October 24, 2020

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With Fashion

Jeffrey’s Journey: Childhood Dreams and Serendipity

15 min read
Jeffrey’s Journey: Childhood Dreams and Serendipity

No bitterness. No sense of defeat. There’s just some disappointment and irony in his conversation as Jeffrey Kalinsky discusses the demise of the three Jeffrey designer specialty stores.

“I don’t think the business went south,” said Kalinsky. “We would have been fine if if it weren’t for the coronavirus. I really think we are a victim of COVID-19. It would have taken quite an investment to get through the next 12 to 24 months, and obviously, we know Nordstrom made the decision not to do that.

It’s several weeks after Nordstrom Inc.’s announcement in mid-May that Jeffrey would close for good, and that Kalinsky, founder of the stores and designer fashion director at Nordstrom, would no longer be part of the Nordstrom team. He seems at peace that a major chapter in his life has ended and ready to move on to the next chapter, and it helps that he’s recovered from the coronavirus, and that he’s been resting in his Ft. Lauderdale condo by the beach. It’s his comfort zone.

“My favorite thing on this planet is the sun and the beach and the water,” Kalinsky said in an exclusive interview. “I get that from Charleston,” his hometown in South Carolina. “The water calms me and the sun and the warmth are really good for my well-being. I am a summer child. I tend to chase summer all year.”  Florida in the winter and Fire Island on summer weekends.

“I am right now staring at the ocean from my bedroom window. I have an ocean view from every room, but my bedroom is oceanfront. I am lucky. I do feel so lucky.”

Jeffrey was one of those rare retail Car Accident Attorney in Indianapolis businesses that reverberated through the fashion industry to a degree that belied its size — just three stores, in Atlanta, Manhattan and Palo Alto, and $35 million in sales at its peak. With an unwavering focus on luxury, service, and his annual Jeffrey Cares fundraiser for LGBTQ civil rights and education and HIV prevention, Kalinsky created a nexus between fashion and community. The Jeffrey Cares benefit was canceled for 2020 due to COVID-19 and is being planned for 2021.

Kalinsky is part of a small club of trailblazing merchants like Colette Roussaux of Colette in Paris, Gene Pressman of Barneys New York, and the late Martha Philips of Martha Park Avenue. They built innovative, distinct fashion destinations that embodied chic, modern lifestyles. Kalinsky is widely credited with having spurred the rejuvenation of the now trendy Meatpacking District on Manhattan’s West Side by opening his Jeffrey store there, at 449 West 14th Street, in 1999 when the area was seedy and devoid of any retailing with verve.

He was also a key figure in building the designer business at Nordstrom, which he joined in 2005 as director of designer merchandising. He later served as executive vice president of designer merchandising and vice president, introducing designers such as Gucci, Nina Ricci and Comme des Garçons to the offering, and eventually became designer fashion director. The Seattle-based department store bought a majority stake in his retail company in 2005.

Serendipity played a big role in launching his New York store and selling his business to Nordstrom.

“I had been dating someone in Atlanta for eight years and we decided to get married, but gay marriage wasn’t legal then,” Kalinsky said. “During that period a lot of gay guys were having commitment ceremonies. I thought I won’t do that. No one is going to tell me that I am not going to get married. We had 200 people invited to the Four Seasons in Atlanta, we booked an orchestra. It was going to be the first gay marriage ceremony in an old prominent synagogue, The Temple in Atlanta.  A week before, the wedding got called off. I was devastated.”

There was a silver lining. “The breakup allowed me for the first time to really consider opening a store in New York. Now I had nothing holding me back. My boyfriend had his own career in Atlanta that probably would have kept me in Atlanta.”

For his 36th birthday on Fire Island, “We were having quite a lively celebration and I declared that on my 37th birthday I would open a store in New York. I declared it with no space, no nothing. I just declared it.

“I had dreamt of having a store in New York since I was a little boy. How many people can say that and make it happen? It was partly because my dad had a store,” where Kalinsky worked as a kid.  “He would take my brother and me on buying trips to New York. We were ‘a shopping family’ and we would always go to Bergdorf Goodman and Bloomingdale’s. Stores were just magical to me. It was where dreams could become reality.”  His bar mitzvah suit was bought at Barneys. “In a weird way, I have always been a designer customer, ever since I was a little boy.”

