Josh Holm ’15: Creating a Positive Impact Through Castles & Queens

by Nathan Foster

On a chilly Saturday night in February 2023, Josh Holm, ’15, stood to the side of a runway in Milan, watching models show off apparel he had designed for his label Castles & Queens as cameras flashed and the crowd applauded in one of the four fashion capitals of the world. It was one of the biggest moments of Holm’s life, but just a few years ago, it seemed impossible—a dream that might never come true.

Half Korean and half Caymanian, Holm was born to a single mother in South Korea. His mom, Kim, worked multiple jobs to support them, but their financial situation caused Holm to go in and out of foster care multiple times. Then, when he was five-years-old, their house burned down and his mother was forced to make an extremely difficult decision. Friends told her that Holm’s best chance for a prosperous life was being adopted by an American family. She couldn’t stand the idea of letting her son go, but she also wanted the best life for him, so she sent him to an orphanage. Within a few months, an American couple visited the orphanage. “They weren’t even looking to adopt,” Holm said, “but they came across me and after hearing my story, they felt God calling them to bring me into their family.” He moved with his new parents, Joel and Marie, to a suburb of Chicago. Holm’s parents provided an amazing new life for him, and he had two new sisters, Rachel and Lisa. Holm no longer faced the challenges of wondering where his next meal would come from or getting a quality education. While he did well in school, he truly excelled in athletics. Toward the end of high school, Holm was recruited by Azusa Pacific University’s track and field coaches. His family flew to the West Coast and toured the university.

“When I walked onto campus, I felt there was something special about this place and I needed to come here,” he said.

Although he planned to run track throughout college, Holm stopped after his freshman year. “I felt God telling me, ‘this is it for you.’ It was a hard decision, but it made sense because track was a personal dream, but it wasn’t what I was meant to do,” he said. Holm decided to devote his newfound free time to his studies (he majored in practical theology and minored in leadership and his internship with The Dream Center, a nonprofit dedicated to confronting human trafficking and helping foster children and at-risk youth. For the first few months of his internship, Holm helped with whatever the organization needed, mostly running errands, but one night, after the team saw his dedication, he was brought along on an outreach. “We went into Anaheim, just a couple blocks from Disneyland, and gave out resources to runaway children,” Holm said. “It was devastating seeing the reality of what they face on the streets.” This experience ignited a passion inside Holm. After talking with his APU mentors, Matt Browning and Terry Franson, Holm decided to start a student club called Free the Captives.

The club held events on campus to share information about trafficking and connected students with resources to help fight it. Although it started with just 10 people, by the time Holm graduated, Free the Captives was the second largest club on campus. “We had connections with the Orange County Human Trafficking Task Force, the International Justice Mission, and A21, large nonprofits that gave students tangible ways to help,” Holm said. “I was proud of how authentic the club was. We had kids who genuinely wanted to make a difference.”

Holm competed in APU’s incubator program, ZuVenturez. He and a friend created an idea for a jewelry business and pitched it to a panel of judges, in a format similar to Shark Tank. Although they earned second place with a prize of $5,000, the business failed to take off. After the competition, they pitched their company to real world investors, but were met with rejection. “We had people pick apart our business plan right in front of us,” he said. “It hurt, but I learned from it. Hearing no was super helpful for the future when I started my next business.”

After graduating, Holm made a bold decision to sell his most valuable possession—his car—to buy a plane ticket to visit his biological mother in Korea. He spent two weeks with her for the first time in 16 years.

“It was always on my heart to reconnect with her,” he said. “We spent so long apart, but when we were together, that mom-son connection felt so natural. She means the world to me.”

On his trip to Korea, Holm discovered his love for fashion, inspired by clothing from different cultures, and decided to become a designer. “Fashion appealed to me because it’s a powerful platform, a straight line into culture, impacting industries from entertainment to sports,” he said. When Holm returned to California, he found an internship in downtown Los Angeles. “A designer took me under his wing and taught me what he knew. He couldn’t pay me, but made up for it in the knowledge he imparted,’” Holm said. “Working with him was a lightbulb moment for me because I knew this is what I was called to do.” He learned the technicalities of garment making, the cut-and-sew process, and how to run a business from a production standpoint, all while working multiple jobs on the side to support himself. “I’ve always prided myself on my work ethic. I believe hard work brings opportunity.”

