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How Jeffrey Kalinsky Is Competing in a Changing Retail Landscape

The Jeffrey boutiques founder, who also serves as Nordstrom's vice president and designer fashion director, tells us how he built his business and what's next.
Jeffrey Kalinsky. Photo: Nordstrom

Jeffrey Kalinsky. Photo: Nordstrom

"That is the ad we ran in the New York Times when we opened," said Jeffrey Kalinsky, pointing to a framed black and white photo of himself as a small child, now hanging in his Meatpacking District offices above the namesake boutique he opened in 1999. "I was cutting a ribbon on my father’s grand opening for a renovation he did." 

Kalinsky's storied career in retail began, somewhat reluctantly, with his family business, a shoe store in his hometown of Charleston, S.C. Years later, after important stints in the buying departments of Bergdorf Goodman and Barneys, he would become a retail pioneer — first by bringing high fashion to Atlanta, where he opened the first Jil Sander store and then his first namesake boutique; and then in New York, where he opened his second location in the Meatpacking District, back when meat was still being packed there.

Since then, he's sold most of his business to Nordstrom and become the Seattle-based retailer's fashion guru, in addition to building a well-known and successful charity (Jeffrey Fashion Cares). He's done all this while operating and doing all the buying for his New York boutique, which now must worker harder to compete in an ever more crowded and diversified retail landscape.

Was retail something you always wanted to do?

I wanted to be an actor, but I don’t think I was good enough. No one said, ‘You’re really good, you ought to do this this or this.’ In college, I loved the family business but I hated working in the store when I was a kid. My father used to try to force me and I just wasn’t having it, but in college I needed to make extra money and I found myself selling shoes in shoe stores and really enjoying it. My parents wanted me to be a lawyer so they pushed me. I was in D.C. my last two years of college and they pushed me into doing whatever kids do when they work for a U.S. senator.

Like an internship?

Sort of like an internship. I did one for Collings who was the U.S. senator for South Carolina and I didn’t like that, but I sold shoes and I was good at it and when I graduated I had no idea what I wanted to do, and probably the things that I wanted to do I was scared to do. I’ll be honest with you, I was gay but I didn’t still understand everything. I didn’t want everybody to know I was gay, I kind of wanted to go to design school, but that’s not that the perfect place if you’re a closet case. It was a weird time.

My parents insisted I get a job and the day after graduation I flew to New York and got hired by Heerman Delman — they operated the shoe departments at all these places back in the day, so they used to have the lease at Bergdorf Goodman, and there was a department store you’re way too young to remember call Bonwit Teller. I got hired to be the sales manager at Bonwit Teller in suburban Philadelphia. I liked it and I did well and they promoted me to assistant shoe buyer at Bergdorf Goodman and I liked that, but I wasn’t making any money and I was living in New York, so then I got hired by an Italian man who had gotten the licenses for Donna Karan footwear when Donna Karan was launching her own signature ready-to-wear line and she was the most important, influential designer probably in the world at that point. It was like ‘86. It was really interesting both at Bergdorfs and with Donna to understand the relationship between shoes and ready-to-wear, and I hadn’t had a lot of exposure to ready-to-wear. I was the U.S. agent, so I sold to all the wholesale accounts across the country, so I went to all these Nordstrom stores and Neiman Marcus. There were all these businesses I got to learn about.

Barneys was one of my accounts and I got offered the ladies shoe buyer job at Barneys by Bonnie Pressman in 1988 and at the same time I got offered the buying job at Bergdorf Goodman, and I knew I wanted to do Barneys. I thought that it was exciting and it was downtown and it was cool and I could learn a lot and I could contribute a lot, whereas Bergdorfs was this big thing. 

I actually wanted to do more there and I got pigeonholed into shoes. I decided that I was going to open my own shoe store. I kind of looked at the East Coast and was like, Boston’s too cold; I went to school in Washington and didn’t really like that; Florida is too resort-driven, and Atlanta... I’m from Charleston; Atlanta is close to Charleston. My father has tons of people driving from Atlanta to Charleston to buy their shoes. I decided to move to Atlanta and open a branch of my family shoe store. I loved buying and I loved selling and I think I liked selling even more than buying. I loved connecting to people and it was so great, I can’t tell you. It was probably the greatest time in my life professionally.

Were you selling high-end designers? When did you move into ready-to-wear?

