Hey, Barneys … Remember Me? Jeffrey Kalinsky Sets Up Shop on 14th Street

Petite retailer Jeffrey Kalinsky stuck an Hermès dingo boot out of his lady-chauffeured Lincoln Town Car onto far West 14th Street on a recent sunny Saturday afternoon. A few men in white, blood-stained aprons and a couple in errand wear were the only other living beings on the carcass-filled street in the meat-packing district. The air smelled of dried blood and guts. Mr. Kalinsky emerged, dressed in head-to-toe Madison Avenue: cream-colored Helmut Lang jeans, a white Yves Saint Laurent belt (with a mother-of-pearl buckle), a fitted, black Gucci T-shirt, a sky blue Yves Saint Laurent cashmere cardigan and a navy leather Hermès jacket. He stared out from behind Katharine Hamnett sunglasses.

On Aug. 2 (his 37th birthday), Mr. Kalinsky, a former shoe buyer for Barneys, will open Jeffrey New York, a 12,000-square-foot former warehouse on the corner of 10th Avenue packed with expensive garments, reminiscent–in inventory, at least–of his former employer. Gucci, Helmut Lang, Ann Demeulemeester, Costume National, Dries Van Noten, Jil Sander, John Bartlett, Lucien Pellat-Finet and Marni, among others, will decorate his racks. Stuart Weitzman, Robert Clergerie, Dolce & Gabbana and Prada will line his centerpiece shoe display.

What Jeffrey lacks in name recognition and square-footage compared to Barneys (and everyone is comparing his store to Barneys), Mr. Kalinsky intends to make up for in pampering and Southern charm. The son and grandson of retailers and owner of three successful Atlanta stores–Bob Ellis, Jeffrey and Jil Sander (he owns her franchise)–will offer up his Manolo Blahniks with a healthy dose of hospitality, which may prove to be a welcome antidote to Madison Avenue, where the salespeople are almost always too hip to help. If you have ever been to one of Jeffrey Kalinsky’s stores, you have probably met him, and chances are he remembers your shoe size.

Bag designer Judith Leiber calls Mr. Kalinsky her “terrific shoe man.” And when wedding-cake designer Sylvia Weinstock, who has been shopping with Mr. Kalinsky for 10 years, heard he was coming to New York, she called him to say, “I can’t wait! I have my charge card ready!”

Retailers are less giddy. In fact, Barneys is said to be ticked off. Jason Weisenfeld, vice president of public relations, tried to take the high road. “We are thrilled for Jeffrey as we are for all Barneys alumni that go on and excel in the world of retail,” he said. “In Jeffrey’s case, we are particularly flattered because he has always been very vocal about the enormous amount he learned during his tenure at Barneys.”

Like how to sign a label like Gucci, which doesn’t even sell at Barneys? “The area he is going into is extremely exciting,” said Barbara Sforza, president of Zama Sport USA, importer and distributor of Gucci’s women’s clothing. “He has impeccable taste. It will be great for New York to have another small multivendor store. I am sure tons of people will be shopping there.” Until Jeffrey, Gucci was available in New York only at Saks Fifth Avenue and the Gucci boutique on Fifth Avenue.

Laura Stephen, director of wholesale sales at Helmut Lang, also decided to sell to Mr. Kalinsky. “It is exciting and experimental and risk taking,” she said of the store. Helmut Lang is sold at Barneys, Saks and at his own boutique on Greene Street. “He has excellent standards and excellent taste. It is very much not what is happening on Madison and Fifth and even in SoHo.”

As it turns out, Jeffrey New York will be headed by a troika of Barneys graduates. On March 25, Mr. Kalinsky hired David Rubenstein, a former buyer of designer and evening collections at Barneys, as vice president of men’s and women’s wear. Mr. Kalinsky and Mr. Rubenstein, who has also been vice president of sales and merchandising at Isaac Mizrahi and then at Tse Cashmere, already collaborate on a casual men’s and women’s clothing line called Kalinsky Rubenstein, which is sold at Barneys and at Linda Dresner on Park Avenue. (Probably not for long.)

“He is entering a league of competition that is quite high,” said Ellen Carey, former public relations director at Barneys until the late 80’s, who was brought on as fashion director and vice president of Jeffrey New York, also on March 25. “The friends that he had previously might not be his friends now. Nobody is going to be happy to have a new retailer enter into this arena.… We’re all sharing the same customers.”

Lugging a cavernous Hermès bag across the slick cobblestones, Mr. Kalinsky approached his new space, the first floor of 449 West 14th Street, which used to be occupied by Moishe’s Moving and Storage. “I mean, can’t you see it?” he said, waving a buttery-leather-clad arm at the six-story limestone building. “It’s a store! It’s already a store! It looks like an old main-floor department store and it’s going to be this raw.”

Had it been a weekday, one of Mr. Kalinsky’s friends might have asked him to pipe down. Upstairs from Mr. Kalinsky are the offices of designer John Bartlett, fashion event planners Milk Studios, Guccione Media ( Gear magazine) and fashion publicist KCD. Within a few blocks are restaurants like Markt, Petite Abeille, Le Gans, Macau and, soon, a Balthazar outpost. The Chelsea Market between 15th and 16th streets on Ninth Avenue houses wholesale and retail stores like Amy’s Bread and Hale and Hearty Soup. Dozens of galleries have slowly migrated from SoHo to the far West 20’s. Shortly thereafter, Comme des Garçons forged a path for fashion retailers, opening a store at 520 West 22nd Street between 10th and 11th avenues. Barnesandnoble.com sits across the street from the Chelsea Markets in the old Post Office building. Jeffrey will be the first multivendor retail store.

