At the Yves Saint Laurent (YSL) showroom here recently, retailer Jeffrey Kalinsky had his heart set on a pair of wool pants. But when he saw...

Share story

PARIS — At the Yves Saint Laurent (YSL) showroom here recently, retailer Jeffrey Kalinsky had his heart set on a pair of wool pants.

But when he saw them up close, Kalinsky quickly spied a problem. “Aren’t they coming with the cuff?” he inquired, gazing at the hemline, as the saleswoman shook her head. “That’s a mistake,” he noted.

Kalinsky, 45, founder of the Jeffrey boutiques in New York and Atlanta, has built his business over the past 18 years by being able to sort through hundreds of designer collections every season and forecast what will catch on among trendsetting shoppers, right down to the pant cuff.

His choices — he carried Balenciaga and Rodarte long before they became global design forces — often trickle down to mainstream retailers.

In an effort to inject some hipness into its merchandise and attract luxury shoppers, Nordstrom bought a majority interest in his stores in 2005 and later hired Kalinsky as a full-time employee to liven up its fashions.

The influence of his buying is just beginning to be felt at stores, with the recent addition in some locations of new designer clothing by labels such as Gucci, Nina Ricci and Junya Watanabe.

More competition

The collaboration comes at a time when fashion is more competitive than ever among U.S. department stores.

Every high-end chain has its own fashion director attending runway shows, commenting on TV or blogging, all with the intent of establishing credibility with consumers — and trying to forge deeper ties with often-imperious designers.

When he was buying exclusively for the Jeffrey boutiques — which carry expensive, cutting-edge fashions — Kalinsky could afford to let his imagination run wild.

For Nordstrom, he must navigate the fine line between buying provocative fashion to generate excitement and commercial clothing that doesn’t alienate current shoppers. The job is made tougher as the U.S. economy slows and shoppers pull back on spending.

His job in Paris is to search for “the love, the wow” — the merchandise that will make the registers ring, he explained.

At Nina Ricci, Nordstrom’s couture buyer Margaret Hinojosa de Garza examined a flowy $2,650 alpaca dress in long sleeves. Kalinsky took one look and dismissed it. “Too sweatery,” he declared. At $2,590, “the short-sleeve version is better,” he explained to his colleague. “It reads like it can be cocktail but doesn’t have to be.” De Garza agreed.

Over the years, Kalinsky has learned the price threshold at which most shoppers will balk. At YSL, while a $7,170 shearling coat with no pockets won’t work, $965 for slacks in a new wide-leg silhouette isn’t a “bad” price, he says.

The key to forecasting what will sell, Kalinsky confides, is a simple axiom: He generally buys what he would like to see women wear — and not what they think they should wear. He often has Audrey Hepburn in mind, he says.

In 1990, after graduating from George Washington University with a degree in communications and a stint at Barneys New York, he opened a store in Atlanta with the help of his dad, followed later by two clothing boutiques. It was there that he honed his knack for picking merchandise that would sell.

Move to New York

In 1999, he moved to New York and opened Jeffrey New York, a new shoe and clothing store. in the city’s meatpacking district.

Kalinsky lobbied hard to buy some key designer lines from Helmut Lang, Manolo Blahnik and Jil Sander at daringly high prices — the average clothing price was around $850.

By 2003, Kalinsky, who wanted to expand, began thinking about partnering with a bigger luxury company. But it wasn’t until 2004 that he met up with the Nordstrom family.

The department-store chain had just undergone a dramatic turnaround of its business under the fourth-generation of Nordstrom sons. Some of the store’s best customers “were buying luxury-designer goods elsewhere that they couldn’t always find in our store,” recalls Pete Nordstom, president of merchandise.

Nordstrom decided Kalinsky could help it increase the level of designer apparel and shoes in 30 of its 102 stores. In 2005, Kalinsky sold a majority stake in his $35 million-in-sales business to Nordstrom for an undisclosed amount and became its director of designer merchandising.