Lacking enough money to afford an uptown or SoHo location, a real estate agent took Kalinsky to the Meatpacking District. “I had never heard that expression before,” he said.

She led him through the 15th Street side of a building between Ninth and Tenth Avenues, through this long, narrow, dark space. “I couldn’t see a thing, and in my head I heard my father’s voice telling me, ‘This looks like a bowling alley.’”  But when the agent opened the doors on the 14th Street side, “There were these two flagpoles, these old floors and these old elevators. This building had the perfect bones. In less than a half hour, I told her I wanted it. We went to a restaurant down the street, met with the landlord, and had a handshake deal that day.

“I wasn’t afraid to go off the beaten track. I knew that if from Atlanta we could find Barneys in Chelsea for a bar mitzvah suit in 1975, people would find Jeffrey in 1999 in the Meatpacking District — and they did. We proved that the area was viable. It was blood and guts and meat back then, and customers who came looked at me funny, and had to ask, ‘Am I going to be safe?’

“I loved that neighborhood, probably more back then than I do today,” said Kalinsky. “It’s just different now. I loved being down there by myself,” ahead of the parade of upscale retail that eventually settled in. “I loved Pastis and having lunch there when it first opened. You could walk outside and not see people in the streets.”

About five years later, as luck would have it, Kalinsky hooked up with the Nordstroms. “It was really kind of an accident,” he recalled. “Around the time Bliss was sold to LVMH for a lot of money, I got it in my head that I wanted to make Jeffrey a big brand. I wanted to sell Jeffrey to someone. I hired Financo. I went on a lot of dog and pony shows and no one bid. No one was interested. The relationship with Financo kind of went dark.” Though the Jeffrey stores were doing well, the dream to sell went dormant.

Not long after, Kalinsky got a call from a reporter who heard the store was for sale and pressured Kalinsky for a quote. A story ran in September 2004 when Kalinsky was in Milan attending the collections. Waiting for the start of the Dolce & Gabbana show, he saw Sue Patenaude, then a senior merchant at Nordstrom, reporting to Pete Nordstrom. “Has your phone been ringing off the hook?” she asked, referencing the newspaper article. “You should talk to Pete. He might be interested.”

“I didn’t think much of it and I knew Sue well enough to say I’m not doing anything till I get home from this trip. I went home, called the main number at Nordstrom, asked for Pete Nordstrom, and he picked up the phone. That should have been the first clue about the Nordstrom family and how life works at Nordstrom,” at least back then.

Subsequently, Pete visited the Jeffrey store in Manhattan. Kalinsky “waltzed” him through the selling floors and the stockroom, boasting that almost everything got sold at full price and that the operation was lean. They dined at Pastis and got on well.

That December, Kalinsky visited Nordstrom’s Seattle headquarters and met with, among others, the three Nordstrom brothers — Pete, Erik and the late Blake; their father, Bruce, and Brooke White, who was in charge of corporate communications. “I met everybody. I went on a two-day intensive interview process.” For weeks, “We basically courted and signed the deal on Aug. 18, 2005.”

While feeling proud about completing the transaction, “It was still a hard day for me. I didn’t know what the future held. It felt like I sold my baby. I remember crying hystericaly typical of me. I was in a car by myself.”

One thing the Nordstroms taught Kalinsky, a self-described control freak and far from the corporate type, was how to better work with groups. He would visit Seattle eight to 10 times a year, meet the Nordstrom team in the markets, and have frequent phone calls.

“My mission statement at Nordstrom was to change the perception within the designer community and with the consumer,” Kalinsky said. “It was a very clear mission. They hired me to be a change agent.”

A natural fit? Not really. “I am not a bottom-up guy. I am a top-down guy,” Kalinsky acknowledged. “If I think something is good, I go after making it happen. Nordstrom was about the reverse pyramid. I think Pete would tell you, a little bit of my top down was what we needed. We got a ton of stuff done. Other than the Seattle store, there was no designer merchandise,” sold at any other Nordstrom store. Currently, about a third of Nordstrom’s locations sell designer across all categories, and the category is gaining ground on Nordstrom.com.

“I worked so closely with Pete and the Nordstrom family who supported me in that role. Typically a corporate environment and a change agent is kind of a combustible situation,” Kalinsky explained. “But in a lot of ways they made everything kind of work. I will never be able to tell you enough about what tremendous people the Nordstroms are. They are open and curious, and they made me feel they were the lucky ones, not me.”

