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The Right Stuff: Jeffrey Kalinsky’s Finely Curated Approach to Retail

Photo: screenshot from Jeffrey website

A little goes a long way in Jeffrey Kalinsky’s book—as long as it’s chock-full of substance, that is.

“New York has too many stores,” the retail veteran declared during a recent conversation with fashion consultant Fern Mallis at Glasgow Caledonian University’s Soho outpost. “Big, big, big selections of things aren’t really my thing,” he said. “I don’t want to have to go through a lot of stuff I don’t want [in order] to find the stuff I do want, so I would rather find a more edited selection.”

And substance, more than anything, is what he wants from anybody at any price point. “Sometimes when we are buying, I kind of think there’s a camera crew following us and we’re on the [MTV] show, Punk’d. We’re being shown a lot of stuff that I feel we’re being ‘punk’d’ about.”

When pressed to explain what exactly he meant by “substance,” Kalinsky said, “Give me creativity. Give me beautiful quality. Give me an attention to fit and silhouette. Just give me substance. There’s a need for more substance.”

The right everything

Currently the vice president and designer fashion director at Nordstrom, as well as the founder of the Jeffrey boutiques in Atlanta and New York’s Meatpacking District, to say Kalinsky has high standards would be an understatement—and his taste for expensive things stems back to his Charleston, South Carolina-based childhood.

“I went to a very preppy school and I wanted to be authentically preppy, so it was all about the right pair of flat-front khakis, the right whale belt, the right brand of top-siders, bean shoes and just the right everything,” he laughed, name-checking Corbin, Sperry and L.L. Bean, among others.

Later, following stints as a buyer at Bergdorf Goodman and Barneys New York, he took his taste buds to Atlanta where he opened his first shoe store in Phibbs Plaza in 1990, stocking such high-end names as Prada. “We’re probably Prada’s oldest customer continuously in this country,” he pointed out, noting that when he decided he wanted to expand into ready-to-wear, the Italian label was one of his first choices, along with German minimalist designer Jil Sander.

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So, when he opened his first Jeffrey boutique a few doors down from his shoe store 20 years ago, the racks were a finely curated mix of those two top names, as well as Richard Tyler, Helmut Lang, Costume National, Dries Van Noten, Ann Demeulemeester and Dirk Bikkembergs—a considerably out-there selection for Atlanta in 1996.

“Nobody wanted to walk in there. They were petrified!” he exclaimed. But: “I had a relationship with a lot of really fantastic women in Atlanta, selling them shoes, and basically, I don’t know, there were about 10 women that wanted it, were brave enough to wear it, and these women started walking around Atlanta looking fantastic and other women were like oh, ok, and slowly but surely we did really, really well.”

So well, in fact, that it wasn’t long before he was looking into opening a Jeffrey in New York by August 1999.

There goes the neighorhood

“I had no money to open a store in New York. That was still a time when designers wouldn’t just sell to every single store in New York, so you had to be in an area to get distribution where nobody else was,” Kalinsky said.

That ended up being 14th Street, between 9th and 10th Avenues, better known as the Meatpacking District. At that time it was a veritable no man’s land for designer fashion, save for Milk studios and public relations firm KCD’s office.

“I walked into that space whatever day of the week it was to see it and that same night I had a handshake deal with the landlord. All I cared about was that I liked the space, I could afford the space, I could build the space out and that I understood what the space was,” he explained, adding that the boutique officially opened its doors on the day of his 37th birthday.

And the rest, as they say, is history. As beloved by the Kardashians (but don’t hold that against it) as it is by the city’s fashion-forward, the 12,000-square-foot Jeffrey New York is no longer the sole seller of super-luxe labels in the Meatpacking District. The original Atlanta outpost is still going strong, too.

“I have always believed in a certain kind of service and the kind of service that I think people should have, and we tried our very best every day to deliver that,” he said.

In 2005, Nordstrom bought a majority interest in the pair of the boutiques and Kalinsky became director of designer merchandising at the Seattle-based department store chain.

“Nordstrom would probably have liked for me to have expanded. For me, coming from Atlanta to New York made things doubly difficult in terms of offering the kind of service that I believe should be offered. And you have a third store and a fourth store and a fifth store, and all of sudden all your ideals and everything you’re trying to accomplish gets diluted,” he shared.

With that being said, however, he did hint at the possibility of a Jeffrey pop-up at the Nordstrom flagship that’s slated to open on 57th Street in Manhattan in 2018. He added, “I’m very passionate about what I do and I just didn’t want to have a whole bunch of stores. I wanted to have the best stores.”