-hip curve) and pear-shaped (fuller bottom and upper thighs).
IP can also be considered stylistic and memorable—difficult things to prove when in a court of law. It is easy to remember True Religion’s thick white saddle-stitched jeans with the large back pockets. For Style Union Home, the rough matte, unglazed-with-glazed looks—some with suede braided handles and accents—are as stylistically unique as they come.
Bella Dahl was another of Gold’s brands that created a massive trend by mixing vintage denim with kimono fabric embellishments. This line crowded the racks in the top retailers of the time that held real estate throughout the country: Contempo, Judy’s and the junior sections of every major department store.
Bella Dahl wrote a couple million dollars of new business at its first trade show. The look hit a nerve in a way that has been patentable, but in this case Gold decided to not pursue it.
“At the time, we were buying old Levi’s and making them into something totally unique. Technically, Levi’s might have not liked this, but at that time they saw what we did as a boon to their reputation.”
Gold’s advice to entrepreneurs? “Wait until you have a buying customer, money rolling in and a reason to fear being knocked off.”
Though True Religion and Bella Dahl were constantly thieved by enterprising knockoff artists globally, Gold calls it the highest form of flattery.
Counterfeiting abounds throughout the world marketplace. Even wine collectors and organic food industries are facing issues.
“In Hong Kong, there are two buildings filled with nothing but counterfeits for every major brand,” Gold said. “Back in the early 2000s when my brands shipped internationally, we used authenticity barcodes when shipping for Customs so they could know it’s real.”
The organic food industry—expected to grow to $305 billion at an annual growth rate of more than 16 percent through 2022—has had issues with distributors receiving conventionally grown food ingredients in one door, stamping them with fake USDA Organic stamps, and the bags going out the other door. A lawsuit involving the USDA organic problem is currently in the U.S. Attorney General’s office.
With the launch of Style Union Home, Gold has spoken with her attorney about IP issues. But her preference is to counteract with innovation: “Style Union Home is filled with interesting innovations that make a home beautiful and functional.”
She designed a soap dish with a little spout that hangs over the side of the sink. Bowls double for holding ice and champagne, fruit, or an armful of flowers. Vases hold kitchen utensils or lavender iced tea. Tri-footed spice holders are so charming on the counter, who would not want to mound pretty pink Himalayan salt or fill them with fragrant cumin seeds?
When something she has created gets copied, Kym Gold moves quickly to the next best thing.
“When I can move faster than the copycats, it’s a good day,” she said. “When you are the first one putting something out, you’re still the first and that gives you more credibility than anyone else.”
Born: Hollywood, California
Home: Encino, California
Education: Santa Monica College, AA, Business
Business highlights: Founded Bella Dahl (1997-2002), Hippie (2002-2004), Cofounded True Religion Brand Jeans (2002-2009), founded Babakul (2008-2014), founded Style Union Home (2020).
Biggest inspiration: My mom
Favorite book: “The Power of Habit” by Charles Duhigg
Hobbies: Working out, jewelry making, pottery
Favorite quote: “They may forget what you said—but they will never forget how you made them feel.”—Maya Angelou