This story is part of Fast Company’s Most Creative People in Business 2022. Explore the full list of innovators who broke through this year—and had an impact on the world around us.
“In everything that we do, one of the first questions I ask is, ‘What’s the intention of this?’” says Kingsley Gbadegesin of his queer-focused fashion brand K.ngsley. The Brooklyn-based, Nigerian-American designer worked in sales and marketing for Versace, Celine, and Loewe before spinning out his own company in 2020 with a line of cut-out tank tops inspired by a DIY club look he once made with a pair of scissors and a white tank top. His tops are now carried by Nordstrom, Ssense, The Culture Edit, and Moda Operandi, and have been worn by celebrities that include Lil Nas X, Jack Harlow, and Zaya Wade.
Last year, Gbadegesin expanded K.ngsley into a full-fledged fashion brand with the launch of a ready-to-wear collection of genderless clothes (flowing sleeveless shirts, oversized cardigans, and denim). He also introduced a jewelry line that turns the HIV pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) pill Truvada into charms that appear on earrings and necklaces, and unveiled the Clandestine boots in an unapologetically erotic, leather-daddy-inspired campaign. Over the summer, Gbadegesin added ribbed swim briefs, made with regenerative nylon. Much of the catalog was on display at K.ngsley’s June runway debut, where the brand was showcased among other rising labels as part of an event for Made x PayPal, the payment processor’s recently revived partnership with IMG Models to support diverse designers.
As the brand has grown its profile—including a collaboration with HBO and its ballroom show Legendary—Gbadegesin has given back to the queer community, sponsoring cash-prize categories for Open to All’s ballroom competitions. donating clothes to HBO Max’s ballroom competition show, Legendary, and Gbadegesin says he’s heartened to see who is wearing his tops and tagging the brand on Instagram. “It’s queer [and trans] people, and also cisgender women,” he says. “It reminds me of this quote from Samantha in Sex and the City: ‘First come the gays, then the girls, then the industry.’”
Fast Company talked to Gbadegesin about his breakout success and how he’s centering queerness throughout his brand.
Did you expect that first K.ngsley tank top you made to take off the way that it did?
I made that tank top while going out one night. I remember posting it online the day after because there was such an overwhelming response when I was wearing it out—and pretty much the same response I got in the club was happening online. At the time, a lot of GoFundMe’s were going around for [people who were] transitioning, and I wanted to give back to my community directly and support them. That was the idea [of selling the tank tops originally]. The first day we launched, in the first hour, we sold 16 tanks. I’d only made a small [number of them], and I surpassed my goal very, very early. Four months into that, retailers were reaching out, but that was never the plan.
What message are you sending with your jewelry line, which takes a common part of queer life—the Truvada pill—and makes it the centerpiece?
The moment you see [the Truvada charm] and see the shape [and blue color], you know what it is, because it’s something [that many] gay people take every day. [The jewelry] was a way to bring awareness to the fact that, even in 2022, Black and brown people are the demographics with the highest [incidence] of HIV infection. The underlying message of the campaign was, especially going into the summer, [that] we want you to be your most authentic, sexually liberated self, but we also want you to know that there are these resources that are available to you, like PrEP, to make sure you’re taken care of and safe.
Your Clandestine boots—and the way you’ve marketed them—draw attention to aspects of queer identity that people don’t often see in mainstream depictions. What’s the message there?
Just like a white tank top is associated with gay culture, so are boots. And these go back to our gay forefathers, with a Tom of Finland vibe. If you really look at the campaign, it’s basically what you would see in a dark room [in a club] where we’ve turned the lights on. As gay people, we are put in a place where we [have to] put our activities in this dark room, in this shunned space. This campaign is putting it out there and wearing it as a badge of honor.
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