Last May, Jens and Emma Grede bought the $24 million Bel Air home that belonged to Serge Azria, founder of contemporary brands Equipment, Joie and Current/Elliott, and a made-in-Los Angeles fashion mogul alongside brother Max Azria of another era, the 1980s to early 2000s.
Jens Grede, 43, approached Serge a decade ago, when he interviewed him at the Paul R. Williams-designed home. Grede featured the apparel giant alongside Theory’s Andrew Rosen in Industrie, the biannual magazine he and Erik Torstensson created as an offshoot of their marketing agency, Saturday London. The headline was “The Kings of Contemporary.”
Now, Jens has Rosen as an investor and is living in Azria’s house. “He’s consistent, ambitious and efficient. And Emma is charming, the communicator of the two, who has all these relationships. Together they make it work,” said Azria.
Sitting at the intersection of fashion, retail, tech and the Kardashians, the Gredes are just getting started.
As cofounders of Kim Kardashian’s Skims shapewear, Khloé Kardashian’s Good American denim and the contemporary men’s and women’s casual wear label Frame before that, they have used marketing backgrounds to seize cultural moments, sharpened learnings from one venture to the next, and steered their brands to growth through COVID-19.
Now the moguls-in-the-making are ready to take it to the next level, projecting revenues for 2021 will reach more than $500 million between their three brands.
“Companies go through different chapters. From zero to $100 million, they are really fragile and you are still nurturing them. We have now built three companies way above that, so we’re moving into a new chapter,” Jens explained during the couple’s first joint interview about their businesses, where the husband-and-wife entrepreneurs discussed growing disruptor brands that live beyond the Kardashians, and future ambitions, including vertical integration and a potential luxury brand acquisition.
“Our dream is to develop a few generation-defining brands. If the ’90s had Guess, Victoria’s Secret and Calvin Klein, I want today to be defined by Good American, Skims and Frame,” said Jens, sitting in the Frame headquarters near the new Apple campus in techy Culver City, where the couple has 430 employees and 75,000 square feet of office space across three buildings.
The couple moved from London to L.A. in 2017 and have been building brands ever since.
“It’s not a group by definition,” Jens said of the business structure around their projects. “Emma and I have our holding company called Popular Culture, which is a large shareholder in all the businesses we interact with, and there are a lot of recurring characters. We have a family of investors and partners in Kim and Khloé Kardashian and Andrew Rosen, who has been like a dad to me for the past decade or so, but also [venture capital funds] Imaginary Ventures and more recently Thrive Capital. We have a lot of alignment and have worked together for a long time, all of us. It’s definitely a family.”
The couple’s inner circle includes Kris Jenner, Kim and Khloé Kardashian; Imaginary Ventures cofounders and managing partners Nick Brown and Natalie Massenet, whose romantic partner is Torstensson, the cofounder of Frame, and Josh Kushner, brother of Jared Kushner and managing partner of Thrive Capital and Karlie Kloss’ husband.
“We’re a group of people who genuinely like working together,” said Emma, 38. “Of course, all the conversations happen at the oddest times, squeezed between reading books to the kids or 6 a.m. on a Saturday morning before everyone in my house wakes up.”
The Kardashian Factor
With her background in influencer marketing, as founder of the ITB Worldwide agency, Emma has had a relationship with the Kardashians for 15 years, which led to the creation of both Skims and Good American.
But more than just celebrity, the Gredes say they are building product-based brands, and that last week’s end of the long-running series “Keeping Up With the Kardashians,” and 20 years of showcasing their ventures on TV with it, is irrelevant. “The talent are an intrinsic part but I think Kim and Khloé would be the first people to say that whatever we do shouldn’t live or die by them making a post or being visible,” said Emma. “We make the best-fitting jeans, the most flattering shapewear and underwear.”
While the Kardashians are clearly an X factor, the Gredes are also part of the magic. As they have expanded their portfolio, one brand has led to the next, with inclusive values and body-friendly stretch fabrics as cornerstones. Skims is their biggest success to date, racking up $145 million in revenue in 2020 and forecast to exceed $300 million in 2021.
“When somebody presents as well as Emma and Jens do, you think they are just good at this, and when doors close at their house they become like everybody else. But they have an almost infinite ability to do a lot of things really well at the same time….And they have a series of new projects coming, too, so it’s not like they are resting on their laurels,” said John Howard, chief executive officer of Irving Place Capital and an investor in all three of the Gredes’ brands.
“Skims may be the most successful company I’ve ever been involved in and it’s both of them hitting their stride,” said Howard, who has experience investing in a number of fashion brands, including J Brand, Seven for All Mankind and Rag & Bone. “They are like great athletes at the best part of their life. And both of them are left brain/right brain people, they’re organized, thoughtful, businesslike, highly creative and they have really good taste.”
