Becoming an Ivy League-educated doctor was Eugenia Kim’s calling but a freak accident during her freshman year of college prompted her to ditch the med school plans for magazine publishing. Then, thanks to a particularly bad DIY haircut, Eugenia’s hat-making hobby became a viable career path. Two decades later, Eugenia has amassed celebrity fans like Beyoncé, Britney, and Christina, and added shoe and bag collections to the mix. Here’s how Eugenia ended up designing — and thriving in — millinery, thanks to a lot of chutzpah and a very open mind.
When I was young, I loved arts and crafts, and dressing up — I had a very individualistic, loud approach to fashion. I’d wear layered, clashing combos of colors and prints. I had a typical Asian upbringing: My father was a doctor, and my calling was to go to an Ivy League school and be a doctor — I was a straight-A student, took honors class, excelled on my SATs.
I went to Dartmouth and studied pre-med and psychology. My first semester, while sledding on a cafeteria tray with friends, I fell off a 10-foot drop and broke my back. I was in a hospital for a month. Being unable to move and surrounded by sick people was depressing. It made me not want to work in hospitals.
I minored in creative writing and the summer after graduation, in 1996, I was in the Radcliffe Publishing Course [now Columbia Publishing Course]. I was then a roving intern at Condé Nast [in New York] for three months; it was a really cool program where you worked at different publications with vacancies so you could interview for a position after interning.
I then worked at Allure for a year. I assisted the managing editor, and the front-of-book writer went on maternity leave as I started, so I wrote a lot. Condé Nast paid for employees to take classes in anything relevant work-wise, so I took a hat design class at Parsons. I liked that hats could be made quickly — in one sitting period — and by hand, instead of on a machine.
At Allure, I wasn’t into being an assistant. I liked the job’s creative aspects but there was lots of administrative work. I didn’t get along well with my boss and one day, [my bosses] had an intervention with me about behavioral issues, like being late; plus, I was going to sample sales with the other assistants all the time. They also said I was wearing lingerie to work and I responded, “But it’s Dolce & Gabbana, and we just wrote about how slip-dresses are really in!” The Dolce dress was the last straw, I think. I got fired, and I didn’t tell my parents, but [they] called my office and realized I was fired before I saw or told them.
One night, I thought it was a good idea to cut my own hair, and it was very crooked, so I shaved my head. I started making hats resembling hair, and feathered ones too, to feel more feminine.
What happened next is very ‘90s, because this wouldn’t happen today — I was shopping in SoHo, and employees at two stores commented on my hat and asked to see my collection. Nowadays, you need to have thousands of followers on social media to even get noticed as a designer! I didn’t know how to create a collection so I just made the same hat in different colors. One store, Bond07, bought my whole “collection” and created an entire window display of my hats. Then, someone from Barneys saw my collection in Bond07’s window; I got an appointment with them.
I pitched my hats to people I’d met from the publishing course and while interning, who were now working at places like W and Interview; my friend at the New York Times hooked me up with the Styles section and they wrote about my collection in May 1998, five months after I’d been fired from Allure. My Barneys appointment had gone well and the buyer said she really liked the collection; she didn’t say they were definitely placing an order, just alluded to it. But I was naïve and told the Times that my collection would be available at Barneys. Right after the article came out, the Barneys buyer called me and said, “You need to get your hats into our store ASAP — and you need to give us a heads-up about these things!” Maybe they were planning on ordering, maybe they weren’t, but that’s how I got my first order.
I didn’t know how to run a business. I delivered smaller orders to boutiques by bikes. I didn’t know how to read UPS’s shipping manual while sending Barneys my order so I packed one hat per box in 18 massive boxes. I couldn’t carry them to UPS so I rented a limo to deliver the collection. I was on unemployment at the time, and I was already stocked in Bond07 and the owner’s second [brand], Selima Optique, so whenever I got checks for from my hats there, I’d pay for supplies. I designed the craziest editorial pieces too: I worked with David LaChappelle on 10-foot feathered mohawks and made seaweed wreathes for Joe Zee [then at W].
I lived with three girls in a loft and tried to pretend I wasn’t running a hat business from the apartment. My roommates complained about finding feathers everywhere: in the rice cooker, in the toilet. The landlord didn’t let us renew our lease after a year because of my “suspicious Mohawk-shaped paint lines” on the walls. So I found a live-work storefront on East 4th Street and my store opened in December 1998.
The first month was amazing. Hats make great holiday gifts; they’re the most flattering accessory. From 1998 to 2001, I got my brand situated and selling in a few stores, but I was really not commercial. I made enough money from wholesale at the time and since I lived in my store, rent was pretty cheap. I didn’t have a vision for the brand but I had a vision for myself. My hat brand just kept evolving from there. I wish I could say I had a strategy, but I was just really motivated and opportunities came by me.
I loved interacting with customers. I met many women in my store that had lost their hair during chemotherapy. My father and sister are both oncologists, and I liked that I could do something to help others, even though I didn’t become a doctor.
I took that Parsons hat-making course again, because I had often missed classes due to my work schedule at Allure the first time I took it. But I learned a lot about millinery by reading books, and from experience, like while doing runway shows. Designers’ teams contacted me to do hats, under my own name, for their shows. I learned how to make berets because Ralph Lauren wanted 70 berets in a week and [fellow milliner] Patricia Underwood wasn’t available that season. I learned how to work with fur because Donna Karan wanted fur hats.
