How to Start a Fashion Label During a Pandemic
by Evan Ross Katz
21 December 2020
Starting a brand in the midst of a global pandemic. Sounds crazy, no? But for 27-year-old savant Kingsley Gbadegesin it became a reality over the summer when he launched his clothing brand K.NGSLEY. "Maybe it was the forced alone time in lockdowns or a product of the widespread devastation," he says, "But during the pandemic and the surge of racial violence and protests, I had this overwhelming feeling propelling me to dive in and saying — if not now, when?"
When I arrive to meet him at his studio, which triples as a living space and shipping center, I immediately pick up visual clues about the brand and its founder's ethos. For one, there are a lotta boxes being packed up. Key takeaways: 1. Product is pushing. 2. Gbadegesin is a 360 degree brand presence, from the design to taping up the boxes and walking them to the nearby Post Office, just a block from his Bushwick hub.
A Maryand, Texas and Nigerian native, the 27-year-old fell in love with fashion not through a specific moment so much as a series of moments. These led him to a deeper awareness of fashion's capabilities, both for him in his career and for others in how they communicate who they are to and within the world. "The moment I knew it had a power to speak for you before you opened your mouth. How it sets a tone in people's approach to you. There was something about how powerful women I admired dressed, it had an audacity that I've yet to shake. It has an effect on how I dress and present myself."
Below, Gbadegesin chats about navigating complex systems within the industry, using his brand as an act of resistance for queer people, especially queer people of color, genderless fashion (is that even a thing?), and managing the stress that comes with launching a brand confounded by doing so at a time as challenging as now.
Was there a designer for you growing up who really captured your attention in terms of doing something outside of the norm?
One of the first designers I was ever exposed to early on was Versace. You could say my family was a bit obsessed. We had everything Versace, even the Rosenthal. So it was kind of a full circle moment when I landed my first internship at Versace.
Did you attend school for fashion or how were you formally (or informally) trained?
I majored in Marketing and International Business at LIM College, so when it comes to the business side of the industry I guess you could say I was trained formally. But when it comes to designing and constructing looks, I'm self-taught. After learning through trial and error and emulation, I took an internship while I was in middle school and got to work on customs for the Metropolitan Opera in Washington, D.C. That was my first professional experience working on garments, and I learned on the fly and picked up a lot of tips from the people around me.
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Where does the name for the brand and particularly the styling come from? Why the period in place of the I?
With a first name like Kingsley, I've never needed a last name. I've kinda put myself in this realm of names like Cher, Madonna and Naomi. Although a proud Nigerian, I love my last name Gbádégeṣin, which means put the crown on the horse or a King getting on a horse — open to interpretation. So in short, K.NGSLEY is a riff on my name, and on my Insta handle.
Tell me more about your brand mantra, which "uplifts and does justice to the people that built the United States and its culture in the first place."
It's no secret that queer people, especially queer people of color, have long been at the cutting edge of almost every aspect of popular culture in America. For decades, our community has inspired and steered innovation and new eras in fashion, music, dance — you name it. But at the same time, while the country hops on trend after trend it pushes aside the very people who inspire and push our culture forward. It's way past time for that to end — American society cannot choose to love our culture and all that we represent while pushing us to the margins.
This brand exists as one of many acts of resistance against that unjust history. K.NGSLEY is made for the girls, by the girls. We tell our stories through how we present our bodies — which have always been controversial — to the world. And we don't need to give our money over to designers who take our ideas and sell them right back to make a check, we can keep our power right here within our community. And by the way, portions of our profits are funneled right back into on-the-ground community efforts that directly support Black, queer, and femme people. On every level, this is about us.
Would you describe your clothing as genderless? Or what term feels the most authentic to the kind of inclusive brand you are creating?
Gender has been cancelled — so yes! But when you really think about it, all clothes are essentially genderless. At K.NGSLEY, everything is fitted and designed on a traditionally "male figure" form and then scaled to the "female figure."
How does your Nigerian heritage find its way into the brand?
Timely question. Nigerians are very proud people, so my projects will directly incorporate that. I don't want to give anything away yet, so stay tuned!
Biggest obstacle you've faced these past 10 months?
To be honest, sometimes just maintaining my sanity. This journey has come with a lot of hard lessons, like just because I want something to work doesn't mean it's gonna work. Along the way, I've had to learn to let go of some dreams, or parts of dreams, and find acceptance in that. Before I went all in on bringing K.NGSLEY to life, I was one of those people who didn't believe that stress has real, physical side effects, but believe me, I've learned firsthand that it most certainly does. And I've also learned that in order to move forward, and create, and make the difference I know I can make, I have to healthily balance both my ambition and my sanity. Sometimes it means I slow down or put an idea on hold, but that's what it takes. Besides, if this dream wasn't so big that it overwhelmed me, if I didn't feel it in my bones, it wouldn't be the right one to bring to life.
Biggest achievement these past 10 months?
I can't choose between these two so I'm sharing both. Meeting Nesli Danisman, a literal icon in this space, has been a game changer, and she's become a true guiding light for me and the brand. And I recently won the Fred Segal x Black In Fashion Council 2nd place grant, which was validating and very meaningful to me. It also came with a cash prize and that is literally the reason I can pay my factories on time right now!
What would you say is your biggest secret weapon as a designer?
My years working the sales floor in luxury retail, and my experience in marketing and in wholesale. I've seen the fashion world end-to-end, from working with customers on the frontline to managing the behind-the-scenes systems. I don't just have a perspective to share on the power of fashion, but I know what needs to happen behind the scenes to bring a vision to life in the industry. That experience has enabled me not only to get my ideas off the ground, but also to stand up for myself and navigate complex systems, armed with the knowledge of how things should run.
What's next for you?
The response to K.NGSLEY has been overwhelming so far. To the point of having to turn down clients who wanted to stock us, knowing I didn't have the proper infrastructure in place to pull off such a feat. I'm not someone who is used to "winning" in life, but this has been life changing so far — and I'm nowhere near done. I'm working on a new collection right now that I hope to release in the coming months, but until then I'm genuinely just excited to keep working hard with people I truly admire and to let the future naturally unfold.
Welcome to "Wear Me Out,"a column by pop culture fiend Evan Ross Katz that takes a look at the week in celebrity dressing. From award shows and movie premieres to grocery store runs, he'll keep you up to date on what your favorite celebs have recently worn to the biggest and most inconsequential events.
Photography: Gregory Vaughn