Of their disruptor mentality, he added, “There are a lot of people who have good ideas, but very few who execute them as well as they present them. Jens and Emma do. They are building the next great brands, looking for opportunities where there is a void in the market…and they are in the details of their companies. When you talk about a return rate from Nordstrom, they are on it. It’s not B.S.”
Launched with the name Kimono in 2019, Skims was able to survive swift criticism of cultural appropriation.
“Everyone sat on a phone call and said we f—ed up,” remembered Howard of those early days. “One of the things the Kardashians are all about is they are fallible. So we donated the URL, liquidated our inventory and sent the proceeds to a Japanese charity, and we did that without agonizing. That was a collective Jens and Emma together with the Kardashians taking care of the problem.”
A month after the relaunch, Skims had two million people waitlisted for product. “We became a drop model by accident,” said Jens, noting that supply is the brand’s biggest struggle and entire focus at the moment. “Skims is Kim’s vision and her company and we’re lucky to be a part of it,” he added, praising her obsession with fit and feel, as well as image, down to arty Vanessa Beecroft campaigns featuring size-inclusive bodysuits and cloud-like knit loungewear that sells out as fast as it goes up online, even if the quality of the premium-priced product has divided the internet.
“We sell out because Kim Kardashian speaks to 200 million people on Instagram, which is like five Super Bowls, and we’re doing it every day with a continuous stream of new and interesting product,” said Howard, adding that Skims has been a beneficiary of the pandemic in that customers leaned into loungewear, became more comfortable ordering underwear online — and because the “Fits Everybody” garments are forgiving enough that return rates are lower than average. “But we’re setting up brands that transcend our founding partners, and the more voices we can have involved, the more it will evolve.”
When Skims made its international debut at Selfridges in October, it sold the most units in a single day in the store’s history. When the brand popped up at The Grove shopping center in L.A. last spring, it did nearly $1 million in sales the first week — out of a 500-square-foot biscuit-colored box.
“We think Skims deserves to be a global brand because we know we already have a global audience,” said Jens. In April, Skims raised $154 million in a Series A funding round from venture capital group Thrive to fuel growth, after receiving a valuation of $1.6 billion. Howard believes Skims can do $750 million in sales in two years.
“Jens has a deep understanding for building great brands that are able to connect with consumers on a personal level, plus he knows all the ins and outs of what it takes to create a successful retail brand, from finding the right sourcing partner to navigating supply chain logistics. He is someone I learn from each and every day,” said Kim Kardashian.
Backgrounds in Marketing
In many ways Skims is a culmination of the couples’ careers in marketing, and experiences in denim with Good American and Frame.
Jens and his Frame cofounder, fellow Swede Torstensson, met in the early 2000s while working for Tyler Brule at Wallpaper, then set up their own creative agency, Saturday London. Among their projects was working with Net-a-porter to launch Mr. Porter.
They launched Frame denim in 2008 inspired by the off-duty model look, creating an early size-inclusive collection of a sort with Kloss — for taller women.
Frame struggled the most of the three brands through the pandemic because of its wholesale and physical retail footprint; with sales down 11 percent, it shed 10 percent of its staff in 2020.
But under new CEO Nicolas Dreyfus, a veteran of The Kooples who also happens to be Serge Azria’s cousin, Frame is up 40 percent year-over-year, tracking toward $200 million in sales for 2021, said Jens. As it expands, he has ambitions for it to be “the next Coach, Ralph Lauren or Calvin Klein,” in terms of affordable luxury.
“Frame is at a pivotal point in growth both from retail footprint and category expansion standpoints,” he said. “We introduced women’s shoes in 2019, expanded sustainable offerings through supply chain innovations and next year all our denim fabrics will be sustainably made and sourced through partnerships such as the Ellen MacArthur Foundation Jeans Redesign Initiative.”
This fall, Frame is relaunching men’s with more casual suiting and knitwear. The brand is also focusing more on store experience, with photo and art exhibitions, and buzzy partnerships with brands like The Carlyle Hotel.
Frame is looking to grow another 25 percent in 2022 as retail expands in the U.S. (a Madison Avenue flagship is under construction), in Europe (the first Frame London store opens in July), as well as through e-commerce in China, its fastest-growing market. By the end of 2021, the brand will have 16 retail locations globally, with five more slated for 2022.
Emma worked with Jens and Erik at Saturday Group before starting her agency ITB Worldwide in 2008. Jens was an early investor in that company, which was acquired by Rogers & Cowan in 2018, when she stepped down to run Good American.