We opened with a full price range, but at the time we had the very best shoes in the world. We had Manolo Blahnik, this is 1990 and no one really carried Blahnik then. We opened with Prada shoes and bags; no one carried Prada. I got bored and I decided I wanted to sell ready-to-wear and I believed in Prada so much. I loved selling the shoes and I loved selling the bags and they were doing clothes and nobody was carrying the clothes and I thought I should do the world of Prada, so I started working on that. I ended up talking to [former Prada Americas CEO] Patrizio di Marco on the phone and trying to convince him and he said, ‘What else are you going to sell?’ And I hadn’t even thought I needed anything else. I contacted Mark Lee and he was the president of Jil Sander and he said that they were interested in having their own stores and that if I could open a Jil Sander store that maybe we’d have something to talk about, so all of a sudden I’m negotiating with the mall and I’m opening a flagship Jil Sander store in Atlanta, Georgia, and a little Prada corner that was like a thousand square feet and the Jil Sander was like 2,500. She was on fire then, but people in Atlanta at the time... there wasn’t a tremendous amount of awareness.

I needed to be able to get from the shoe store to Prada to Jil without going outside, so I needed this doorway and it became very political. I couldn’t get Prada to tell me where it was OK to cut the opening and Jil was jumping at the bit to get it built and to make a long story short, Prada ended up pulling out at the last minute and I had all this merchandise bought. Even though I had this space and even though construction had started, I’m not going to be able have this Prada shop, but Prada will continue to sell me product to put in there, so I decide, I’m going to open Jeffrey. I’m going to put my name on the door. I bought Richard Tyler, Helmut Lang, Costume National, Prada, Dries Van Noten, Ann Demeulemeester and Dirk Bikkembergs — seven designers all very cutting edge, plus Jil Sander. And in 1996 all of that opened.

I imagine there was nothing  like that in Atlanta back then — were people into it?

It was so scary and I had never sold ready-to-wear and people were scared of the merchandise. I had a group of women that I liked and they liked me and they reluctantly let me put them in clothes and these clothes were transformative, especially Jil Sander at the time with the fit. You would take a woman out of something that they were wearing and you would put them into this and 10 years and 10 pounds came off of them and I loved it.

So when did you decide to go to New York?

I was working with a shoe designer in New York and he would constantly tell me that I should open in New York. It was kind of a strange time in New York. Barneys was starting to have their trouble; there wasn’t really a great specialty store in New York and I decided to open a store there. This was, I think, the very first space I looked at. I wasn’t knowledgeable about the area. All I knew was that Calvin Klein was having his fashion show in this place called Milk that was at the top of this building and I knew that KCD had their offices in this building so I thought, OK, that’s exciting. I just fell in love with the space and that day I had a handshake agreement to lease the space and by January of ‘99, I had signed the lease. There was meat and blood and guts and smelly stuff and 14th between 9th and 10th was like no man’s land. People just parked in the middle of the street. I would say that we contributed to the birth of the Meatpacking District as a vital part of the city.

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How did you fund everything?

It was all self-funded. A month before we were supposed to open, I ran out of money and I needed $2 million and I had a friend at the time named DD Allen and [the architectural firm] Pierce Allen had helped me with the space. DD had a friend named Dick Fisher and Dick Fisher was chairman of the board at Morgan Stanley and he was interested in stuff like this. He was the kindest, most wonderful, gentle man and he gave me $2 million. Most of the time you have to jump through hoops and show business plans and all this stuff. I just talked with him like I’m talking with you and he was like, ‘OK.’ We didn’t even know what the terms of the agreement were going to be, but he didn’t take any of my business. He asked me to just pay interest on the loan, and it took me a few years to pay him back, but I paid him back and, yeah, he was the only investor.

What has made Jeffrey stand out all these years?

I believe in the art of the sale. I believe somehow that when you come in the store I can connect with you and I can end up selling you what you didn’t come in for and something that’s going to feel transformative to you and through the experience and the connection and the whole nine yards you become a devotee of mine and and of the store and that kind of art of the sale is difficult. I think the people who come in the store, a lot of them just feel like they do not want to be bothered by anybody, so that’s challenging. What happens unfortunately is I think we do bother people, I think people don’t like it. And some people choose not to come back. I’d rather try to engage people and have them not come back than not engage people and have another group not come back because they weren’t engaged, and it’s a fine line.

Recently I had the store secretly shopped and we didn’t do good. We have to talk about that stuff; we have to figure out how to be the best we can be every day and truthfully at this point, when I think about life today in 2015 and there are so many stores in New York and there are so many places to buy the same product, what can make this store unique I still think is the service. I think that if we excel at that, we can compete, and if we don’t it’s going to become harder and harder to compete.

There’s also e-commerce.