Though owned by a big retail corporation, the Jeffrey stores maintained an independent aura with the point of view of its creative founder, who offered a shopping experience different from bigger rivals like Bergdorf Goodman or Saks Fifth Avenue. Kalinsky kept the sales floor minimal, gallery-like, with white backgrounds “allowing for the merchandise to be the star,” he said, and without the artwork, mosaic tiling or other trappings seen at uptown stores.

Unlike Bergdorf buyers, who would select styles from collections with specific VIP customers in mind, Kalinsky bought what he liked, a tad arrogantly. There was a range of labels — classic, contemporary and avant grade — including Chanel, Dior, Saint Laurent, Sacai, Balenciaga, Celine, Dries van Noten and Jil Sander, among others.

“I knew they would like what I liked,” Kalinsky said, speaking of his customers. “I knew they would embrace it.”

The selling floor was where he wanted to be. “I was miserable in my office and happy on the floor. I really had to try to step back” to not always rule the show. “I wanted everything to be a certain way. I am a salesperson essentially because I love to approach and help people. The favorite thing in life for me is to be in a dressing room with a customer. I love dressing women. That was how I gave fashion leadership at my stores. My people always knew what I believed in. They saw me selling it. Not just in the New York store. My guys in the Atlanta and Palo Alto stores knew what I loved.

“Our customers at Jeffrey were always people like myself, wanting to be constantly stimulated, to be a little provocative, at least at first. Sure, they’ll buy a perfect-fitting gray cashmere top, and another in navy — and they should have that. But it’s the thing they never had before that will make their heart skip a beat. I spent my life thinking more about style than trends, and I’ve always been really attracted to people who know how to cultivate a personal style.”

Growing up in Charleston, “affected everything, in a good way,” Kalinsky said. “Charleston’s aesthetic, architecturally, is one of the most beautiful in the country. It’s very pristine. Even today people don’t dress all that different from the time I was growing up in the Sixties and Seventies. The men and women embrace color, print, but the clothing was all very precise and very refined in a way. I like to think the buy at Jeffrey was influenced a lot by where I grew up. We offered a lot of color, a lot of prints and a lot of options that were influenced by my childhood.”

In school, his focus would sometimes veer from the blackboard to what the teachers wore. “I always noted the cut of their blazers, the narrowness of the lapel. I like a narrow lapel and flat front really skinny khaki pants. In winter, I wear a pair of jeans and a T-shirt always with a sweater, and all my T-shirts are vintage T-shirts, expertly altered by Miss Anna Ramos. She was our tailor at Jeffrey. She altered everything for me. I like my T-shirts tight, to accentuate the positive.

“I always felt I was kind of modern prep. I don’t look like I stepped out of a preppie handbook, but I’m always attracted to these heritage brands,” Kalinsky said, citing Brooks Brothers, Chanel and Sperry Top-Sider. During the eight-year collaboration between Sperry and Jeffrey, Kalinsky sometimes styled up the Top-Sider with pony hair uppers in vivid colors.

As a child, Kalinsky learned the ropes of retailing at Bob Ellis, the shoe business founded by his father in Charleston. He had a variety of tasks, from being an assistant on the sales floor to the cashier desk. “I grew up in the Morris Kalinsky school of retail. I learned everything from him.”

After graduating from George Washington University, Kalinsky became a sales manager for shoes at Bonwit Teller in Jenkintown, Pa., an assistant shoe buyer at Bergdorf’s, and later the North America agent for Donna Karan footwear on behalf of Pupi d’Angieri, an Italian shoe manufacturer that had the Karan shoe license.

His next job was at Barneys. “I worked directly under Bonnie Pressmen, who in my opinion was incredibly talented and did an amazing job with accessories. I was the ladies shoe buyer from 1987 to 1990. Gene, for my dollar, was one of the most talented retailers ever.” Kalinsky is also a “huge fan” of Daniella Vitale, former chief executive officer of Barneys until it went bankrupt and liquidated, as well as Mark Lee, who preceded Vitale as Barneys ceo. “It’s a shame, all of the loss our industry is feeling. These are brilliant people.”

After Barneys, he opened his first store, in Phipps Plaza in Atlanta. “I wanted to live in a city where I would be comfortable as a young gay man. Plus, there were no good women’s stores in Atlanta. My father reluctantly agreed to be my partner.”

