The globe-trotting style guru is finding a sense of home at Nordstrom and Seattle.
OLIVIA KIM walks into a cafe in Seattle’s Belltown neighborhood looking like a goth Carmen Sandiego in an on-trend, oversize, black trenchcoat and black, thick-soled shoes, hair pulled back.
She’s surprisingly perky considering she’s just flown back to Seattle after a whirlwind trip spanning far-flung locales such as Hong Kong and New York, where a few days prior she attended the Costume Institute’s annual red-carpet Met Gala along with the likes of Beyoncé, Madonna, Lady Gaga and the Clooneys.
But as anyone who has encountered Kim knows, she always seems to have giddy energy to burn.
V magazine calls Kim a “fashion magpie.” Vogue refers to her as a “rock star” in fashion commerce.
Most Read Stories
- As Microsoft is showing, workers may never come back to the office
- Gov. Jay Inslee says WA State Patrol won't cooperate with other states' abortion investigations
- Mariners brawl with Angels after being thrown at twice; eight ejected
- Boeing wants more workers in the office to ramp up production. Not everyone wants to go back
- Angels deserve most of the blame for brawl with Mariners
But while Kim, 37, is more in-the-know about what’s hot and what’s genuinely cool than any celeb, you’re unlikely to see paparazzi snapping away at her on the red carpet.
What Kim does for a living seems far less glamorous, but it’s the heart and soul of any successful retail enterprise. She’s a buyer, one of the most respected and well-connected around. And she works for one of Seattle’s most recognizable and successful local brands, Nordstrom, as its director of creative projects.
Since Kim uprooted from her base in New York City two years ago to take the position at Nordstrom headquarters in downtown Seattle, she has been working behind the scenes to imprint her worldly, offbeat sensibility on the fabled department store.
The most visible result for customers is her Pop-In@Nordstrom project, pop-up retail spaces located inside select Nordstrom stores and online that change themes each month and promote merchandise from lesser-known designers or special collaborators hand-picked by Kim.
A recent Pop-In at the downtown flagship store celebrating the onset of summer had stylish shorts, sandals and beach towels for sale in a space filled with nautical hues that transported you to a Southern California pool party.
July ushered in a monthlong collaboration with the esteemed and very British department store Liberty London.
There’s a method — and a madness — to this kind of commerce.
Long before you have a chance to browse the racks of your favorite store, a buyer behind the scenes has already made a series of carefully considered and calculated choices on your behalf.
It is the buyer’s job to know what you might want in any given season, and make sure the store has it in stock and ready to sell. To do this, buyers not only have to travel near and far to meet with designers, attend runway and trade shows and peer into the crystal ball that is trend-spotting, they sort of have to read customers’ minds.
It’s a gamble. Who can know for sure what a shopper will want and, more important, pay for?
The store buyer, the fashion business’ ultimate investigator and sage, is arguably more equipped than anyone to have a credible answer.
It is often the buyer’s vision, style judgment and intuition you see displayed on the racks and shelves, ready for you to wear.
They do all of this while helping create a shopping experience in-store and, increasingly, online that people will seek out again and again, hence the ever-changing nature of Kim’s Pop-Ins.
Kim has described her approach at Nordstrom as scrappy, “guerrilla-style” retail — making unconventional choices to pique interest.
That seems like an odd fit for a mainstream department store chain like Nordstrom, with 261 branches in 35 states and a major e-commerce presence.
But the company has played the game better than many retailers in its storied history by developing a customer-centric reputation and adapting to the times.
The company, which started as a humble downtown shoe emporium in 1901, reported net sales of $3.1 billion the first quarter of 2015, a nearly 10-percent increase over the same period last year.
Nordstrom is in the midst of a major effort to expand its reach via growth in its mainline and Nordstrom Rack stores, among other things, and freshen up its look, as evidenced by a series of in-store additions and remodels over the past couple of years.
Kim’s Pop-Ins, designed and stocked by her and her team, are part of this overall push to keep things interesting at the brick-and-mortar level.
