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The Chosen Ones: An Interview With Jeffrey Kalinsky

The fashion director and boutique owner talks about his love of vintage tees, the importance of long-term fundraising for charities, and why Rosh Hashanah is his favorite Jewish holiday

Periel Aschenbrand
October 07, 2016
Photo collage: Tablet magazine. Kalinsky: Courtesy of Jeffrey Kalinsky
Photo collage: Tablet magazine. Kalinsky: Courtesy of Jeffrey Kalinsky
Photo collage: Tablet magazine. Kalinsky: Courtesy of Jeffrey Kalinsky
Photo collage: Tablet magazine. Kalinsky: Courtesy of Jeffrey Kalinsky

The Chosen Ones is a weekly column by author and comedian Periel Aschenbrand, who interviews Jews doing fabulous things.

I’ve been a fashion victim for as long as I can remember. So recently, when I walked past Jeffrey New York, the legendary Meatpacking boutique, I couldn’t resist going inside. Started in 1999, by Jeffrey Kalinsky, it quickly became a mecca—Kalinsky’s taste is varied and impeccable and a walk through his space feels as much like you are getting an education in chic as it does a shopping experience. I hadn’t been inside in ages—and I was like, I really shouldn’t, now is not the time to be dropping 7 million dollars on a handbag. But then I was like, I really should.

I still remember the first thing I bought there over ten years ago—a pair of bright green suede Yves Saint Laurent loafers (before they killed the Yves) on a heel so high I could barely walk. Now, a decade later, against my better judgment, I was back. As I perused a rack of clothes, I heard someone say, “Are you a mom?”

Me: Excuse me?

Strange man: “Are you a mom?”

Me: “Is it that obvious? It wasn’t exactly the look I was going for when I left the house today—or ever, frankly.” I was wearing ripped up black jean shorts, motorcycle boots and a vintage Harley tee shirt.

The man who had spoken to me looked confused. He clarified, “I don’t doubt you’re a mom, not that you look like one.” He looked me up and down, assessing, “You look more like a cool kid, but I didn’t say ‘Are you a mom?,’ I asked if you like Vetements? (pronounced Vet-Mon)”

Me: “Oh! Yes, I mean, I do but I just think if they’re going to charge, how much is this, $950 for a sweatshirt, they should be using much softer cotton and see, here, the cuffs, they’re much too loose. They should take some notes from Rick Owens or Alexander Wang. This material is horrible.”

The gentleman, who, himself, was in a vintage tee, shorts, and sneakers looked like he had been expecting a different answer. He also looked mildly offended.

“What do you do?” he asked, seeming to imply that anyone who would dare criticize Demna Gvasalia, the head designer of Vetements, better have a damn good answer. (Like maybe, “I’m Anna Wintour in disguise.”)

“I’m a writer,” I said.

Strange man: “What do you write?”

Me: “This, that, books, the other thing. Also, I have a column.”

Strange man: “About what?”

Me: “Each week I interview a different interesting…Jew.”

Strange man: “Oh. Well. I’m an interesting Jew.”

Me: “You are? What do you do?”

Strange man: “I own this store.”

I promptly made an appointment to meet Jeffrey Kalinsky to hear more about just how interesting a Jew he actually is.

Kalinsky: First of all, what are you wearing?

Periel Aschenbrand: A Catherine Hamnett jacket, jeans, Golden Goose motorcycle boots, and I thought this vintage tee was appropriate for our meeting. I know we share an obsession with the vintage tee shirt.

JK: What does it say?

PA: “The pen is mightier than the sword.” I understand you’re going to Europe tomorrow.

JK: Yes, I’m going to Madrid with my boyfriend.

PA: You look glum about it.

JK: I don’t know what you do there.

PA: Do you eat meat?

JK: Not really.

PA: Okay, well, you won’t eat jamón, then. You’ll drink wine. Do you drink?

JK: I don’t.

PA: Okay, you won’t drink wine. Do you eat cheese?

JK: Besides EAT.

PA: I don’t know. I mean, I think the fashion in Spain is kind of not…great. You might find some good vintage t-shirts.

JK: Really?

PA: Maybe!

JK: Where?

PA: I would look up what kind of flea markets they have going on. They have great museums there. OK, you do not look like you want to go to a museum. What? You hate art? Does your boyfriend drink wine and eat cheese?

JK: Oh yeah.

PA: Okay, you’ll just be supportive then, I guess.

JK: I hope I can eat.

PA: What do you eat?

JK: I eat chicken, I eat fish.

PA: Okay. So you’ll eat paella.

JK: Chicken paella?

PA: Shrimp paella?

