NEW YORK — It’s a Tuesday afternoon in early July, and Jeffrey New York is packed. It’s tough to distinguish the salespeople from the customers because everyone seems highly styled — men in fitted cardigans and slim trousers and women in lace-up stilettos and dresses — and they’re all milling about the store.
Jeffrey Kalinsky, by contrast, is quickly navigating the selling floor — even ducking into the fitting rooms with a dress for one of several clients he still personally services — and he’s wearing a fitted blue T-shirt, brown leather flip-flops and a pair of bright green shorts.
“My father would never forgive me if you photograph me in a pair of shorts,” Kalinsky later says in a tone that’s both charming and incredibly stern.
We’re standing in his office, the white walls covered with framed press clippings, a cork board of fashion Polaroids, life-size cutouts from the Archie comics and oversized windows that make lamps and light switches unnecessary. Kalinsky’s desk is piled high with papers, unopened invitations and half-opened boxes. “You [aren’t going] to photograph any of this,” he states, leaning against his desk and motioning behind him.
Kalinsky says he’s uncomfortable in front of the camera, but off-record, he’s relaxed and friendly, though admittedly a little tired. “I travel a lot,” he says, crossing his arms and smiling.
As part of his 2005 buyout deal with Nordstrom — he’s now EVP of designer merchandising for the 105-door chain — Kalinsky spends one week a month in Seattle with the department store’s team and circles the globe on buying trips. “I wish I could split myself so I could do more for everyone.”
Kalinsky closes the door to his office and sits down with his arms stretched over an empty table. “Are you going to take it easy on me?” he asks. When the response to his question is a short shoulder shrug, he laughs and leans back. “Well, let’s see.”
While much of Kalinsky’s personal life has been written about in the past, getting him to really open up is a challenge. Though it’s clear Kalinsky is thrilled with the partnership — he says he’s learning a lot and appreciates Nordstrom’s hands-off approach to how he runs Jeffrey -— he’s hesitant to really explain why. And he’s even less talkative when asked to explain what he brought to the table for the Seattle-based department store.
But Peter Nordstrom, EVP and president of merchandising at Nordstrom, doesn’t hesitate when asked about Kalinsky’s impact. “He’s brought another level of expertise and credibility to our buy,” Nordstrom told Footwear News. “He is held in such high esteem in the vendor community, and we are, too, but it’s different with him.”
Kalinsky does open up a bit when the discussion turns to his buying strategy — “There’s such an emotional factor that goes into it for me,” he says — and he’s happy to discuss his favorite new footwear designers: Nicholas Kirkwood and Alejandro Ingelmo. He explains he doesn’t think about what his shoppers want, but rather what he wants them to have — an adage he picked up from his father, Morris Kalinsky, founder of Bob Ellis Shoes in Charleston, S.C.
This gutsy approach has kept shoppers loyal to Jeffrey New York and Jeffrey Atlanta, and it’s given Nordstrom a competitive edge. “The best thing about Jeffrey, aside from his buying expertise, is that he has a high sense of urgency and sees no barriers for what he wants for the customer,” Nordstrom said. “He’s fearless in his execution.”
With Kalinsky’s original contract with Nordstrom set to expire next year, it’s clear the department store wants to keep the partnership intact. “I foresee us working together for a long time,” Nordstrom said. Not surprising, Kalinsky was less forthright. “I guess it’s not really up to me,” he said. “[But] I hope the timing will work and we’ll continue to work together.”
FN: Is it tough to wear two different hats?
JK: There are never enough hours in the day. Everything I do here at Jeffrey is valuable at Nordstrom, and everything I do for Nordstrom is valuable to me here. But I do get frustrated sometimes that I can’t spend more time with them in person. I wish I could split myself so I could do more for everyone.
FN: It’s been three years since your Nordstrom deal. How satisfied are you with the partnership?
JK: For [my] store, there really couldn’t have been a better partner. They have been totally supportive of what we do here. They have always told me that we know our business the best, so we should be the ones to run it. Nothing has changed at Jeffrey. And for me, I don’t think there could have been a better partnership either. They have treated me like gold, and it’s hard to believe that three years of a four-year contract are already over.
FN: What changes have you brought to Nordstrom in the last three years?
JK: Anything that’s happened since I got there has been a group effort. I’m comfortable saying that bringing someone in from the outside who has my kind of passion and entrepreneurial zeal in and of itself creates a certain positive change.
FN: Have your relationships helped bring in new brands?
JK: When I arrived, they already had relationships with all the important brands. I can’t think of any brands I brought on board for them. It’s been my job to assist in expanding the designer offering at Nordstrom across all classifications, and we have made a lot of progress. The most exciting thing is that we have a great designer shoe business [that’s] very profitable.
FN: What have you learned from being on a buying team for a major department store?
JK: I learn things all the time. It’s fun to be a teacher, but it’s more fun to be a student. I’ve tried to be both at Nordstrom. I do a lot of major market appointments with the buyers for the designer shoe area. I love to see what they like and what they get excited about.
FN: Do you carry some of the same brands at Jeffrey?
JK: I would say there’s a 75 percent crossover.
