It’s considered the fashion event of the year in Atlanta, a fund-raiser replete with bare-chested male servers, flowing libations to put guests in a generous mood and a professionally staged runway show with looks chosen by Jeffrey Kalinsky, founder of Jeffrey New York, and designer fashion director of Nordstrom.
Jeffrey Fashion Cares, Kalinsky’s charity, will mark its 25th anniversary in Atlanta with an event tonight at Phipps Plaza. The venue holds 800 people, and tickets, priced at $500, are sold out.
Kalinsky, who started the charity as an altruistic 30-year-old, still cares. Now knowing, but not jaded, he said that the fund-raiser, not surprisingly, has become exponentially more challenging as it’s grown.
Jeffrey Fashion Cares Atlanta has raised $15 million since its inception. Combined with the New York branch, $25 million has been taken in.
“I started Fashion Cares two years after opening my store in Atlanta,” Kalinsky said. “It was a moment in my life. I had a boyfriend whose younger brother was diagnosed with AIDS. It was hitting close to home. [The drug] AZT was just beginning to be used, but people were dying. It was just awful.”
Two years after its launch, Fashion Cares began benefiting breast cancer as well. “It seemed appropriate to become a breast cancer fund-raiser,” Kalinsky said. “I owned a women’s shoe store and so many women were affected.” Susan G. Komen of greater Atlanta and the Atlanta AIDS Fund are beneficiaries, while New York supports Hetrick-Martin Institute, Elton John AIDS Foundation and Lambda Legal.
Kalinsky said the Atlanta event is more low-key than the bash in New York, where 800 guests converged on the Intrepid Air and Sea Museum on April 3.
“The formula for New York and Atlanta have been very simple,” Kalinsky said. “You get to the venue, there are drinks and a little bit of food, some years more, some less. There’s a silent auction and a fashion show with a live auction. We try to get people out of there by 9:30.”
Atlanta showcases women’s fashion, while in New York, it’s men’s. The Southern event doesn’t have the same entertainment perquisites as the one in New York.
“It’s important to have a celebrity emcee in New York,” Kalinsky said. “Not so much in Atlanta. I’ve always tried to stick to what we do. We’re there to raise money. I wasn’t opposed to having a celebrity in New York. Our competition always has celebrities.”
Past hosts have included Andrew Rannells, who played a recurring character on “Girls,” and stylist and television personality Brad Goreski.
There have been memorable moments in Atlanta, such as in 2012, when the charity celebrated its 20th anniversary with a flash-mob dance. The following year, singer Theresa Hightower serenaded Kalinsky with “Home” from the “The Wiz,” which is one of his favorite songs from one of his favorite Broadway shows.
“For a few years, we had guest designers,” Kalinsky said. “Oscar de la Renta was the first, then Proenza Schouler and Joseph Altuzarra. We’d end the fashion show with the last 12 looks from that designer’s collection. That was very hard to keep up. The event is always on the Monday before Labor Day, so it was just a tall order. I carry so many European designers in the store, but there was no way to get them to come. I wanted to stick to the mission. It was too much.”
Knocking on brands’ doors for donations is no easy feat either, and Kalinsky has found himself at times at odds with a label. “The new thing is that brands don’t want me to use their clothes in a fashion show,” he said. “They don’t want to be on a runway with anyone else and want to control the look. It’s not one vendor, it’s so many. People forget what we’re doing. We’re trying to raise money to do good.
“Nordstrom is very generous, not just corporately, but personally,” he said. “I get a check from Pete [Nordstrom, copresident] every year. Nordstrom is our biggest corporate donor every year.”
“We’re very proud of Jeffrey and his efforts to raise money through the Jeffrey Fashion Cares event in Atlanta and New York City,” Pete Nordstrom said. “For a small independent retailer like Jeffrey to have been able to raise $25 million for charity is impressive. Jeffrey’s determination and desire to make a difference in the communities he serves has resulted in $25 million raised for AIDS, breast cancer and human rights. We proudly support Jeffrey’s efforts and applaud his success.”
“There were smaller benefits in Atlanta with people trying to raise money, but nothing going after the general population. I’d been doing the show for free the first two years I was in business. The second year, I looked out at the crowd of 200 people. All I had was a shoe store,” Kalinsky said, referring to his first business, a Bob Ellis shoe store that grew out of his father’s business in Charleston. “I was doing a theatrical fashion show of fall footwear and at least 200 people were there. It was so much fun. I found I could charge money and raise money for AIDS. As a young gay man I could make a contribution.”
Even after 25 years, Kalinsky continues to tweak Fashion Care’s reception, silent auction and fashion show. “What I find being in business, is that every year you’re a little more grown up,” he said. “You start as a toddler, then go to third grade, you’re Bar Mitzvah-ed and then attend high school. We’ll celebrate 15 years of Fashion Cares in New York in April 2018. The older you get, the better you get.”
There have been many venues in Atlanta. The first Fashion Cares was held in a tent at Phipps Plaza. “That was when tents were the way people were doing fashion shows in New York,” Kalinsky said. “This might not sound like a lot today, but we raised $40,000. It was significant for a 30-year-old. By the third year, we created this venue in the mall that wasn’t really a tent. It was a white structure with sides and a roof. Simon Property Group [which owns Phipps] has been very generous with donations.”
Fashion Cares held its event at the former theater the Roxy a few years and used the Woodruff Arts Center. “In 2008, when the world went topsy-turvy there was a lot of construction that didn’t have the funding to get finished,” Kalinsky said. “We had real estate developers give us raw floors to use.”
Kalinsky is humble about his accomplishments. “If I deserve credit for anything, I’ve always worked super hard to make sure every penny gets to the charities,” he said. “They can’t get every penny, but I’ve tried to limit what we spend. I’m lucky that I was the kind of guy when I was 3o that if I had an idea, I acted on it.”