“I was in the business of forging entertainment- and fashion-based partnerships and I would constantly get the question, ‘Can you cast a diverse person in our campaign?’” said Emma, who grew up in London, the daughter of immigrants from England and Trinidad. “I thought, wouldn’t it be great if the company was actually diverse as opposed to the campaign being a front for that?”
Influenced by Jen’s and Erik’s decade-long experience in denim at Frame, she zeroed in on jeans as the starting point for an inclusive clothing brand.
She sold Khloé Kardashian on the idea, and a pair of elastic, corset-slimming jeans that fit her without needing alterations. When the two debuted Good American in 2016, they sold $1 million worth of jeans the first day, at premium prices starting at $99.
“When you think of Skims and Good American, they are passions of those girls. Kim has been talking about underwear and shapewear for years, there are so many iconic images of her duct taping herself, or in a corset. The same with Khloé. You can find thousands of pictures of her before Good American and all she wore was skinny jeans,” said Emma, who with Jens are the largest shareholders in the business.
“When I first met Emma, I was immediately drawn to her understanding of what it means to be a woman today and the unfortunate reality that so many women find it difficult when it comes to clothing and sizing, even for something as prolific as a denim jean. We instantly clicked and built Good American to meet the dire need for a fashion brand that’s inclusive in every way and empowers all women,” Khloé Kardashian said by email.
Good American grew 80 percent in 2020, fueled in large part by a new Essentials category of sweats that was already in the pipeline before the pandemic, and by a stretchable line of swimwear, now the brand’s fastest-growing category. “If we can’t innovate in fit and fabric, we’re not going into a new category,” said Emma. Inclusive footwear from sizes 4 to 14 was also added, and the most over-the-top styles, like thigh-high boots, sold best through the pandemic, she said, showing her customer’s appetite for sexy style.
Good American will reach $155 million in sales in 2021, up 85 percent year-over-year. Although she has a partnership with Nordstrom, and was close to signing a lease for a flagship before the pandemic, Emma is committed to the e-commerce model. “It’s a socially driven brand that lives through its own platform,” she said.
Like Skims, Good American has weathered controversy, including Khloé’s outsize reaction to an un-edited bikini shot posted on her Instagram this spring, which suggested she may not be as empowered in her own body confidence as Good American’s messaging would suggest.
“I’ve made it a point not to talk about their private lives. They are scrutinized every single day, and I don’t need to be another person who adds to that,” said Emma when asked about the post. “What I do know is that Khloé is an incredible business partner, we speak every single day. But we are in a media landscape where you are damned if you do and damned if you don’t and if you have a business that can be taken down by something like that, you shouldn’t be in business.”
Riding the Wave from Lounge to Denim
After riding the pandemic-fueled loungewear wave, the couple is benefiting from fashion’s swing to denim dressing and new jeans silhouettes.
“The new work wardrobe is based around denim, it used to be trousers or a skirt and now people are dressing up around denim,” said Jens. “This whole new silhouette is happening — we launched the Good 90s, which is selling like gangbusters. But skinny jeans aren’t going anywhere and will still be the bulk of our sales,” added Emma.
Good American was first to debut Always Fits denim that stretches to four sizes. “I wish we had done that,” said Jens. “But at Frame, we get excited about sustainable recycled cashmere and sustainable washed silk. We also have the 24 Hour Jean that improves blood circulation.”
There is competition between the design teams, but also shared resources, particularly with footwear.
While product is manufactured in America, Mexico and Turkey, Jens would like to be vertically integrated, and produce more in L.A. “I could see us leveraging our power….We’re looking for the right opportunity,” he said.
“We have such a test-and-learn mentality at Good American and Frame….We can learn so much from that first hour of sales that we want to be able to chase back into that and the only way to do that is a domestic opportunity,” added Emma.
During quarantine, Emma spent time thinking about corporate culture, creating a mothers’ support group and a mentorship program across the brands. “It’s been a chance for people to feel like they are part of something bigger,” she said.
The couple also conceived of and launched their newest brand, Safely, a range of eco-friendly cleaning products with partners Kris Jenner and Chrissy Teigen, who has been embroiled in her own controversy of late for past online bullying. They have brought a national retailer on board for an August rollout of the direct-to-consumer line, developed during a series of cleaning parties at their Malibu beach house.
“Emma has taught me how important it is to stay consistently engaged and involved because I’m a very creative entrepreneur and it’s easy for me to be excited about what’s next,” said Jens. “I live in the future and Emma lives in the now.”
Will there be another brand?
“Probably. Maybe we will buy a brand next. When Remo Ruffini bought Moncler, it was out of fashion but had a soul and credibility. I would love something in the luxury space,” said Jens. “Even when we moved here, California was seen as not as good. But in this post-pandemic world, location doesn’t matter any more. It’s all about mindset.”