“It’s the last frontier of New York,” said Caroline P. Banker, senior vice president of New Spectrum Realty, who found Mr. Kalinsky his space. Since then, she has steered Portico into a former Williams-Sonoma outlet store on 10th Avenue between 23rd and 24th streets. “All of the buildings are going to be converted. The restaurants are always the first ones in. I keep getting calls about it. Every developer is trying to get in.”

Mr. Kalinsky poked around the empty, windowless space, which has 18-foot ceilings supported by a couple dozen giant, square pillars. The original marble tile floor is scuffed. Along one wall are ancient elevators with mahogany cars, remnants from the days when the building was the Nabisco headquarters. They don’t work but Mr. Kalinsky may fix them. “We are keeping everything architecturally we can from the building,” he said. Even the loading bays. People can watch the new stock arrive while they shop.

The plan is to have shoes down the center of the store and ready-to-wear and accessories surrounding them. Men’s and women’s clothing will be hung side by side. “Wouldn’t you rather shop with your boyfriend than without him?” Or wear his clothes. Or even have him wear yours. “You have to say, Why not? I wear a lot of Jil. I have been known to be in the Brooks Brothers women’s department for too long.” He likes their narrow-legged pants. “On me, it looked like high fashion, not $60 pants.”

The store will be full of sights and sounds. “We will have all different kinds of dressing rooms. You know the pink room and the Blue Room at the White House? Each one will be different. Some will have CD players, some will have TV’s, some will have both. It is going to be fun.”

Mr. Kalinsky doesn’t only want to sell to young, scrawny fashion addicts. He will also go after the fashion unspeakable: large sizes. “I am going to sell–I hope–to 80-year-olds. I want all size 14’s in clothes. But I have to start slow and see if they will come. Shoes will come from the airport to the store in sizes 4 to 12, quad A’s to B’s.”

He has already committed to 6,000 more square feet in January and has his eye on the second and the third floors, where Saks Fifth Avenue, among others, now have space. On his mind: cosmetics, a restaurant, furniture and maybe even a private Jeffrey New York label.

“I want people wheeling their racks into the store for me to look at their stuff. If they will come to me and show it to me, I’ll look at it.”

“People think I had the idea to open down here because Barneys doesn’t exist down here anymore. That wasn’t it at all,” said Mr. Kalinsky. “I was originally shopping the city looking for the possibility of a Jil Sander flagship. When I started to hear about the rents, I thought, ‘Wow! If she doesn’t want to do that, I want to do it.'”

Then, Mr. Kalinsky had to put New York out of his mind; he was supposed to be marrying his boyfriend of eight years last Oct. 24. “In a synagogue with a rabbi. My mother walking me down the aisle in a dress designed for her by Michael Kors, his mother in a Guy Laroche dress. Three hundred friends and family for a beautiful seated dinner dance at the Four Seasons in Atlanta afterwards.”

But then his plans changed. “Two weeks before the wedding, he slept with his new 28-year-old boyfriend.”

With rents in the $20-a-square-foot range on West 14th Street, he decided to go to New York after all. He signed a lease, booked a suite at the St. Regis and started looking for an apartment in the West Village. “I always wanted this and now there is absolutely nothing–no reason not to.”

Walking around the store, he said, “I love the whole synergy of the meat market and the sex clubs at night. What people call seedy and what I call seedy are two different things.”

But Susan Rolontz, executive vice president of the Tobé Report , a retail publication, thinks he might be jumping off the deep end. “I think he’s taking on a big risk,” she said. “He is so far over! Maybe it is chic, but it is not the easiest area to get to.… I would offer a car service or a van service down to there from someplace. Lunch, free delivery service, lots of amenities, that all has to be part of the package.… Downtown Barneys offered free parking.”

Mr. Kalinsky protested. “What a better place to shop than on the [Hudson] river? It is so open, it is not congested. SoHo is so claustrophobic.” The sound of the West Side Highway filled the air.

“I think New Yorkers will go anyplace where they can get something wonderful with a great deal of service,” said Ms. Weinstock. “This is going to be Southern service, Southern gentility with a sophisticated taste at an affordable pocket. Anybody who walks through that door will be treated like a princess.”

Mr. Kalinsky hopes she’s right–and she may be. “He is not a bank. He is the merchant,” conceded Ms. Rolontz. “Personalized service and a personality was what it used to be about. We have lost a lot of those stores like Martha and Bonwit Teller. Even Bendel when they were on 57th used to do it.”

Although Mr. Kalinsky still has much to accomplish between now and Aug. 2–like knocking down walls, adding windows and stocking the store–he is already planning his Aug. 1 store-opening party. “If I had to sell from picnic tables, whatever. I can put down some carpet today and have rolling racks and sell clothes.”

He wants to throw a fund-raiser for breast cancer and AIDS research and charge $1,000 a person. He put in a call to Harper’s Bazaar editor Liz Tilberis. And Sylvia Weinstock is “fixing him up” with party planner Colin Cowie.

Five months a “divorcé,” Mr. Kalinsky was intrigued, then disappointed.

“Well, he has a boyfriend,” Mr. Kalinsky sighed, “but he is a great party planner and is in New York and is somebody I should know.”