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How Nordstrom's Olivia Kim Carved Her Own Path in Fashion

A self-proclaimed science nerd and Opening Ceremony veteran, Olivia Kim is helping Nordstrom rethink the store experience as its very first director of creative projects.
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In our long-running series, "How I'm Making It," we talk to people making a living in the fashion industry about how they broke in and found success.

As you've hopefully learned from reading this website, there are a lot of different kinds of jobs in fashion, and a lot of different paths to getting them. But there are also jobs that special people create for themselves. One of those special people is Olivia Kim.

Kim is perhaps best known for her awesome style, bleach blonde hair, energetic personality and, more significantly, for being Carol Lim and Humberto Leon's number one girl at Opening Ceremony for 10 years.

Now, the New York native, whom Vogue has called the "rock star" of buyers, has moved across the country to Seattle -- nearly 3,000 miles away from her family, boyfriend, dog and "the best city in the world" -- to work as director of creative projects (a position that was created for her) at Nordstrom. There, she's launched "Pop-In@Nordstrom," a series of themed monthly shop-in-shops that she curates, to live in select stores and online -- the latest has a holiday theme and is live now

We chatted with Kim during one of her many trips to New York about what her new job entails, how she's gotten two companies to create jobs for her, and how she's settling into the not-so-fashion-centric Pacific Northwest.

"I went to NYU. I was pre-med and I’ve always loved science. I love fixing things and making things better and I’m a good problem solver so I always thought that I was going to be a doctor.

Med students are so tirelessly competitive. Nobody wanted to study together or share notes or anything, I’d be like, 'Do you want to study?' and they’d be like, 'No.' So I felt like that wasn’t really the right thing for me but I graduated with a biology degree and my first real job was at Laforce + Stevens, I was doing fashion PR.  It wasn’t exactly for me. I don’t love the idea of PR because I don’t love the idea of there’s no end in sight. I love the idea of starting a project then finishing it then seeing it -- the tangibility of it and then moving onto the next thing, so I was consulting and doing some small projects here and there and I met Carol and Humberto. Humberto and I had met through a mutual friend, he had just moved to New York from San Francisco and we were instant friends and he was working at Burberry at the time, so I probably met him in 2001 and they started Opening Ceremony in 2002 and he came up to me and said, 'Do you want to come work for us?' And I said, "Doing what?" And he was like, 'You’ll just hang out and we’ll sell some clothes.'

I had never worked in retail before and I was like, that sounds like fun, and for the first three years it was just the three of us and it was such an amazing experience because when you’re starting something, there’s no rules, there's no playbook, there’s nobody saying this is how you’ve got to do it. We were just kind of figuring it out as we went along, so in the beginning I did everything from buying and merchandising the store and painting and taking out the garbage and ringing out sales and then from there, we started making a collection, then we started wholesaling it, then we started representing other brands and then we opened another store in L.A. and then a third store at the Ace Hotel and it’s grown into this much bigger thing. I was there for 10 years and that experience, it really shaped me, it’s sort of like growing up with your best friends, we traveled together, our families traveled together, we were always together and yet you’re doing something you believe in and it’s so much a part of you. Our own DNA was mixed in there, it was just really, really special and it was at the right time. In the early 2000s, there was so much energy in New York.

One of the most important things I learned from both Humberto and Carol is that perfect doesn’t always have to be exactly what you think it is in your head, so you have to be able to adapt and move and move quickly and react quickly so that you can always progress because progress doesn’t mean that everything you put out is 100 percent perfect. You can learn so much from something that’s 80 percent of what you thought it could be and then make it better the next time.

I’ve known Jeffrey Kalinsky for quite a while and he was our EVP of designer merchandising (now he's VP, Designer Fashion Director) at Nordstrom and so he had come up to me and he said, 'Hey I think you should meet Pete Nordstrom,' and I said, 'Why?' and he was like, 'He’s a really good guy you should know him, and so I said sure we’ll meet, so when he was in town we met and I was so taken aback by this guy, the president of merchandising at Nordstrom. He just kept talking about all of the things they needed to do better, he just kept talking about how we’re not good at this, we want to improve on this, and I think that was really impressive for somebody to say, 'Nice to meet you, here are all the things that we want to work on,' and I kind of sat with that for a little bit and we kept talking and exchanging ideas and he finally said to me, 'Do you want to come work for us?' and I said, 'Doing what?' and he said, 'I don’t know,' and I thought that was really visionary of someone like him to be interested in someone like me.

