Former QVC personality Kathleen Kirkwood, who was known as the “diva of shoulder pads,” died Nov. 5 at age 62 at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York.
The cause of death has not been determined for Kirkwood, who became sick suddenly in September, according to her sister Joann Kirkwood, who said a private Zoom service is being planned.
A determined entrepreneur and an early advocate for sustainability practices, Kirkwood dove into fashion after graduating from high school. Born in Laurelton, N.Y., Kirkwood’s mother worked at a nearby fashion boutique, Ronnie’s in Cedarhurst, and her father [Gerard] was a stockbroker. “My mother was always into fashion. There are pictures of them going out. My parents did ‘hustle’ [dance] contests and they went out clubbing. It was always fashion, fashion, fashion,” said Joann Kirkwood, a Fashion Institute of Technology graduate who worked as a children’s wear designer for 31 years until recently.
After moving to Manhattan as a teenager, Kathleen Kirkwood started work as a showroom salesperson at Gil Aimbez Static, an acid jeans manufacturer, and later for Philippe Adec. She attended night school to learn how to speak French fluently, her sister said. In 1983, Kirkwood created Kirkwood International. “Her fighting spirit was evident when she was 18. She was making good money at Philippe Adec and she just thought it wasn’t enough,” her sister recalled with a laugh Monday. “I remember her saying, ‘Hell no! I’m not working all those hours for that.’”
One of her signature designs was “Pints of Pads,” clip-on shoulder pads, which were a staple for many working women in the high-rolling 1980s when power suits were de rigueur. “My husband and I used to help her pack the pints, when she first started in a little house in Staten Island somewhere. It was exciting,” Joann Kirkwood said. “She did very well. She was amazing at sales. She was a go-getter. She knew her stuff. She lived and breathed Pints of Pads.”
The entrepreneurial Kirkwood also developed the Socksystem, a single style of socks that was offered in 14 colors and her Soles to Go slippers label was based on one style in 11 colors. Always interested in looking for items in accessories that needed “a little perking up,” she also offered men’s wear-inspired socks for women at one point.
Kirkwood told WWD in 1988: “I key into one design. I’m an item designer. I design one item and that’s all it’s ever going to be. To update the line, new colors are introduced.”
In 1989, Kirkwood was featured on Oprah Winfrey’s talk show for a discussion about women in business. She made her debut on QVC in 1992. Kirkwood also was a supporter of former Vice President Al Gore’s environmental initiative. She was recognized recently for being a leading green company, her sister said.
Friendly with Kirkwood for many years, designer Dennis Basso, who sells a diffusion line on QVC, said Friday they often spent time together backstage. “She always had a smile on her face and was cheerful. She was innovative by [making shoppers] able to buy shoulder pads to put into sweaters and dresses that didn’t have them,” he said.
In the late 1990s, Kirkwood cooked up another novel creation — the “Cookie Cami,” a camisole with a built-in bra that had removable padded cookies. The $60 item was sold in the intimate apparel area of department stores.
In 2010, she started the B.R.A. Recycling Agency, which repurposed bras that were upcycled into red carpets that were later bought by people at special events. A portion of the profits was used to benefit breast cancer research. “She was very generous to causes that helped people like Dress for Success and other organizations. She was really into leaving a legacy behind through her donations,” Joann Kirkwood said.
About five years ago as working from home became more acceptable, Kirkwood increasingly did so from Montauk, N.Y., but she also kept her Manhattan apartment. The lifelong New York resident preferred a reverse seasonal commute. “She just loved the deer and loved being there in the winter. But not so much in the summer, because there were so many people. She would come back to the city in the summer. She would go back and forth,” her sister said.
In the past 10 years, Kirkwood’s environmental initiatives became more of a priority, her sister said. In addition to the B.R.A. Recycling Agency, Kathleen Kirkwood established herself as a designer who was committed to protecting the environment, offsetting global warming, and being against the use of plastics. “Kathleen attributed her success to herself, being determined and never stopping and never giving up. My mom and dad were very much for us being very independent women from the get-go. They always wanted us to be able to take care of ourselves,” Joann Kirkwood said. “We both have it. I’m starting a company because I was let go after 31 years at one company, because of COVID-19. I am starting a little company like Kathleen with one item. It’s called Elasticity for a little shoe elastic. Hopefully, her spirit will be in me to never give up.”
In addition to her sister, Kirkwood is survived by her mother, Katherine.