And they said it would never last. In 1999, when Jeffrey Kalinsky opened his Jeffrey flagship on a desolate stretch of West 14th Street in Manhattan’s Meatpacking District, he faced a Greek chorus of naysayers who warned customers would never venture to the far west environ, much less risk getting a Christian Louboutin or Clergerie heel caught in the cobblestone streets.
This story first appeared in the August 5, 2015 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
“People thought I was out of my mind,” Kalinsky said. “This was the wild, wild west. I didn’t care that there was nothing down here. I loved the street and the river.”
In July, Kalinsky celebrated his 25th year in business — his original store, which opened in 1990, still thrives in Atlanta.
Jeffrey New York has been a constant presence in the Meatpacking District, even as designers such as Alexander McQueen and Stella McCartney came and went, replaced by brands such as Apple and Levi’s. Kalinsky’s real estate decision seems prescient now that the High Line and Whitney Museum of American Art have sprouted up around the 10,000-square-foot store and the neighbor-hood seems poised for another boom.
But rents are rising so precipitously that Kalinsky himself may be priced out of the neighborhood when his lease expires in April 2019. “I’m starting to look at real estate,” he admitted. “We had a great meeting with the landlord. I think we’ll able to reach an agreement, but it’s too early to say.”
At Kalinsky’s disco-themed 25th anniversary bash last month hosted by Ladyfag and DJ’d by Honey Dijon, Nordstrom was commemorating a milestone of its own — 10 years of owning the Jeffrey business. The event, held in the store, featured buff bare-chested bartenders, female greeters sewn into skintight sequined disco dresses and the requisite drag queen, voguing for the crowd.
By now, the buttoned-up Seattle clan have become connoisseurs of the downtown scene, thanks to Kalinsky. When Nordstrom purchased its majority stake in the New York and Atlanta stores in 2005 for an estimated $40 million to $50 million, Kalinsky seemed a tad intimidating.
“There was all this anticipation based on his reputation,” said Pete Nordstrom, president of Nordstrom Inc. merchandising. “Jeffrey has a big reputation in our industry. What struck me most is that the store didn’t have all the trappings that a lot of luxury designer stores have, the opulence and museumlike exclusivity. It was a very inclusive place.
“He’s an understated guy,” added Nordstrom. “He’s not avant-garde. He’s a pretty traditional guy. He loves beautiful things and cares a lot about quality and timeless characteristics.”
Kalinsky grew up at Bob Ellis, the shoe business founded by his father, Morris. It is still the preeminent shoe store in Charleston, S.C., and is now operated by his brother Barry. After working as a shoe buyer at Barneys New York, Kalinsky decided he wanted to open his own store in Atlanta. “I wanted to live in a city where I would be comfortable as a young gay man,” he said. “Plus, there were no good women’s stores in Atlanta. My father reluctantly agreed to be my partner.”
Bob Ellis opened at the upscale Phipps Plaza in 1990. Running the store “was a magical time,” Kalinsky recalled. “Oh, to be 28 and have your first baby store.” The 4,000-square-foot unit did $2.5 million in 1990. “In a few years we were easily doing $5 million annually,” he said.
He made his move into ready-to-wear, renaming the store Jeffrey, opening a Jil Sander shop, and selling Prada, Dries Van Noten, Ann Demeulemeester and Richard Tyler Couture. “I wanted to dress these women,” Kalinsky said. “I didn’t like the way they were dressed.”
Then came the move into Manhattan and Kalinsky was playing on an even bigger field. He now carries the likes of Chanel, Dior, Saint Laurent, Céline, Van Noten and Sacai, among others, bolstering those with collaborations, such as the capsule collection that Carolina Herrera is doing for the store that will bow in February.
Then there is Kalinsky’s charity Jeffrey Fashion Cares, which he founded in 2001 and calls “a labor of love.” Yearly blowout events in New York and Atlanta — many with barely clad male models — attract 600 and 800 guests, respectively, and have raised about $15 million for organizations that support LGBT civil rights, LGBT youth education, HIV prevention and breast cancer research, among others.
Nordstrom in 2007 upped its stake in Jeffrey to 90 percent. As part of the original deal, Kalinsky took on the job of raising Nordstrom’s designer profile. “I helped to plant the designer flag for their business,” he said. “I was able to strategize and work across all categories and make a lot of progress. I helped evolve the business to a different level. I played a role in establishing relationships with Dries Van Noten, Balenciaga, Saint Laurent, Gucci, Prada and Céline.”
Nordstrom said its designer business under Kalinsky’s leadership grew by triple digits on a percentage basis.
“Jeffrey had a skill set and talent that we didn’t necessarily have,” said Pete Nordstrom. “It’s helpful for us to be aligned with someone who brings a level of credibility.
“To get the best out of Jeffrey is to let him focus on the things he likes to do,” Nordstrom added. “We own [his] business and he runs it. Anything else we get on top of that is like frosting on the cake. We’d be open to additional Jeffrey stores. For Jeffrey, they are like children. He feels accountable for them and we don’t want to dilute that.”
The department store retailer is leaning on Kalinsky for its own New York flagship opening on 57th Street in 2018. “He’s an important contributor,” Nordstrom said. “He’s got a great perspective as a person who created a business in New York. We’re coming in and trying to create something. We want him to be engaged in the whole thought process of what the store can be.
“I wish we could leverage him in a bigger way,” Nordstrom said. “He’s a talented guy. We would consider opening a Jeffrey boutique inside the New York store. We’ve done some things with the Jeffrey label before and we may do more. There’s an ongoing discussion based on the things he’s interested in. The door is completely wide open. We have a hole in the ground” and the company needs to fill it.
As for the association with Kalinsky, “It’s one of the best decisions we’ve ever made,” Nordstrom said. “It’s paid big dividends for us.”