There aren’t many retail executives who can say they’ve worked for one company for 40 years. But Tom Kalenderian is not just any retailer.
Kalenderian, the executive vice president and general merchandise of men’s, children and home for Barneys New York, is one of the most respected merchants in the luxury men’s business.
He’s survived a bankruptcy filing, five ownership changes and a similar number of chief executive officers. He’s seen the business shift its focus from downtown to uptown and lived through its expansions and contractions — all without losing focus on making Barneys’ men’s business the best it can be.
What sets Kalenderian apart is not only his passion for the industry and his deep knowledge of the business, but also his ability to unearth little-known brands that Barneys can incubate and help build into powerhouse brands, whether that’s Boglioli, Isaia or Ovadia.
But something else sets him apart as well: his humility.
In an industry where self-promotion has become a career objective and egos can fill an auditorium, Kalenderian is the opposite. Ask him, for example, why he’s been so successful and he always answers the same way: it’s because of Barneys, not him.
And although he’s undoubtedly received other job offers through the years, he’s never seriously entertained any.
“Why would I leave?” he said. “I’ve never stopped feeling I was fortunate and in the right place.”
Kalenderian, who grew up on Long Island, went to Adelphi University and had originally studied pre-med so he could follow in the footsteps of his physician father. But that changed when he applied for a part-time job at Bloomingdale’s in Garden City, N.Y. He recalled: “They hired me on the spot and the rest is history. I was bitten by the fashion bug and quickly switched to business administration with a focus on marketing. I loved everything about it and never thought of it as a job but more a great experience.
“It was a gorgeous new store, one of the few branch stores for Bloomingdale’s with a very sophisticated assortment and a very savvy client,” he continued. “Even the restaurant, Ondine, was chic; designed by the legendary Danish designer Bjørn Wiinblad. I loved being part of something that was cutting-edge. I took this passion and thirst for fashion to Barneys where I accepted to begin as a temp, to get my foot in the door. Maybe not your typical story, but for a kid with a passion for fashion and a collection of every GQ, Esquire and W magazine, this was what I was always thinking about and assumed it was what I should focus on. Fortunately my dad agreed and supported my decision.”
Kalenderian’s journey at Barneys began in 1979 when he accepted a 30-day sales job at the store’s original location on 17th Street and Seventh Avenue at a time when the store sold primarily men’s wear. (The company dabbled in women’s during the Seventies but didn’t add it in earnest until 1981.) A year later, he was promoted to management, and soon after that, Fred Pressman, the son of founder Barney Pressman, tapped him to join the merchandising team.
Fred Pressman was a visionary who transformed his father’s discount men’s wear store into one of the top fashion emporiums in the world. He’s credited with bringing a fledgling European designer named Giorgio Armani to the States, along with Pierre Cardin, Yves Saint Laurent, Brioni and Ermenegildo Zegna.
Kalenderian recalled how Fred Pressman went to Europe in the late Sixties in search of a way to update the domestic clothing sector that, while still a good business, was “considered a little conservative and probably old — and it was time for something to change.”
He visited Hubert de Givenchy, Nino Cerruti and Piattelli and managed to talk these “special makers, couturiers and tailors” into creating men’s wear for Barneys. “His idea was radical in that he wanted to introduce Continental clothing — side-vented, besom pockets. The guys from Madison Avenue with their center-vented, natural-shoulder clothing probably jumped out of their suspenders when they saw that stuff and thought, ‘Ah, that’s not going to do anything.’ And the rest is history,” said Kalenderian.
This was the man who taught him the business.
According to Fred’s son and former Barneys co-chief executive officer Gene Pressman, “Tommy was originally my assistant. Besides being a great human being, he’s one of the most knowledgeable men’s merchants on the planet. He was very diligent and absorbed the information well. He has a real passion that’s very rare to find and he’s really mastered his craft — and he learned everything from Fred Pressman.”