As for Kim, she’s undaunted by the challenge that comes with so much leeway.
“This idea that retail has to fulfill so many expectations at once, that’s what drives me,” she says.
“I’m a good seeker, finder and sharer,” Kim says of her job. “I’m driven by the hunt. I feel like there has to be somebody that’s doing something incredible with fashion, with art, with whatever.”
In conversation, Kim, who is small of stature, heavily tattooed and contagiously bubbly, alights on topics like a bee in a field of wildflowers. She hops around at such a frenzied pace it’s difficult to keep track, even for her. She admits to being so cluttered with ideas and inspirations that she drives her staff crazy with contacts in need of logging and products that need researching.
Kim says her role is to take Nordstrom’s famous attention to shoppers up a notch, drawing on her infectious wanderlust and curiosity.
“I’m tasked with keeping us relevant in terms of what’s trending, what’s happening in other places that maybe our customers aren’t aware of — and sharing that information,” Kim says. “The Internet has made the world very small in a way. How can we be individuals and have our own point of view, our own sense of style?”
Every month, Kim works through this question by way of her Pop-Ins and accompanying blog, all the while settling into a city and region that isn’t exactly known as a fashion haven.
Kim doesn’t seem to mind the clash between what she does and where she lives.
FOR SOMEONE SO well-traveled, Kim once had surprisingly little knowledge of the city that would become her new home.
Listening to her describe the beguiling experience of flying into Seattle-Tacoma International Airport that first day, one can see the beginning of what’s become an infatuation.
“When you’re flying in, it’s like broccoli everywhere, it’s like, green, in January — you know what I mean?” she says with a youthful wonder that belies her worldliness.
“I had to look at my phone and look at a map of where exactly Seattle is, because you can’t really understand that it’s in this nook of water,” she says. “There’s water, water, water everywhere. You just don’t understand that. You don’t understand the proximity to the mountains.”
The born-and-bred New Yorker jokes that when she got off the plane, she nearly choked as she took in what turned out be fresh, clean air.
It was love at first breath.
While house hunting, a rental agent kept wanting to show Kim “New York-style lofts,” thinking she’d want to transplant her big-city lifestyle to the Northwest. Kim didn’t. She wanted quiet streets with cute bungalows. She wanted natural beauty. She wanted the grungy, gritty, heavily caffeinated, “very granola” paradise of her imagination.
“None of my friends had ever been to Seattle, and I wanted to be that pioneer,” she says. “I wanted to go to the Pacific Northwest and live this very Pacific Northwest experience.”
She encountered a city brimming with polite, smart, creative types who took ferries to work and didn’t use umbrellas, who were down-to-earth and infinitely curious, much like herself.
Kim tapped into her innate sense of adventure and immersed herself in the region’s culture and surroundings.
“In my first year, I did everything,” she says. “I went out to the Pacific Coast. I hiked up and around Mount Olympus. I went skiing in the Cascades. I went out to Eastern Washington. I went up to the San Juans. I canoed, I hiked, I camped, I kayaked. You name it, I’ve done it all.”
Rounding out her idyllic Seattle experience, Kim recently bought a house in Seattle’s leafy Queen Anne neighborhood.
“It’s funny, I can’t imagine, now, not having this in my life,” she says. “I travel so much that I’m actually only in Seattle about half the year, but when I’m here, it’s like I want to be here more. It’s such a nice place to unwind.”
Seattle’s isolation presents an intriguing challenge not just for the globally-minded Kim but for Nordstrom as a player in retail. But Kim believes Nordstrom’s Northwest base, so far from fashion’s centers of gravity, can be an asset.
“It’s so cool that we’re sort of out here on our own, but we’re still tapped in culturally, stylistically to what everyone else is doing,” she says. “It just means maybe we travel a little bit more because we’re not in the center of it, but it makes us more curious. You have to make a point to find something new and exciting. It’s not necessarily falling on top of you as it would in New York.”
