Nancy Gold was a woman in a man’s clothing world — custom shirts. Talk about a bad fit.
Not due to any lack of skills. Gold found that her only shortcoming was her gender: It was the 1960s, and custom shirtmakers in the United States were men. “No women were in the industry,” she said.
But when life presents you with unplanned circumstances — in Gold’s case, a divorce when she had three children younger than 6 — gender barriers be damned. Especially when a career move seems like fate, as this one did for the heavily spiritual Gold.
She opened her door one Sunday morning to find a newspaper she had not subscribed to. In it, she found a want ad for an “upscale retail haberdashery sales position” offering up to $110 a week. Men and women were invited to apply. Gold got that job with the Custom Shop, a New York custom-shirt chain that hired her for a store in Philadelphia. Seven years later, by then a store manager, she was fired for resisting a demotion to assistant manager when a man was hired to run the shop.
And thus began the start-up career of an entrepreneur believed to be the first female custom shirtmaker in the country, whose clients have included such prominent individuals as W. Wilson Goode Sr., George Steinbrenner and Lewis Katz. Nearly 40 years later, Gold, 76, remains in business as King’s Collar Shirtmakers Inc., taking clients’ measurements and performing fittings in her suburban home. There, she has also launched TKC Business Consultants to “help entrepreneurs avoid the pitfalls.”
Also to that end, she has written “Shirt Tales: The Stories Behind a Successful Start-up,” hoping her personal story will advise and inspire other entrepreneurs.
“I’m fearless, that’s the key,” Gold said of her persistence, despite a firing, business setbacks, three failed marriages, at-times withering debt and a breast-cancer scare. “I’m not afraid to be embarrassed. I can’t even say I’m afraid to fail. Everything in life that happens is a gift or a lesson.”
The mother of five traces her career choice to when she was 10 and her own mother married her divorce attorney, Joseph Gold, a widower who would later become president judge of Philadelphia Common Pleas Court. Each night, Gloria Gold would lay out her husband’s outfit for the next day, and her daughter found herself impressed by the J.E.G. monogram on the cuffs.
The shirts were made by John Shaw Shirtmakers, where young Nancy would walk down the long hallway to get to the rear of the building to pick up her father’s orders. A little more than a decade later, Gold began her career at the Custom Shop in the same block, and later would open a custom-shirt business of her own.
After her Custom Shop termination, she resorted to some pay-the-bills work. Then Gold went back to making shirts, doing some private-label work with the John Shaw company until an “Aha!” moment struck in the late ’70s: She collected an $80 commission on the $4,000 sale of a couple dozen shirts.
Gold realized she could make more on her own and opened Kara Gold Ltd. in Haddonfield, N.J., in 1978. In less than two months, she had changed the name at the urging of a customer, who said Kara Gold sounded like a jewelry store. He produced a hand-drawn logo that showed a crown placed above a shirt collar with the name King’s Collar, inspired by the store’s location on Kings Court, a thoroughfare in the town.
Since the 2008 economic collapse and the surge in casual wear in workplaces, “nobody is buying formal shirts,” said Gold. Annual sales total $70,000, down from $250,000 at King’s Collar’s peak in the 1980s, she said.
Gerard Cuddy, chief executive and president of Beneficial Bank, bought eight shirts a year ago, his first time back to King’s Collar since 2001. He attributed the long gap, in part, to the original shirts holding up so well. A recent weight loss (25 pounds) necessitated better-fitting shirts.
“Plain white shirts,” Cuddy added. “I’m still a banker.” He praised Gold’s ability to link “what you’re buying to who you are.”
Helping entrepreneurs figure out who they are comes from Gold’s concern about America’s business districts, large and small.
“What are we going to do if the small-business owner is no longer viable?” she asked. “What is going to be out on our streets?”