“Working directly with Fred was life-changing,” Kalenderian said. “His intuition and passion outweighed his expertise, and his expertise came from his intuition and passion. When we would go somewhere, he would ask the right questions — the questions no one would ask. It was like a course and a half because by the time we were done working on something, I felt very confident that we had something really special. That for me felt like a gift. Even the hardest day in business I welcomed those conversations with him.”
Not everyone who worked at Barneys, however, was so receptive, he said. “Some people didn’t see the value in using him for that, and I did,” he said. “I didn’t go to him, he came to me and I didn’t have to chase him. He included me and was always willing to see that I had something valuable for the company to work on.”
Kalenderian recalled how Fred Pressman always had 8 1/2 x 11 sheets of paper “that he folded very neatly” and carried in the pocket of his oxford shirt. “Sometimes it was very full and it looked like he had a couple of handkerchiefs in there, but those were always nattily placed in his breast pocket on the outside. That pack of papers was his filing cabinet and there was always a sheet with my name on it. I was never sure what was on that page, but they were usually great ideas and business opportunities that we developed.”
Although Fred Pressman had four children, he treated Kalenderian like another of his sons. But that reflected the company culture as a whole.
“He wasn’t short of family, but we were family as a company and everybody was included,” he said. “If you were receptive of what was being offered, you benefited from it. For those who weren’t, maybe they misread how useful it was to work so closely with someone like that. But It was something I gravitated toward, so I felt very fortunate.”
He shadowed Fred Pressman on European trips and soaked everything in.
In fact, despite attending 79 Pitti Uomo shows and countless runway presentations, Kalenderian says his most memorable show is still the first Armani extravaganza he attended more than 35 years ago.
The year was 1980 and it was the first time he was in the front row of the designer’s show. “I was completely mesmerized by how he transports people and brings you into his mind and you see what he sees,” Kalenderian recalled. “He has such a natural ability to control and deliver what he was trying to say with these clothes, he told the models how to walk, what accessories to carry. From where we were sitting, on an angle I could see Mr. Armani backstage, and like most creatives, at the very last second, he would change or adjust something so it looked great. I thought that was magical.”
The mutual admiration between Kalenderian and the iconic designer continues to this day.
According to Armani, “At the time my brand launched in the United States, Barneys provided a fundamental showcase. Tom Kalenderian has been involved in this project for four decades, and what I like about his approach is that he understands that men respond best to a balance of enthusiasm for the new, while respecting the established. When we met we were both at the beginning of our careers and since then he has always been supportive of my work. I still remember that to set up the meeting with Tom and the then-chairman of Barneys, my friend and business partner Sergio Galeotti lent them his Porsche so that they could drive from Pitti in Florence to Forte dei Marmi.”
Other luxury brands are similarly complimentary, including Gildo Zegna, chief executive officer of Ermenegildo Zegna, who has also been a fan of Kalenderian’s for decades.
“My friendship with Tom goes back all the way to his early days at Barneys when we were both at the beginning of our careers in New York,” Zegna said. “I was head of Zegna in the U.S. and Tom was the tie buyer; he knew and loved everything about the category, with an amazing attention to detail. Forty years have passed quickly.”
Thom Browne pointed to Kalenderian’s knack of identifying trends and pushing Barneys ahead.
“Tom is a true legend in the world of men’s wear. He has been a true visionary in the evolution of how men dress,” he said.
Shimon Ovadia, cofounder of Ovadia New York, is grateful to Kalenderian for taking a chance on a new brand. “Tom is one of the most genuine and elegant people in our industry,” he said. “He’s a visionary with a passion for product that’s unmatched — he can talk to you about the future of streetwear or different straw qualities on a Monte Cristo for hours. He’s had such impact and influence on men’s fashion and the Barneys brand. He’s always supported young designers and Barneys was the first to carry Ovadia back in 2011. Tom always has a great story to share. He’s been a mentor, a friend and someone we look up to.”
