Jeffrey New York Founder Jeffrey Kalinsky on the Secret to Succeeding in Retail

The only constant in New York City is change. This is especially true of the ever-evolving Meatpacking District, where the tony luxury boutique Jeffrey has lived for 20 years — a lifetime in brick-and-mortar these days.

“I try to never lose sight of who we are and what we’re about,” said founder Jeffrey Kalinsky, who opened his boutique’s first location in Atlanta in 1990. “I try to stay as close to the vision that I had even 30 years ago, certainly the vision that I had 20 years ago.”

This is a strategy that has served both him and the business well. Kalinsky, 57, sold a majority stake in his Jeffrey retail chain to Nordstrom in 2005, but he still remains heavily involved in its operations. The same year, he was named director of designer merchandising at the Seattle-based chain of luxury department stores, helping to build its reputation as a destination for top brands.

“He has been hugely valuable to Nordstrom,” said Pete Nordstrom, co-president of the retail giant. “His orientation to fashion is through the eyes of the customer. He is keenly aware of trends, but in a very practical way. It’s not buying cool stuff just to buy cool stuff, but making the edit and the buy based on what is going to delight customers and what is going to perform at retail.”

Kalinsky learned many of his merchant skills from his late father, Morris, a legendary footwear figure who was also inducted into the FN Hall of Fame in 2000 and who has been the most influential person in his son’s career.

The Charleston, S.C., native — who also was on the FNAA stage in 2005 to accept Person of the Year — said one of the things he learned from his father is: “If you try to figure out what people want, you’re lost. But if you try to figure out what you want people to have, you become a place that they can rely on.”

George Malkemus, former president of Manolo Blahnik USA, told FN earlier this year, “Jeffrey is a born salesman. In today’s world, that’s become a rarity and one that needs to be nurtured by all.”

In 2007, Nordstrom promoted Kalinsky to EVP of designer fashion, and the executive continued to apply his discerning eye to the chain’s footwear offerings, developing relationships with up-and-coming and established labels.

“If I believe in a new shoe designer, I get on the phone and say, ‘We need to get on this,’” said Kalinsky. “The Nordstrom merchandising team has always been open to new ideas and to collaborating.” Under his watch, the national retailer has expanded its designer shoe inventory. For example, he helped bring Christian Louboutin to the company and expand lines like Manolo Blahnik, Saint Laurent and Gucci. “I am very responsible for the fact that we carry Gianvito Rossi today,” he said.

Added Nordstrom, “Jeffrey absolutely led putting [our company] on the map as a legitimate player in the designer world. … He works very purposefully.”

Jeffrey Fashion Cares
Jeffrey Kalinsky onstage at the 13th Annual Jeffrey Fashion Cares event.

While Kalinsky is described as driven and hardworking in business, he also has a labor of love: Jeffrey Fashion Cares, his annual charity gala and runway show, which has raised in excess of $20 million over the last 27 years for a number of causes, including breast cancer research, HIV/AIDs research and awareness, and human rights. “We’ve done it as a mitzvah,” said Kalinsky. “I’m proud of that.”

After three decades in the business, the retail veteran remains fully tapped into the industry. “Jeffrey is completely into and on top of what’s happening,” said Nordstrom. “He is curious and open to learning. He is always looking forward and is not stuck in the past.”

Indeed, it’s this desire to constantly evolve that has kept him going. “You have to be willing to learn every day,” said Kalinsky. “You have to be able to take in a lot of information, especially in today’s retail world. The idea that you can continue down a path that has been successful in the past to move forward into the future — that ain’t gonna fly.”

Above all, he believes that a unique point of view is what ultimately sets someone apart from the rest. “Developing your own style … that’s not easy for everyone, but I can say that it’s worked for me,” he said.

Watch FN’s interview with Pyer Moss designer Kerby Jean-Raymond below.

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