I’d never worked for a corporate company and he was just like, we really appreciate your energy and the things that you can bring to a retail environment and we want to make our stores more engaging, we want to attract new customers, we want to feel relevant, those are important factors and we feel like you can help us. How could you say no to something like that? To have access to a corporate company... it’s a big company but to have an entrepreneurial scrappy project within the walls of that just felt really exciting for me.

I think that I pay attention to a lot of things that are happening around me and I'm not just interested in fashion, I studied medicine, I’m really interested in science, I’m really interested in the ocean and outer space and I have a lot of friends who talk about things other than fashion and I think that’s important to have lots of different perspectives, to surround yourself by awesome people that are inspirational and aspirational and they’re doing other things that are exciting. I travel a lot and I’m really curious about everything.

I’m from New York, I grew up here, all my friends are here, my family’s here, my partner’s here, my dog. My whole life is here, and that was one of the first things I said to Pete is, 'Do I have to move to Seattle?' And he said he thought that was really important and I totally agree now looking in hindsight. Having that face time with people and to be able to connect with them on a level that’s more than just over email. But that was the hardest transition. To tell you the truth, I think I was in denial until two weeks before I was actually leaving. It was almost because I didn’t want to hear anyone’s opinion about it. I had made up my mind and in my head, I was like, this is not permanent, this is not permanent, I can always come back.

But then there was something exciting about it, it kind of felt a little, and this sounds a little like a cliché, but it felt like being a pioneer, like no one I’d ever known had been to Seattle, and I was like, I’m the first one, it’s going to be like my city, it’s going to be my thing. I’m going to find my favorite coffee; I’m going to find my favorite store; I’m going to shop at my favorite vintage and be able to share that with other people and part of that felt exciting. 

When I moved to Seattle, I had this panic attack so I sold everything I owned in New York. I sold all my clothes for a dollar; I sold all my furniture for like two for a dollar. It was just a really good time to get rid of everything and start new, so I just bought a house in Queen Anne, a 1918 craftsman. I’m starting to get settled and come to this realization that I’m happy there, I have my favorite coffee, I have my favorite restaurants, I have my favorite bookstore. People recognize you and that’s nice, that’s one of the things that I really miss about New York is the familiarity.

Me joining Nordstrom was a new role that was created for me and Director of Creative Projects was -- we left it pretty loose, so it’s been coming up with fun things that are engaging to our customers, so I work on a curated series of pop-up shops called Pop-In@Nordstrom and every month there’s a new theme and we bring in anywhere from 10-100 new designers and then we have a unique space that we build and a unique website and then after four weeks it comes down and the next one goes up.

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My day-to-day is a little crazy. My team is really, really small, which I like. It’s really important to me that not everything has to be a big production, it can feel very guerrilla and very true pop-up. I spend a lot of time with my buying team, we spend a lot of time looking for new things, collaborating with designers, coming up with special products just for us and I work with my creative team to see what does the website look like, what are some cool functionalities that we can do on the website: Can we do videos instead of flat product shots? Can we have a video game? How do we interact? How do we engage our customers? I spend a lot of time in meetings, that’s kind of the worst part. 

I’ve learned so much about strategy and business and that kind of stuff, and I’m really, really lucky that I get to spend time with people who are really experts at those things. I think the funnest parts of my day are in partnership with the different parts of my team. A lot of them have been there for a really long time and they’re excited about the fact that there’s some kind of rejuvenation and there’s something cool and hip and different happening and so it’s just a lot of sharing and moving; I never sit still.

I’m so nervous I’m gonna run out of ideas, sometimes I’m just blank, there’s nothing, I’m out of ideas and then all of a sudden I’ll have six at a time and I get excited about trying to get all six of them done at the same time.

I don’t ever really get afraid that I won’t come up with anything because I feel like there’s so much happening all the time and I’m also really inspired by other people and what they’re doing. One of the shops we did last time was based around social responsibility because I had so many friends and friends of friends who were doing really cool stuff that I wanted to talk about. So often times I’m dictated by what people present back to me. I get emails from people all day long that are like, look at my stuff. I look at everything in my email, it’s amazing what people will send you and some of the stuff is the most crazy wackadoodle thing you’ve ever seen and some of it you’re like, wow this is an amazing story, she’s doing an amazing thing. I often will just bounce off of something like that.