FN: Is Nordstrom any closer to coming to Manhattan?
JK: Nordstrom will be in New York City one day. It’s about finding the right location, and if that’s found, I’m sure there will be a store here. But I’m not the expert on that subject. If they move across the street [from Jeffrey], that would be great.
FN: With Jeffrey New York, you were a pioneer in the Meatpacking District, which is now one of the hottest retail areas in Manhattan. What do you think of the area today?
JK: Well, when I opened at Phipps Plaza [in Atlanta] in 1990, no one went to Phipps Plaza. And through the years, Phipps Plaza kept getting transformed. They added a movie theater and a food court, and now there’s everything under the sun [there]. But my favorite time at Phipps Plaza was when we were all alone. And my favorite time of being here in the Meatpacking District was when we were all alone. But you can’t stop change, so you have to go with it.
FN: Are you ready to move out and find a new location?
JK: We’ve got 11 more years on the lease here, so I would say it would be silly to move before that time. But it could happen. I like going to new places, and I love creating new things. Our lease in Atlanta is up in two or three years, and the Atlanta retail scene keeps changing, so you never know. There are no plans to make any changes, but it’s always great to have all these options.
FN: How often do you make it to the Atlanta store?
JK: Not often enough. It’s really hard. Prior to my partnership with Nordstrom, I would go once a month, but it’s physically impossible to do that now when I’m in Seattle once a month and traveling for buying trips. The great thing is that we have a wonderful team down there. The store is going to be 18 years old in August, and there are several people who have been there for 18 years. I’m very fortunate that I don’t have to do this alone.
FN: How has business been at Jeffrey this season?
JK: It’s been OK. Overall, I’m very satisfied with business in the store. I would have said that ready-to-wear would be the biggest challenge in a tough economy, [but] our ready-to-wear season was beyond [amazing]. Our full-price sales were so good it’s scary. I was a little surprised that of all classifications for spring, the one that was the most challenging was [footwear]. I always thought shoes would be the easiest. It surprised me that the full-priced sell-through wasn’t just a little bit higher. It’s a total CSI investigation as to why ready-to-wear did so well and shoes didn’t. I could try and tell you that it’s because shoes got more expensive, but my bestselling shoe line overall is my most expensive.
FN: What line is that?
JK: I’m not telling.
FN: Well, you’ve been vocal about Lanvin. Is it Lanvin?
JK: I’m not telling. It’s never nice to kiss and tell.
FN: Are you concerned at all about luxe product getting more expensive?
JK: I do have some concerns about the price points, but we’re in a situation where the dollar is unfortunately not very strong. As prices rise, I have to ask myself how much I really love something. If I don’t really love it, love it, love it, then I need to leave it, leave it, leave it.
FN: Has the euro changed the way you buy?
JK: The dollars were similar [to last spring], but the pairs were not — it’s decreased. I don’t know how much it decreased, but I know that the dollars were pretty much equal and the pairs were fewer. Vendors understand the challenges we are all facing. It’s no secret. It’s obviously a problem for everyone.
FN: Are you considering less-expensive product?
JK: There are a lot of people turning out some great product at great prices. I bought a fabulous gladiator sandal from Pierre Hardy and the retail is going to be [about] $315. Prada does a good job of turning out great product at reasonable prices. Manolo Blahnik has done a great job [with that, too]. I could go on and on with names.
FN: What new footwear designers are impressing you these days?
JK: He’s not new, but this is the first season we’ve bought Nicholas Kirkwood. Several of his fall shoes came in, and several of them have sold out already. I had always seen his collection, and I knew I really liked it, but the styles I liked the most for spring were really expensive, which kept me from pulling the trigger then. Then the ones I liked for fall seemed reasonably priced. Sometimes you have to wait for these things to all come together, and for him, it has. In the U.S., we have a great one in Alejandro Injelmo. He’s young, and he’s got a great point of view that’s different from anyone else’s. It’s been a long time since we’ve had someone living and working in this country who’s offering up new products.
FN: Do you think it’s harder for new designers to make it in a difficult environment?
JK: There’s always room for the new guy. This is a very challenging time to be a new designer in any market, but if you have the goods, it will be OK. It’s not going to be a difficult time to hook up with me.
FN: What influences your buying decisions?
JK: I’m so weird. There’s such an emotional factor that goes into it for me. I know what I love, what I like and what I don’t like. Sometimes I just wish I were more of an intellectual buyer who was able to sit and analyze what sold last season and try to map out next season. But then I feel like I’m dead. I can’t buy like that, and I can’t live like that. And the tougher the economic climate, the more emotional my buy is. I have to get that same emotion out of my clients for them to part with $900 for a shoe. The clients always want fireworks at any price.
FN: Where do you shop for yourself?
JK: My favorite place to shop is a store in the Meatpacking District called Jeffrey. Do you know it?
FN: So what are you buying from this mysterious store?
JK: I am the most boring dresser. I like these Bottega [Veneta] flip-flops. If I had five pairs of these in this [brown] color, then these are the shoes I would want to wear every day. I wear my Jack Purcell sneakers every day to the gym. I’m a very habitual person.