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Now that her signature collection is available in select Neiman Marcus stores, Gemma Kahng has set her sights on launching e-commerce.
During an interview last Monday in her West 38th Street office, the designer discussed her hands-on business and how her Dutchess County, N.Y., weekend house has freshened up her design approach. As four staffers and five interns tended to their tasks, Kahng said her collection is New York made. One exception is the intricate silk flowers that she sources from a Korean consortium in Shanghai and then sews them into her designs. “It’s good — I’m helping them and they’re helping me. And they keep doing things the traditional way,” she said. “There is no way we could make all these flowers here,” gesturing toward a patchwork flower coat adorned with 150-plus flowers that requires one week of a New York seamstress’ time to stitch together.
Nature has become a leading influence in her work, since she started renting a country house in Millbrook, N.Y. Burnt out by the New York scene, Kahng said she Googled “house for rent Millbrook,” arranged to see the first search result the following day and signed a lease that afternoon. Weekending there, she spied another charming home with 200 acres and wrote a letter to its owner suggesting a rental. “I was getting very tired of New York. Apartments were still too expensive to buy, and I wasn’t making any money. This house looked like a little dollhouse and I had always wanted a garden,” she said. “I love it.”
After launching her label in 1989 and sailing through the Nineties, Kahng said she lost her footing a bit, but has since redefined her label as a couture one that wholesales from $600 for a little top to $4,000 for a coat. Businesswise, “things are getting better,” she said. “Last year, people were just talking [and not buying.”
Kahng’s cousin Andy Kim, a Rhode Island School of Design grad, is putting the finishing touches on an e-commerce site. She is trying to convince her ex-husband Charles Chang Lima to work on the e-tail business. “He is working on a T-shirt idea for the site,” she said. “It could be very good if he focuses on that. My main collection is much more of a personal thing.”
Accessories will be a major push online. In that regard, Kahng said she was partially inspired by frequent trips to the Poughkeepsie, N.Y., flea market.” I wanted to create special handcrafted items that feel like they are one-of-a-kind but they’re not,” she said.
Next month, Kahng plans to host an intimate candlelit dinner for 20 or so in her Garment Center space instead of staging a runway show. “I don’t need to have hundreds of people to come see me. I just need key people to work with me,” she said. “My work is much more personal now. It really relates to my life and who I am. And it’s selling. That makes the biggest difference.”