One day, Jennifer Lopez’s stylist, Andrea Lieberman, just walked by my store and came in; I designed some big, floppy hats with gold chain detail for Jennifer. She wore one of my hats with a Cavalli leopard print dress at the 2001 VMAs; it was such a moment because Jennifer really owned that hat. Janet Jackson also wore one of my hats to the same VMAs; not long after that event, Nicole Kidman was the first celebrity to wear my hats in print. I got dubbed the celebrity milliner in the media — even though I only had a few celebrity clients — and I started getting requests from other celebrities’ stylists.
I can’t remember all the celebrities that wore my hats: Christina Aguilera, Britney Spears, Gwen Stefani, Drew Barrymore, Madonna … I did a lot of newsboys and cowboy hats for Christina and Britney. They wore the same styles in different colors — I remember Britney once wore a pale pink leather newsboy and Christina wore a bubblegum pink newsboy around the same time. Despite their rivalry, they were weirdly similar style-wise.
Joe Zee was working on a movie about fashion people and asked me for some hats — that movie ended up being Zoolander. In High Fidelity, Lisa Bonet wears one of my first cowboy hats. I started hiring interns and assistants that could sell and sew: We’d sit around sewing hats, like a knitting circle, talking about life, and then a customer would ring the doorbell and we’d hop to it.
My business was lean and grew slowly. I only started doing trade shows in 2001 because my friend, designer Alvin Valley, told me I had to expand my business; I was only in eight or so boutiques plus Barneys New York and Barneys Japan at that time. By talking to buyers at trade shows, I learned what stores wanted and thus became a little more commercial. I started designing shoes in 2003 because a guy I met at a trade show, who I didn’t realize was hitting on me, owned a shoe factory; he ended up being my boyfriend for three years. I didn’t know much about shoes so I took a shoemaking course.
Shoes are similar to hats: They’re three-dimensional, made on molds, and sculptural. But their architecture is challenging – they carry a lot of weight, there’s size-grading, and they’re very technical. My first design, with a cat face on the front and tail on the back, was a best seller. After my second season of shoes, I won a CFDA Award in 2004 for accessories design — I think it was partially due to my shoe collection. The CFDAs was definitely a milestone; it brought new attention to the brand.
Business grew and I moved my studio to [Manhattan’s] Garment District in 2005. That year, I wrote a book, Saturday Night Hat: hat-making history, personal stories, and hat design how-to. My friend, a book agent, wanted me to write a book about hats. I was so busy, working six or seven days a week, but I wrote it myself, much of it during Paris Fashion Week. I was a workaholic!
I stopped my shoe collection in 2006 — I didn’t have the funding and I didn’t know anything about credit lines. I upfronted a lot for production, and worked with factories in France and Portugal, versus making hats domestically. I flew back and forth to Europe constantly. I had been using factories to produce my hats since in the early 2000s but all my designs were finished by hand in my studio — I still do that today. In 2014, we relaunched shoes, when my staff was much bigger and I could handle production demands.
In 2007, I collaborated with Coach and played around with their logo. I cut up classic Coach bags and reinvented the bucket hat. They requested 12 styles; I designed 35. I remember [creative director] Reed Krakoff saying, “Oh my god, it’s like Christmas in here!” When the recession hit in 2008, I actually doubled my collection and stabilized my business. I think I put forth a confidence that got me bigger orders. There was a slight increase from 2007 to 2008 in sales, and my buyer at Barneys was amazed that I’d increased SKUs in my collection at a time when most designers were reducing.
Then, I collaborated with Urban Outfitters in 2009 on a line called Eek. But my Target line in 2010 is what made people know my name. You can’t get the kind of publicity you get with a huge powerhouse like Target. Hat-making is such a handmade process and my brand was very niche; to translate that into hats that could be sold for $15, made in such huge quantities, and reach so many women was so interesting. It’s a very efficient company; I really liked working with them. There’s compromise involved with collaborations, and I’ve always been open to seeing other points of view — it helps me grow as a designer.
A few years ago, we did a coy, sassy sunhat with “Do Not Disturb” on the brim; it’s our bestselling hat, ever, and a viral Instagram hit. I scrambled to fill huge reorders. This year, we launched handbags as a capsule collection. It’s the best way to try a new category and see what people respond to. Straw bags were a natural extension since we do straw hats, and I used the same factories. Our most successful bag, the Flavia, resembles an upside-down straw hat.
The great thing with hats is that you can do so many different things: I’ve worked with a wide range of celebrities; I made my sister a wedding veil; done a piece for Princess Madeleine of Sweden; designed Kentucky Derby hats; I’ve recently been working with Michelle Obama’s stylist on her resort-wear looks. I can’t pick a favorite hat because every week — or every other day — I have a different favorite hat. Right now, my favorite is a bouclé boater.
I’m like the triangle player in the orchestra of fashion. Being a high-end hat designer is very niche, but I’ve grown steadily, and the brand’s look evolved. I was 22 when I started and as my personal style changed, my hats came more sophisticated in my 30s. This is the brand’s 20th anniversary and I never expected to be doing this for so long. I figured designing hats was just something I’d enjoy while I was young. I learn every year — every day, really — and that’s why I love my job.
Get That Life is a biweekly series that reveals how successful, talented, creative women got to where they are now. Previously: “How I Started My Own Gun Violence Prevention Nonprofit.”