Even at a glitzy event like the gala in New York, Kim’s working the room, linking up with old friends to pick their brains about what they’re into right now — what they’re wearing and reading, what’s on their music playlists.
“I ask a lot of questions all the time,” she says. “That’s the best sort of information — when you’re surrounded by creative people.”
When Kim returns to Seattle, she distills her newly gathered intel and seeks out partnerships with collaborators to create Pop-Ins that feel distinctly Nordstrom yet relevant in a broader sense. The May fitness Pop-In was a partnership with Nike.
But even Kim can’t be sure whether something that inspires and excites her will be a hit. She’s learned not to be afraid of an idea falling flat.
JUST DOWN THE HILL from the famed Sunset Strip in Los Angeles, the boutique Opening Ceremony occupies a sprawling old building filled with interconnected retail spaces, creaky corridors and stairways that was once home to Charlie Chaplin’s dance studio.
The store within a store, with often-whimsical clothes, accessories, books and luxury novelties, invites wandering.
Opening Ceremony, the brainchild of fashion retail mavens Humberto Leon and Carol Lim, is pop-up popcorn, overflowing with little shopping experiences that can stand on their own but work perfectly as a whole.
Before coming to Nordstrom two years ago, Kim was the “vice president of creative” for that company, which also has retail spaces in New York and Tokyo, as well as an online shop.
In the DNA of Opening Ceremony, we can see the underpinnings of Kim’s Pop-In projects for Nordstrom. There was something cheeky and irreverent in her approach, a fashion-forwardness divorced from snobbishness.
“She has a unique point of view,” says Nordstrom Co-President Pete Nordstrom, who met Kim after Jeffrey Kalinsky, Nordstrom’s designer fashion director, suggested he connect with her while on a trip to New York. “A lot of that is because of who she is and from her experiences working with Opening Ceremony, but it’s also because she has a very New York-centric, and really more of an international point of view than most of our Seattle team.
“She is well-connected, and that enables her to get stuff done,” he adds. “She is also a rare combination of merchant and creative.”
Echoing Kim, Nordstrom says his customers “want it all, and they want it on their own terms.”
That requires nimbleness and lot of out-of-the-box thinking, Kim’s specialties.
This week, Nordstrom and Kim will unveil a new retail concept called SPACE at branches in downtown Seattle, San Francisco, Chicago and the soon-to-open store in Vancouver, B.C.
Building on the Pop-In idea, SPACE shops will occupy their own environments inside the department stores, with a distinct look, feel and fixtures to set them apart. It’ll all be curated by Kim and her team, with an emphasis on clothes, shoes and accessories from emerging and advanced fashion designers.
SPACE will be the fullest expression yet of the Olivia Kim attitude and aesthetic at Nordstrom. The retailer gave customers a sneak peek at what SPACE will have on offer during its Fall 2015 Designer Preview fashion show in July, with models wearing edgy clothes selected by Kim from labels like Anthony Vaccarello and Undercover.
Among the other brands Kim picked for the shop is East London-based designer Faustine Steinmetz, whose studio team turns out jeans, dresses and other garments made of fabrics they spin, dye and weave by hand.
There’s the relatively new label Vetements, a Paris-based design collective headed up by Demna Gvasalia whose retro-glam and punkish clothes look right at an art-gallery opening or an after-party at a fetish club.
And there’s veteran Brooklyn-based designer Andre Walker, a star of 1980s avant-garde fashion who’s making a return to the scene with a still-artsy but more retail-minded aesthetic.
Kim has assembled this roster the way a museum curator organizes a blockbuster show, with the intent to dazzle and take you places only an insider completely confident in her own instincts dare try.
What is the essence of style? Kim’s answer seems to an emphatic “be yourself,” follow your own lead.
But, really, it’s more fun to follow Kim’s lead as she proceeds un-selfconsciously around the globe, divining, distilling and treasure-hunting.
You never know where she’ll lead you next.
Being Olivia Kim means always saying yes to maybe.