NEW YORK — With the end of his lease at 449 West 14th Street looming five years ago, Jeffrey Kalinsky was having second thoughts about Jeffrey New York’s Meatpacking District location. In the end, the store stayed put, and on Friday it will celebrate its 20th anniversary.
“I thought I at least needed to check out where else in the city you might be able to have a great store and pay a decent rent,” Kalinsky said. “I quickly discovered that doesn’t exist. I re-signed the lease here in 2017.”
While a revolving cast of retailers has come and gone on West 14th Street, Jeffrey New York has been a constant with its white exterior facade and Charleston fountain inside. “In a way, the store hasn’t changed,” Kalinsky said. “What we do and how we do it is pretty much the same. We sell product through e-commerce and participate in social media — things we weren’t doing 20 years ago — but the concept and the idea, none of that has really changed.”
Such staying power is rare for a retailer in today’s Amazon-fueled world. Kalinsky was told he was crazy when he was 36 and revealed to friends on Fire Island that his store would open within the year in New York. “I had nothing on the table,” he said. “I was a younger guy and I took a huge leap of faith. You can only do that when you’re of a certain age. No one told me this would be a good neighborhood, but I believed that if I built it, they would come.” And they did.
Kalinsky credits his late father, Morris, the owner of Bob Ellis, the preeminent shoe store in Charleston, S.C., with his retail acumen. “The opening ad I ran in The New York Times 20 years ago was perfect because I wanted to say, there’s a heritage and tradition to the retail we’re going to be doing,” he said of the image of a young boy — Kalinsky — cutting the ribbon on a new store. “I didn’t open to be the cool store, I opened to be the best store we could be. That was what my father taught me. He taught me how to do retail and how to do it the right way.
“I can’t think of anything like this without him coming into my head,” Kalinsky said of his father. “We had a small 10th anniversary party, which was kind of a surprise. My father and my mother gave toasts, and I keep thinking about my father’s toast. I don’t know the right way to put it, but he helped me define what I wanted the store to stand for.”
Kalinsky said he felt like he was being “watched over as he was opening the store, because it was a big deal and involved lots of money.” That sense has given way to harsher realities as the business has become more difficult. “I’m not sure the luxury retail sector ever completely healed after 2008,” he said. “I think everybody declared that it did and said it’s booming, but I don’t know.
“My business is good and we’ve seen growth in certain areas,” he said. “For instance, we have seen growth in the men’s business, and our women’s ready-to-wear is very strong. The only reason I say I don’t know if it’s fully recovered is because I feel that everybody is working a lot harder today. Even if the sales are better, the effort that has to go into it is so great.”
Jeffrey’s top designers for men and women include Gucci, Balenciaga, Celine, Dior and Dries van Noten. “The vendors we pretty much count on, deliver season after season,” Kalinsky said. “Our strength has always been ready-to-wear, and I think it always will be. When I think of what would make me happy today if I walked down to my shipping and receiving area, it would be a huge shipment of Celine women’s rtw. I know we would sell it very quickly. I keep waiting for it.
“Sometimes I wish that retail and design were still based on substance,” Kalinsky said. “Today, there’s way too much smoke and mirrors. I get very stimulated by new. Stimulated by the right new, because just because something’s new doesn’t mean much.”
Kalinsky’s long-standing friendships with customers now involve wardrobing their daughters and granddaughters for occasions. “You know you’re of a certain age when you dress three generations of women,” he said. “Our woman isn’t one-note. She could be in head-to-toe Chanel sometimes, but she also understands Celine and Simone Rochas, and maybe our newest find, Marine Serre. Because I like dressing women, and I like selling, I like buying. That lets me sell what I really believe in. There’s nothing worse than selling something you don’t believe in. I don’t even think I could do it anymore.
“Sometimes I’m the one who goes into the dressing room and it kills the sale,” Kalinsky said. “I have to let it go. If everyone walked out of here looking exactly how I want them to look, we’d go out of business. It’s important to be honest with your customers. Who’s to say what’s right and wrong. I’ve always looked around and critiqued since I was a little kid. It’s great to have a point of view, but your point of view isn’t always correct.”
Kalinsky 11 months ago opened the first new Jeffrey store in 19 years at Palo Alto, Calif.’s Stanford Shopping Center, with the blessing of Nordstrom. The Seattle-based department store bought a majority stake in his company in 2005.
“Opening another store is not off the table,” Kalinsky said. “There are some markets that are underserved. People keep opening stores in New York, but the last thing New York needs is another store. When we opened 20 years ago, it was news, there was a real void in the market.”
Despite Nordstrom’s stake, Kalinsky said he still feels completely responsible for Jeffrey. “The weird thing is, I feel like I still own the business,” he said. “If the business has a huge win, I kind of feel I own that. If the business has a really difficult time over something, I own that. I wish I could detach myself a little bit.
“It’s been a wonderful partnership,” said Kalinsky, who is vice president and designer fashion director of Nordstrom. “I was involved a little bit with certain strategies and meetings to get distribution for the New York full-line store. I started working on the designer business at Nordstrom in 2005. I worked on it for nine years and hopefully a lot of that laid the groundwork for what will be. Am I happy with the way the designer business is at Nordstrom? I personally am never satisfied with anything. I always want more. Nordstrom is possibly the best partner for a designer brand today. We have a wonderful relationship with the best brands.”
Pete Nordstrom, copresident, returned the compliment. “It’s been a joy to work with Jeffrey,” he said. “He’s added a ton of value to our business from the time we started working together 14 years ago. He’s helped make a lot of progress on our designer initiative and we’ll be forever grateful for that. Jeffrey is a great merchant and he has really good perspective on the customer. He’s also been a great thought partner to me over the years. We’re excited for him to be celebrating 20 years of Jeffrey New York.”
Sounding a bit cliché, if not for his earnestness, Kalinsky compared Jeffrey New York to Broadway. “For me, it‘s always opening night here,” he said. “Do we perform at that level? I’d be fooling myself to say ‘yes.’ People deserve that from us when they walk through the door. Some days we hit the high notes, but I strive for excellence. This is a 24-hour-a-day job, seven days a week. It’s worry, worry, worry, problem-solving all the time and thinking ahead.”