Nancy Gold was a woman in a men'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 an Inquirer 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-based custom-shirt chain that hired her for a store at 1700 Walnut St. 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 Ardmore 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, published last year and available on Amazon, will advise and inspire other entrepreneurs. It's 149 pages of grit told by a woman barely over 5 feet tall who, for a recent interview, wore a pair of flats that, side-by-side, spelled out LOVE.
"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 and grandmother of five traces her career choice to when she was 10 and her own mother married her divorce attorney, Joseph E. 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 at 1704 Walnut St., 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 of Walnut, and later would open a custom-shirt business of her own in Shaw's original location.
In the late 1960s, at the Custom Shop on Chestnut Street near 15th, Gold became the company's first female store manager. There, she met a man who remained a beloved client and friend for 45 years, helped her with legal issues, and even made it possible for her to wear — if only briefly — a World Series ring. Lewis Katz — lawyer, entrepreneur, philanthropist, and onetime owner of the parent company of the Inquirer, Daily News, and Philly.com — used to share corned beef sandwiches with Gold on her selling table. Years later, when Gold was operating King's Collar, Katz delivered George Steinbrenner to her to be measured for shirts. During that heady visit, the then-principal owner of the New York Yankees urged Gold to try on his World Series ring.
That scene and her relationship with Katz, who died in a plane crash three years ago, form part of a chapter in Shirt Tales that is devoted to a principle important to Gold — paying it forward. She had asked Katz why he did so many kind things for her. His response: She had given him a referral that resulted in the first fee he earned out on his own as a practicing lawyer.
"The moral of this story is … that everything you do for others comes back to you in some form," Gold wrote.
After her Custom Shop termination, she resorted to some pay-the-bills work babysitting, cleaning apartments for bachelors, selling NutriSystem contracts to dieters and Chinese merchandise to visitors at the Pennsauken Mart, even creating a business that brought singles together for activities that didn't involve bars. 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 being on her own and opened Kara Gold Ltd. in downtown Haddonfield 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 Kings Court location.
Without warning, King's Collar's cutter bolted six weeks after the business opened. Obligated to a lease and $15,000 in debt, Gold taught herself how to make patterns and cut cloth, as she assembled a team to help her fulfill orders.
She was making a bespoke product, a labor-intensive process involving hand-drawn patterns for each customer that were used to cut cloth by hand, with each shirt sewn one at a time. By the late '80s, at a manufacturer's urging, Gold transitioned to a "made-to-measure" process, in which she sends clients' measurements and design choices to a factory in New Jersey where King's Collar shirts are made and then returned to Gold for fittings she performs at her Ardmore home studio. Of her book of 400 clients, just two remain bespoke clients.
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 P. Cuddy, chief executive and president of Beneficial Bank, who lives in nearby Bryn Mawr, 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?" asked the former president of the Ardmore Business Association and Philadelphia's Center City Proprietors Association. "What is going to be out on our streets?"