We’re working on one for holiday and holiday is my favorite one every year because the theme is really about what do you get people that already have everything, and so it can be the biggest hodgepodge of things. We’ve got things that start at $3 up to something that’s $26,000.  It’s an exclusive watch with a Rolex we did with Bamford. 

Sixty percent [of the Pop-In product] is my selfishly wanting to put it in the shop because I love it so much and I think that a lot of the designers get really excited by the enthusiasm that I have for the product, it gets them really excited about partnering with us. And then 40 percent is my buying team being like, that’s too weird or that’s too expensive or no one’s going to get that or we can’t sell anything like that, we can’t sell live animals. I’m like, let’s sell gerbils, gerbils are so cute, those are the best pets for Christmas, everybody wants a gerbil.

It’s maybe even 70/30. It’s so much about my personal taste. I just want to be able to share that and I think I’m so lucky that Nordstrom gives me the platform to do that. And again, sometimes they’re wins and sometimes they’re huge misses and I think that’s part of it and I think that people will get it and sometimes people will get offended by things and that’s ok too, we want to be engaging, we want people talking about us and we want them to be excited.

Because I’m running around so much, I really like to be comfortable and I don’t think comfort has to come at the sacrifice of looking good. I’m always wearing sneakers or flats or Doc Martens or Nikes and then I kind of wear a big poofy skirt all the time and I really like supporting young designers, but I don't think about it that much,  I know that sounds pretty typical but I think if I thought about it too much it wouldn’t seem very authentic. I also think it’s important to know what looks good on you and what doesn’t and if you can carry it and pull it off. As I’m getting older I’m becoming more conscious about what’s age appropriate and I get very offended when people are wearing un-age-appropriate clothing. 

People have asked, do you wear less color, do you try to tone it down, but I don’t at all. I've stayed pretty true to being me. If anything, I feel like when I’m in New York, I like to wear things that are more typically Seattle, like taking a fleece and mixing that with a Simone Rocha skirt. I like mixing that Pacific Northwest vibe in with my wackadoodle New York/London thing.

I’m really lucky my job is really fun. I have a really amazing job, but there are challenges. I find one of my biggest challenges is navigating through a big company, so having to deal with trying to get things done quickly. Big companies move slowly so trying to steer a really, really big ship happens slowly. Another challenge is having to retell a message to lots of different organizations within your company, so I have to simplify that message for people who may not understand, who may not know what Opening Ceremony is, who may not know what Colette is, who may not understand what a pop-up shop is, or don’t understand this idea of emerging designer fashion, so how do you simplify that message and tell people why it’s important to gain new customers, why it's important to be relevant to a millennial or why we need to be more content-driven and editorial-driven, why the website shouldn’t only be transactional but it needs to be a place where people feel they’re being educated and being inspired by something. Trying to explain all of that in a way that's universally understandable, so that I don’t have to retell that message over and over and over again, that’s been the challenge.

You take that for granted coming from New York. Things that happen in New York are so unique to New York. You can bump into somebody that you haven’t seen in a couple of years and in just five minutes you can catch up with them and then all of a sudden they’re telling you about a project they’re working on and those collaborations are very organic and it doesn’t happen anywhere else. I think that’s one of the biggest things I miss about New York.

It’s really great that part of my job is they understand I need to travel and I need to see new things and I need to have these kinds of experiences.

I love what I’m doing right now, I think it’s amazing and I see it growing into something bigger for the company and one of the things we talked about with engaging new customers is how we engage that younger millennial customer and Pop-In isn’t necessarily about that, but that is something we’re interested in, so I could see shifting gears and doing something like that.

I’m really enamored with Seattle right now, so I love the idea of opening a little store there, something that incorporates a food thing and then a little bit of a fashion retail thing. I feel like that could do really well, like books and cactuses and ceramics, but there's nothing concrete.

I think you have to be dedicated to working hard. Being surrounded by amazing people who inspire you and finding somebody that has a job that you want and asking them lots of questions and shadowing them. Really understand what the day to day is like and just be curious. I think the Internet has made everybody know everything, but you have to get out there, you have to go and look at clothing up close, you have to go to the stores, you have to taste the food. You can see all that stuff on the Internet but without experiencing it in real life...I always say you can’t smell a store through the computer. You can’t get that vibe of what’s really happening unless you go out there.

Understand that you’re not always going to be right. I make so many mistakes and I’m not afraid to say, you know what, I made a mistake and I’m going to learn from it and I’m going to move on. You’re not always going to nail it the first time."

This interview has been edited and condensed.