Big idea: To make fashionable hats the "it" accessory, like handbags, and accessible to all. "Everyone can wear a hat — you just have to find the right one," says Kim, 35. Her high-end Eugenia Kim hats average $200; pieces in her Eugenia Kim for Target collection, which debuts next month, will go for less than a tenth of that price. The line will be Target's first-ever limited-edition hats — and give Kim her broadest audience yet.
Credentials: Kim won the 2004 Council of Fashion Designers of America award for accessories design. Her hats and accessories are sold at Barneys and Neiman Marcus, as well as in her own New York showroom. Last year, she did a line called Eek! for Urban Outfitters.
"I've made it" moment: When Jennifer Lopez wore Kim's floppy white concoction to the 2001 American Music Awards.
Her audience: The Eugenia Kim brand "is for a quirky, left-of-center girl in her twenties or thirties with a sense of humor." Designing for Target, she imagined a hybrid of that shopper and the Midwestern soccer mom. The shared DNA? If you wear her hats, "you're having a little more fun and standing out."
Art versus commerce: Kim used to think of herself as an artist. "I was making hats with mohawks 10 feet high for David LaChapelle shoots. I didn't think about the business." Once she saw it as a brand, her business took off.
Computer or hand-drawn design? Neither. "I can't draw, and I don't know how to use anything like Photoshop." In fact, Kim may be the only fashion designer who creates mainly in Microsoft Excel: "I like everything in chart format."
Inspirations for the Target line: Old Cuba. "I was obsessed with the old-school Latin resort thing," she says.
Inspirations for her spring/summer 2010 line: "The 1990s. A little bit of neo-punk and grunge." Oh, and one other thing: Kelly Kapowski and Saved by the Bell. Kim so loved Tiffani-Amber Thiessen — who, incidentally, now wears her hats — that "I told my mom once that I wanted to change my name to Tiffani. And with a heart over the i."
Originally wanted to be a ... doctor. She was pre-med at Dartmouth, "but I broke my back. I was in the hospital and thought, 'This place is so depressing. People are sick. I don't want to be in hospitals.' "
Role model: Elsa Schiaparelli, the Italian fashion designer and Coco Chanel rival. "She collaborated with Salvador Dalí, and I'm so into surrealism. I made a fried-egg hat where it looks like it's dripping."
Sightseeing: While she walks down the street, she studies people's heads, especially if they're wearing hats. "People think I'm trying to make eye contact with them to pick them up," she laments.
Can't live without ... Diet Coke — so much so that Kim's staff orders 1.5-liter bottles by the case to maintain her two-to-three-bottle-a-day habit.
Toughest converts: Her parents. "My mom wears golf hats when she plays. My dad sometimes wears a baseball cap. They don't wear my hats. I don't need to completely dominate the world — I can exclude my family."
A version of this article appeared in the March 2010 issue of Fast Company magazine.