Despite his industriousness, Holm faced financial challenges. He decided to live in a friend’s converted van to save money on rent. “I slept in that van for six months. It wasn’t fun,” he said. “But I was so passionate about where I envisioned myself that even if I was uncomfortable for six months, I was determined to pursue what I was meant to do by any means.”

When the Covid-19 pandemic hit, Holm faced a new challenge, losing his jobs in retail. Instead of being downtrodden, Holm saw an opportunity after finding out that hospitals across LA were in massive need of personal protective equipment (PPE). He began going from one hospital to another, meeting with purchasing departments to see if he could create PPE for them. “I got lucky one day and met with a vice president of medical supplies for a vast number of Southern California hospitals. He gave me five minutes to make a pitch,” Holm said. “He asked me to come back the next day with a sample.” Holm scrambled and went to The Home Depot to buy materials and the PPE garment he created was met with approval. “I went from a 26-year-old who was just trying to wing it to receiving the biggest purchase order of my life.” Holm hired a team of sewers and worked for the next six months to create more than 100,000 units of PPE, helping protect the hospital workers and people of LA.

With the money he received, Holm decided to invest in his dream of starting his own fashion company. He launched Castles & Queens in 2021. “Castles & Queens is a contemporary luxury brand that taps into our West Coast DNA. I want people to feel powerful, confident, and capable when they wear our clothes,” he said. “I’m good at spotting trends. I see in visuals and bring them to life.” All of the brand’s clothing is made by hand in LA. In the three years after opening, Holm produced five collections. His designs caught the eyes of people high up in the industry. In the company’s second year, they were invited to New York Fashion Week. Castles & Queens was covered by Vogue and NYLON as one of the top 12 emerging brands. After experiencing success in New York and Milan, Holm landed his first luxury retail account, Wolf & Badger, and was featured in Forbes “30 Under 30: Arts and Style.”

“It’s an awesome journey to see this brand I built get recognition and continue to grow. I want to have a positive impact on the world through Castles & Queens.”

Although he has experienced massive success in the last three years, Holm is still the only full-time employee of Castle & Queens. He hires part-time sewers that produce the clothing in each collection, but Holm comes up with every design and does all the marketing for the brand. In the future, Holm aspires to build a team, to land in more retailers across the world, to open his own storefronts, and to honor his Korean and Caymanian heritage through his designs. He also hopes to represent LA well, since the city hasn’t traditionally been known for luxury apparel, as he competes at the highest level in the fashion capitals of the world. “Our pieces are luxurious, made with extreme attention to detail and high quality fabrics. I recognize that not everyone will want to spend money on them,” he said. “Some of the most positive feedback I’ve received is from people who don’t buy our pieces, but feel like they’re a part of our world. They’re inspired by the brand and identify with our message.”

As Holm grows his company, he stays rooted in his faith. He became a Christian after being adopted and has a close relationship with Christ. “From a young age, God has given me visions of my life, but it’s always a glimpse of what it can be, and never how I’m going to get there,” he said. “As I’ve walked through challenging moments of my life, I trusted God and pushed through. Making it to where I am now shows that God is the realest thing in the world to me.” Holm lives out his faith every day as a leader and entrepreneur. Each decision he makes in his business is based on his values. Although entrepreneurial success drives him, Holm has not forgotten his roots and his passions he discovered while a student at APU. “One of the biggest reasons I hope to be successful is to start a nonprofit one day that helps my community, whether it focuses on human trafficking, helping foster children, or other societal issues,” he said. “As we grow as a brand and create a bigger platform, it provides an opportunity to pour into issues that really matter and spread a powerful message.”

Nathan Foster '20 is APU's public relations manager in the Division of Strategic Communication and Engagement.