Yep, e-commerce, I can think of four specialty stores that are really good without even thinking too hard, all the department stores, and there’s more department stores coming. Nordstrom, Neiman Marcus is going to open in Hudson Yards, Barneys is opening again in Chelsea, Bloomingdale’s I read today is looking for New York expansion, it’s kind of crazy. I think New York is becoming over-stored.

Jeffrey Kalinsky and Anna Wintour at Jeffrey Fashion Cares in April. Photo: Grant Lamos IV/Getty Images

Jeffrey Kalinsky and Anna Wintour at Jeffrey Fashion Cares in April. Photo: Grant Lamos IV/Getty Images

So stepping back a bit, how did your deal with Nordstrom come about?

Around the time I opened in New York, LVMH had bought [spa chain] Bliss for a lot of money, and I thought I could turn Jeffrey into a brand and pull a Bliss and sell the store. I hired a company called Financo to sell me, but we were new and no one was really interested. I approached it from, oh, Gucci Group should buy it and I could sell all this Gucci Group product and help them merchandise product, and I think LVMH should buy it and I think Neiman Marcus should buy it and I had all these thoughts and nobody wanted to buy it and I truthfully forgot about it. I should have ended the contract with Financo, but I just never did ‘cause it was like laying there dormant. One day I got a call from the New York Times that they heard the store was for sale and I was like, ‘That’s ridiculous, the store’s not for sale,’ and they said, well, we heard the store’s for sale and we suggest that you talk with us because we’re running the story that the store is for sale with or without your comments. I met with them and I made the statement that if somebody offered me $35 million I would take it so fast your head would spin. The store really wasn’t up for sale and the article ran on a Saturday in the business section front page and I was in Milan for fashion week in September and I’m waiting to get into the Dolce & Gabbana show. I saw a woman named Sue Patneaude who was in charge of designer ready-to-wear for Nordstrom and she said, ‘Is your phone ringing?’ And I said, ‘Oh yeah my phone’s ringing off the hook.’ And she said, ‘Well you should talk to Pete.’ I said I would call Pete when I get home from Europe. I picked up the phone when I got home and it was shocking, but Pete Nordstrom picks up his phone and we just started a conversation and he came to New York and we went to lunch at Pastis and we hit it off. I flew out to Seattle [where Nordstrom is based] in December and I met his father and his brothers and different people on the executive team and it just moved forward and we signed a deal on August 18, 2005. They started out buying 51 percent and I agreed to take on a role at Nordstrom working on the designer business — the whole thing: men’s, women’s shoes, ready-to-wear, bags. After about two years, they then bought 39 percent more and I have 10 percent today. I became the executive vice president of designer at Nordstrom and I ran that designer business up until last year and it grew into a $500 million plus business and it was great. I learned a lot and I decided to take a step back and now I am vice president and designer fashion director and I’ve got more of a marketing role.

Something else you’re known for is your charity and annual event, Jeffrey Fashion Cares. How did that come about?

When I opened in Atlanta, there were these big events in the city and people from all over came and Neiman’s did a fashion show for the ballet and that was a big event and I was like, ‘I want to establish a big event,’ so the first years of the store I put on a shoe fashion show and hundreds of people came. It was for free and it was fun and I got to be creative. Here I am this gay man in Atlanta, Georgia, and people were dying of AIDS and it was a horrible time. In 1992, 1991, it was still bad. There was not a major fundraiser in Atlanta for AIDS and I thought, I can create this event as a fundraiser and I’ll call it Fashion Cares and I’m gonna put on a fashion show with shoes and charge people to come. In the first year, which was 23 years ago, we raised $40,000 or $50,000 which was a lot of money for a little shoe store in Atlanta the first time out. Now the Atlanta event is an AIDS/breast cancer benefit and the New York event, which has been around for 12 years, benefits the Hetrick-Martin [Institute], which services gay teens and is a full-time high school. A lot of homeless kids come after school and there’s an after-school program. And ACRIA, which does a lot of AIDS research, and Lambda Legal, which fights for LGBT human rights. Between the two events, we put about a million to two into the hands of the charities.

What advice would you give to someone who wants to open their own store?

Silly cliché things popped into my head first, like ‘Be passionate,’ but I think the most important thing for somebody who wants to have their own store is to love selling. Because if they don’t love selling, I don’t see how a store can be successful today.

What else do you want to do?

I’m interested in other things, I still would like to create other product. I’ve done it through the years and I really enjoy it and I would love to help somebody in a merchandising role… I like the beach.

Do you want to open more stores?