FLINT, Michigan — There’s a feeling of pride amongst us as we stand in the middle of Genesee Valley Mall, redirecting foot traffic, answering passerby questions, and snapping photos. We — myself, managing editor Tia Scott, and photographer Bryce Mata — have been cordially invited and lavishly welcomed into the life of Kiara Tyler, Founder and CEO of Kalm Clothing
Weeks away from opening her first store, she’s given us a sneak peek into her life, story, and Kalm — one of Flint’s most popular and successful clothing brands.
Kiara maintains a calm yet assertive demeanor, posing in front of her renovated store with crossed arms. From a distance, she feels larger than life, heightened by an intense stare that gives the impression that, like Janet Jackson’s eponymous album, Kiara Tyler is in control. So naturally, she pays little attention to the ensuing commotion while sporting a fitted New York Yankees cap, black puffer coat and biker shorts, and a tie-dye Kalm Clothing hoodie with white boots. The moment is a powerful symbol of what’s achievable with dedication, unwavering faith, and confirmation that “I feel like my story is already written.”
Curiously, we aren’t in downtown Flint where Black-owned businesses and some of her contemporaries, like Bedrock Apparel
, have chosen to operate. Kiara, instead, decided to open her store inside the mall — which sits in the JCPenny wing — joining an influx of local businesses like Fight Like It’s No Tomorrow.
The mall, she says, is where “people are coming to buy the industry that I’m in.” But much more than that, being a Black woman and becoming a tenant in Genesee Valley is a full circle moment — one that started almost a decade ago.
"Fast forward six years later into being a tenant here; God is amazing." - Kiara Tyler
“As of right now, it feels like another operating space. But, once people [are] flowing in from the community — young people — I think that’s when it’s gonna register,” she laughs. “To be in here is funny. When I dropped the first item from Kalm that same day, I came in here and went to every clothing store and asked if they would carry it. I had no idea what I was doing, and to fast forward six years later into being a tenant here; God is amazing. Any of the first is gonna happen here no matter how big this brand is.”
In 2022, the word big and Kalm Clothing are synonymous, known all around the country and worn by music artists like Detroit’s Sada Baby
. In 2019, she signed an investor deal with 100K ventures
, “a Flint, Michigan accelerator” founded by Robert Folk of 32 Advisors/ 32 Ventures and collaborated with Phil Hagermen, Founder & Co-Owner of Skypoint Ventures
, and David Ollila, co-founder of 100K ideas
These investments allowed Kiara and Kalm Clothing to have incredible mentorship with Super Bowl Champion Victor Cruz, NBA All-Star Champion Draymond Green, award-winning journalist Soledad O’Brien, and Good Morning America host Michael Strahan.
However, Kalm didn’t always start big. It almost didn’t start at all.
Kiara explains that she never intended to design clothes and start a business. Instead, having played sports since she was in middle school, she intended to become a professional athlete in track and field, earning a sports scholarship. Yet, “due to immaturity on my side,” she lost that scholarship and decided to “press forward with my collegiate career.” Still, her college studies landed her a B.S. in political science and a minor in criminal justice with hopes of becoming a “special agent in the FBI.”
Kiara Tyler during her interview with Flintside's Xzavier Simon.
Although none of that came to fruition, Kiara returned to Flint, where she decided to put her focus on creating custom shoe boxes. With a strategy that included direct messaging thirty social media influencers a day, she landed in the inbox of NFL legend Deion Sanders’ son. He, to her delight, wanted to invest. Ultimately, his father wasn’t impressed, Kiara says with a serious face. “He told his son, I’ll never allow you to invest in something like this.”
After a quick six-minute conversation, “I stopped taking shoe box orders that next day,” and the business advice birthed the idea to create bags which later turned into a clothing brand —Kalm Clothing — formerly known as “Fly By Air.” But how did she bounce back when something of that nature would’ve crippled others?
“It’s just in me. The biggest thing my dad taught me is when you start something; you finish it. I called myself quitting track and field my sophomore year. My dad came home, and he came to talk to me. I [said], ‘I told my coach I quit!’” She recites, summoning the tone and attitude of her teenage self. “My dad grabbed me by my jacket, took me back to that school, and made me run laps until practice was over. From that point forward, I ain’t never quit nothing.”
Quitting Kalm wasn’t an option. Kiara tells the stories of her humble beginnings in her room, drawing those first designs with crayons and colored pencils on a notebook from a Family Dollar by Sunridge Apartments. The constant phone calls, voicemails, and texts from a friend who begged her to change the Fly By Air name to whom she later gifted part ownership of Kalm.
From Googling how to start a clothing brand, getting a job to pay the hundreds of dollars to produce samples, and scavenging through 25 different manufacturers, it took years of waiting before she finally purchased her first 30 coats for $500 on October 15, 2016.
"I would say, slow down and be present. Don’t forget to have a life outside of your dreams.” - Kiara Tyler
In a year, $500 turned into over $100,000. The community saw value in her and Kalm, and through grueling hours, shady houses, and long drives, Kiara says she “never missed a sale.”
“I thank the City of Flint. It wasn’t one time where I felt like I was in harm’s way. People would buy stuff, and I’d be giving them change outta my pocket. I was hustling all day, pulling wads of money out, walking into basement parties full of men selling clothes, and meeting people at 2-3 o’clock in the morning in parking lots,” she explains. “I always feel that sense of gratitude. When you come from where I come from, you only see this type of stuff on TV, and it happened to [me]. All the places you could buy from, and you choose to support me. That’s always my thought when I make a sale. It always feels like the first sale.”
These days, firsts are happening all the time like having paid employees who “put a different type of fire [under] my ass” and understanding the differences between being a Creative Director and CEO. But the work doesn’t stop there.
With a grin on her face, Kiara says her original idea of Kalm becoming a fashion house is no more. Instead, she’s focused on building Kalm Enterprises — comprised of Kalm luxury, basics, and kids clothing, Kalm real estate, Kalm Home, Kalm Collegiate, and a Kalm gifted program for students. It is a 15-year plan motivated by her love for Flint and her inspirations, Ralph Lauren and Walt Disney. But if there’s anything she takes away from her life and wants to pass on, it is this:
“I don’t remember a lot of personal stuff from the past five years, but I have memories of Kalm. So I would say, slow down and be present. Don’t forget to have a life outside of your dreams.”
To learn more about Kiara Tyler and purchase Kalm Clothing, find them on Facebook, Instagram, and Kalm’s website.