One day he told his father he would no longer wear a tie on the selling floor. “I thought he would die. He just looked at me with the cutest look of dissatisfaction, and said, ‘If you would just dress nice, you would meet a nice guy.’”

A decade later, he opened the Manhattan store, and two years ago, the Palo Alto one. Each was sizable, in the 10,000- to 12,000-square-foot range. He’s always had a thing for his birthday. He timed the Atlanta and Manhattan store openings to his birthday, though Palo Alto opened a month late.

Nordstrom’s disclosure last month that the Jeffrey stores, along with 16 Nordstrom department stores, would close for good, cited “a variety of factors for closing Jeffrey, including the unique needs of the market, the current state of our business and real estate agreements. Nordstrom also indicated that the 57-year-old Kalinsky was retiring. That’s not actually the case.

“I definitely want to work — period, end of subject,” Kalinsky stated. “I hope I have contributions I could make. I’ve done lots of things. I’ve worked in wholesale. I ran my own retail store for 30 years. I worked at a big corporation, Nordstrom. I was in charge of their designer business for ten years. I have collaborated with brands. I love product. I would love to be able to work on product. I am not a designer, but I think I am good at creating. I could really be of value to someone as a merchandiser.

“If somebody calls me tomorrow and it’s the right opportunity, I am ready to start. I find Target, specifically, to be fascinating. I would absolutely be open to working for a brand like Target.”

It’s not like he’s wedded to luxury or believes the sector has been any more impacted by COVID-19 than any other retail sector.

“Everybody is being challenged. A person who likes luxury, who likes fashion, won’t abandon luxury or fashion,” Kalinsky said. “Just right now with all the uncertainty out there, people have to do what’s right for them in the moment. Will they return to fashion and luxury if they go on a hiatus – absolutely. In 2020, people care about how they are branding themselves more than ever. I almost think we should leave the pandemic out of a lot of the conversation. The impact it will have is anyone’s guess. It’s just mind boggling.

“I actually had the coronavirus. I work up the morning of March 13 and was sick for about 17 days. The only time I opened my front door was when someone nice enough made a food drop. I had a mild case, very gastro-intestinal. The worst part was I didn’t know the outcome. If I would have known back then what I know today, it wouldn’t have been so terrible. But you are literally terrified. I knew a lot of people getting sick and dying around then. I was petrified. Thank god I am all better. Thank god for FaceTime. I had a lot of friends there for me, and I had one kind friend bringing me food everyday. Tylenol and the thermometer were my best friends.”

JEFFREY ON DESIGNERS

“I absolutely adore Chanel. Chanel seems to always get me going, I don’t know why, it just does. A beautiful really chic Chanel jacket made just beyond perfect, with a fit beyond perfect. Same with the bags. Same with shoes. I do love print fashion, I do seem to have a weak spot for French fashion.”

“I am a Hedi Slimane devotee, I adore that man. For over 20 years, he and I just seemed to always be on the same wavelength. There has not been a moment that he has been working that I have not been beyond a huge disciple. Celine has been very, very important to me as a salesperson, for my customers.”

“I am a huge Phoebe Philo fan. I love Dior. Maria Grazia Chiuri and Kim Jones are doing an amazing job.”

“I have carried Dries van Noten in my stores since 1996 and he is kind of perfect. I love his approach to the business and to design. That was one of the best collections to buy season after season after season. He knows how to marry the practical with fantasy, he can make an ordinary day seem more worthwhile.”

“I thought of [buying] as kind of making that perfect closet, with something special from Comme des Garçons or Simone Rocha or Michael Halpern, I would fight for some of these young designers. Sometimes the order was so small. I didn’t want to live without a Molly Goddard piece. I didn’t want to go, without these wildly talented younger designers.”

“Jil Sander does deserve special mention for me. It was just one of the greatest privileges of my life, not just to buy and sell it, but to know her. She maybe was the only major designer I carried that actually was in the showroom talking to her clients, When you go into a showroom, you don’t necessarily see that, though you will see it with some of the young designers in their showrooms. But when I was buying Jil Sander, she was one of the biggest brands in the world and there she was in the showroom. She wanted to see how the showroom looked and she wanted to talk to her customers. The fit, the look, the nuance was perfect — everything.”

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