But over the years, not every brand or decision has been a hit like Armani, Zegna, Thom Browne or Ovadia. But Kalenderian takes the lessons he learned from Fred Pressman and doesn’t take that to heart.
“We did make mistakes,” he admitted. “Naturally in business, you take risks and you can’t move forward if you don’t find those opportunities even if they don’t work out the way you planned. But [Fred Pressman] never used the words, ‘You made a mistake.’ He would always say, ‘We did not figure this out.’ I would be shocked and surprised and a little pleased that I wasn’t singled out. But to him, it wasn’t about going backward, but going forward and he was more intent on making sure the experience was a life lesson that would hopefully guide me to do better with or without him at my side. That is the true definition of a mentor. He delivered his expertise, intuition and knowledge so I could be successful and we could be successful as a company. It wasn’t about what I achieved or what he achieved; it was about making sure I was better skilled to do a better job. He was an incredible trainer and leader.”
Although brands come and go, which is the nature of the retail business, Kalenderian doesn’t blame the vendor, or the Barneys merchandise team when there are missteps.
Instead, he said it’s often a faulted strategy. He explained: “Maybe we would add a new brand and decide to go all doors with activations and events in a couple before we knew what the results would be. The investment was large and the commitment was there from all aspects of the organization including the communications team, but the reality is that all of that isn’t enough. So I don’t think it’s about a brand that doesn’t work, but maybe we didn’t have the right strategy or we went too fast. In some cases, we’ve gone back to some of those brands years later and done a restart and put it into just Madison and web or Madison, Beverly Hills and Barneys.com.”
That includes Jil Sander, he said, which Barneys has carried “through every creative director. Today we’re working with Luke and Lucie Meier and we’re excited about how they’re bringing life back to this concept of extremely understated clothes and accessories.”
Kalenderian will also work closely with vendors to try to improve sales if they’re lagging instead of just dropping a collection and moving on.
Gianluca Isaia, ceo of Isaia, recalled: “Almost 20 years ago, after a few seasons, we were not really performing at Barneys and we were on the way out. So I had a lunch in New York with Tom and I was sure that it was our last business conversation. But he really surprised me. He put on the table ideas [to help improve sales] and we decided on a different strategy to try to make it happen. He gave our company a last chance. That chance was the good one for both of us. I will never forget it.”
Isaia is now one of the top 10 brands in the company, Kalenderian said. “It’s great that they rose to the challenge to keep the business relevant and effective and maximize the opportunity,” he said.
But with the scope of Barneys’ business, he admits that he’s not able to work that closely with every vendor every day. “Given the number of brands we work with, we need to manage our time effectively and we constantly change our focus based on what is the most important priorities. At any given time, we try to touch everything, but it’s not every month or every season, but consistently we have to keep an eye on it.”
Keeping his eye on the business is one of Kalenderian’s strengths, but he credits his team for helping him find the right brands to bring in at the right time.
“I don’t do it alone,” he said. “We have a really strong team and a very powerful group that is passionate and knowledgeable about culture, fashion, history, art, social, digital. They know many things and are very tapped in, and I think having that think-tank is really the secret.”
But sometimes, he still goes with his gut.
“If I walk into a room and if I like something but the team doesn’t agree with me, I’ll just say, ‘That’s going to work.’ I don’t know how I know that, but I really feel it goes back to clients and customer base and understanding what’s important. My senses react to something new that feels valuable to that client we have. That’s intuitively what I’m reacting to and we have to get moving on it because it could be a good opportunity for us.”
Over the years, the business has evolved dramatically and Kalenderian has learned to pivot as well. Perhaps the biggest change has been the juggling act between brick-and-mortar and online.
“It’s been fun and fascinating and challenging,” he said. “I think Barneys’ evolution in e-commerce has been a little slower than some of our competition but the way we handle that channel is very valuable in that we tell the story more often today online than in print on paper. Whether or not the sale occurs in a store or online, there’s no question clients are using it for information or commerce.”
