If the days of spending an entire career at one company are long gone, no one bothered to tell Tom Kalenderian. Barneys New York’s vice president of men’s, children’s and home has loved his job for 37 years.
Asked why he stayed through two generations of Pressmans, the founding family, at the helm, a bankruptcy and a revolving door of changes in ownership, Kalenderian sounded incredulous that the question had been asked. “Why would I leave?” he said during a conversation with WWD’s senior editor of men’s, Jean Palmieri.
“You have to look at situations like this as never being one reason or one thing that makes you feel a certain way,” he said. “In life, everything is always the sum total of many parts.”
Kalenderian is definitely a glass-half-full kind of guy. When he accepted a 30-day sales job at Barneys in 1979, he landed, somewhat haphazardly, in a thriving creative hive. A year later, he was promoted to management and the following year, Fred Pressman, the son of founder Barney, handpicked him for his team. Working for Fred “were the most incredible 17 years of my life,” he said.
“I had such a unique experience of being exposed to a family that was on the cutting edge of every aspect of the retail industry. Their level of creativity and innovation and their constant search to do something better had a deep effect on my personality and point of view on business,” said Kalenderian. “I was more than loyal, I was fascinated by what they were interested in and it never ceased to amaze me how they never felt that they were done. It was a consistent learning experience that was life-changing, in a way. I knew how lucky I was at the time and I honestly never wanted it to end.”
Kalenderian credited Fred Pressman with elevating men’s wear with his discovery and promotion of designers such as Giorgio Armani.
“Exclusivity is one of the keys of the Barneys brand, dating to the Seventies, when most of the clothing was American,” he said. “Fred Pressman was challenged to take his store to the next dimension. His vision took him to Italy to meet custom tailors like Bruno Piattelli, who was making clothes for Marcello Mastroianni and films by [Luchino] Visconti and [Federico] Fellini. He worked with Hubert de Givenchy and walked into Huntsman on Savile Row and signed a contract for 15 years. He created the designers that didn’t exist at the time — he was actually using tailors as designers. This predated Nino Cerruti, Mr. Armani, Ferré and Versace.”
Pressman created awareness, excitement and desire that made consumers feel like they couldn’t live without the clothes.
Kalenderian said his own sense of discovery sends him to see potential new talents at odd hours or on a moment’s notice. When he got an urgent call asking him to drop everything and go to Great Jones Street to see the work of Greg Lauren, he took the bait. “I walked into a loft space filled with art — clothes as art. I was absolutely speechless. I knew in a moment that this was something great. [Retail] is one part art and one part math. At the end of the day, if you don’t feel the art, you can’t do the math,” Kalenderian said.
Lauren, who repurposed army fabric from tents, duffel bags and coats from the Forties, staged his garments on clotheslines hung with clothespins. Kalenderian called Barneys chief executive officer Mark Lee and said, “I know you’re superbusy, but could you meet me at 7:30 in the morning and see this before the guy gets on a plane to L.A.? Greg is one of our top vendors today.”
Lauren’s collection isn’t mainstream, but “the biggest brands in the world may not work at Barneys,” Kalenderian said. “A great idea can become a great business, but it takes the same approach you put into your top vendor.”
Barneys last month opened a 58,000-square-foot store on Seventh Avenue between 16th and 17th Streets, in a portion of the space that was occupied by its original downtown flagship, which closed in 1997 and was where Kalenderian started his Barneys career.
“We decided not to dabble,” Kalenderian said of the Chelsea store. “It’s a designer store. We have luxury and tailored clothing uptown on Madison Avenue. We wanted downtown to be different and feel fresh. I’m surprised how successful the store is. It’s beating the plan.
“Overall, we’re doing very well, but we have very high peaks and some valleys,” Kalenderian admitted. “We need to focus on the parts of the business that need the most attention right now to get things working in concert and on an even keel.”
Fingering a silver bracelet on his wrist, Kalenderian said, “My team gave it to me. What it means is that I’ve hopefully helped some young people enjoy what I’ve enjoyed in my life. You realize that every organization is not about merchandise and stores and designs, it’s about people.”