Shoppers will research in the store and buy online or research online and buy in the store. “The synergy between the two channels is critically important today and for the future,” he said.
Barneys has also put to rest the myth that men won’t buy online, although the sales tend to be tilted toward designer suits or sportswear rather than a traditional nested suit. Kalenderian attributes that to the relationship the customer has established with the Barneys sales staff.
“For the guy that is shopping in a Barneys location religiously, he probably has a very nice personal relationship with someone. Those conversations don’t happen with a click. The ceremony of the process is part of it and some people enjoy it.”
Interestingly, Barneys has found that even young people enjoy shopping in stores. “We know from data that the Millennial client we have is shopping 50 percent in store. It’s not an age thing but whether you really enjoy that experience of shopping with someone in a store.”
Kalenderian said Barneys current ceo, Daniella Vitale, always reminds the staff that “fashion retail is an experience and we have to deliver more than product, we have to deliver a great experience and as we move forward and balance the values of having both the digital conduit to the client as well as the face-to-face relationship in a store with a talented professional, we need to understand how to maximize both together — that’s the future.”
Kalenderian pointed to Vitale, who cut her teeth at Gucci and Armani before being named chief of Barneys in 2017, as someone he considers a mentor today.
“I respect and value her immensely and I have tremendous admiration for her strength and ability,” he said. “I believe she is the right person to lead this organization and I’m very proud to come to work and sit next to her in a meeting and have her turn to me and say, ‘What do you think?’ It’s an amazing feeling. I’ve had the great honor to have worked with Mark Lee and Howard Socol and Allen Questrom, so I have really worked for great people — and with great people. I didn’t always feel like a report, I sometimes felt like a partner.”
Vitale also values her relationship with Kalenderian.
“When you think about the history of Barneys New York, you cannot help but think of Tom Kalenderian,” she said. “He is the paradigm of the brand: passionate, unique, creative and an incredible tastemaker. I am not sure how anyone maintains enthusiasm and love for what they do after 40 years, but somehow Tom still does it. I have been fortunate to not only work with him side by side at Barneys for the last nine years, but across the table for over 20 years. His passion is infectious, and will be a part of all of my memories. How unique it is for him to be part of Barneys legacy, but also here to help define our future. What a gift.”
Kalenderian himself has also mentored others over the years. A story he tells about Jay Bell, who worked with Kalenderian in men’s before being elevated to executive vice president and general merchandise manager of women’s last August, illustrates it well.
The team recently attended a meeting where plaquettes were put on the seats to indicate where people should sit. One said Tom Kalenderian, gmm men’s, home, kids, and another said Jay Bell, gmm of women’s.
“Jay left a minute before me and he left his plaquette and I thought, ‘I’ll keep it for him.’ I went back to my office and took it out of my bag and said, ‘No, I’m going to keep this for me.’ I put the two of them side by side. I’m very gratified by the accomplishments of my team.”
Kalenderian’s passion for the business doesn’t leave a lot of time for off-duty activities. Asked what he does for fun, the Long Island, N.Y., native responds: “I hang out with my 95-year-old mother. She’s a strong lady — it’s that Neapolitan blood. She’s my fun time.”
His five nephews are also important to him and he tries to support them when they’re playing sports, often attending games and cheering from the sidelines. In fact, he shows off the pen he carries in his pocket that is engraved with “Uncle Tom.”
“I have a great family,” he said, adding that his nephews are “a riot.”
Kalenderian continues to embrace life and his future at Barneys, eager to discover the next new brand or how to gently nudge the men’s customer into the future.
With four decades under his belt, it’s highly unlikely Kalenderian will end his career anywhere else than where he started it.
“It’s true that clothes make the man and Barneys has always been there. Barneys was there with Prada, with Dries, Vetements, Balenciaga — Barneys is always there. I don’t know any other way to say why I’m here. I feel fortunate to be able to be part of this experience and I’m not done.”