JK: I don’t eat shrimp.

PA: Why don’t you eat shrimp?

JK: I don’t like it.

PA: Why? Because they’re disgusting? Because they’re like the rats of the ocean?

JK: Now you’ve made them even more desirable. So, what you got for me?

PA: For starters, I want to finish our conversation.

JK: What conversation?

PA: About Vetements!

JK: Didn’t we finish?

PA: I don’t think so. I sort of finished. But I would like to hear your professional take on it.

JK: I don’t know if I have a professional take on it. I, as a buyer, and someone stimulated by fashion and newness in fashion, am very thankful that Demna Gvasalia is out there in the world because he has made it more interesting, he has given it a kick in the pants and I love that.

PA: How so?

JK: My orbit is always being inspired by the people who are, in my opinion, the most talented people in the world. So I worship at the shrine of Phoebe Philo. I worship at the shrine of Raf Simmons. I worship at the shrine of Hedi Slimane. I have a core group of designers who really speak to me. And Demna, I feel like he has something to teach me and I love the way he thinks different. I love what he’s doing at Balenciaga. LOVE. Vetements forces you to think about what’s influencing fashion and for spring, this whole idea of all these collaborations, how they pulled it off … Blahniks! Brioni! Champion, Canada Goose, Reebok… The Reebok sneakers he did. Really, to pull that off, was just ginormous. I mean, these guys don’t sleep. They are just so full of ideas!

PA: I do think Vetements is interesting and, aesthetically, I love the idea and juxtaposition of culling from heavy metal to high fashion for sweatpants. Your space is like that too, it’s very unique.

JK: Well, you know there have always been independent retailers.

PA: Yeah, but most of them aren’t very good anymore.

JK: That’s a matter of opinion.

PA: I know. I’m talking about my opinion.

JK: I appreciate that. Unfortunately I’m sure that we have our detractors because I have a very specific way that I think business should be done and I’m sure it’s not for everyone.

PA: Will you tell me a little about that way?

JK: I think the way I want a customer to be serviced is not for everyone. I interrupted your shopping experience and you were very nice, but I hope that we could have connected if I weren’t the owner. But I didn’t know—I never know—so I feel pretty obliged to tell people pretty quickly that I own the store because so many people seem annoyed that someone is talking to them.

PA: Interesting.

JK: I believe it’s really important to engage with people to establish a person to person to connection, not a salesperson connection. When I’m in stores and people approach me with me with what I call the ‘art of the sale’ and I can learn something, I might try something I wouldn’t have tried…. it’s when you try something you wouldn’t have tried and you buy it is when you actually connect with someone.

PA: Well, I think there’s always been a very nice vibe in your store. It could be very snotty and it’s not.

JK: I try to set the store up by country: I try to have the French designers, the Italian designers, all the Japanese, all the British, the Belgians, so that everybody is kind of touching their bretheren. Sometimes you go into a store and you’re like, really? Saint-Laurent is across from Max Mara?! Who’s idea was that?

PA: I imagine you have to think like an architect or something to make it all work perfectly. Do you shop still for the tees?

JK: Oh, yeah, obsessively. And right now we sell CHAPEL, which are really expensive and we also have less expensive ones, I think it’s important to have a good selection but I’m always looking for more for me.

PA: Tell me about Fashion Cares.

JK: This next year will be twenty five years that we’ve been doing this fundraiser in Atlanta. I’d say that between New York and Atlanta, we’ve raised well over 15 million dollars. The New York event turns fourteen this year.

PA: What is it?

JK: In Atlanta, it’s a fashion show of women’s fashion and in New York it’s a fashion show of men’s fashion. Silent auction, cocktails, fashion show, some talking about the beneficiaries.

PA: Who are the beneficiaries? What are the charities?

JK: In Atlanta, we give to Susan G. Komen and to the Atlanta AIDS Partnership Fund, so it’s truly about breast cancer and HIV in Atlanta. In New York, we give to HMI which runs a LGBT high school and has an afterschool program for homeless youth. And to LAMDA legal which fights for the LGBT community to have human rights and this year, for Elton John AIDS Foundation. The NY one is about HIV, human rights and gay youth.

PA: That’s amazing. Incredible. Good for you.

JK: Thank you.

PA: I know you have to jet off to Europe, so I’m going to ask you a few questions. What’s your favorite drink?

JK: Ice tea.

PA: Sweetened?

JK: Unsweetened.

PA: No sugar?

JK: None!

PA: That’s why you’re in such amazing shape?

JK: No, that’s just the way I like it.

PA: That’s very Southern of you.

JK: Well, no, sweet tea would be Southern.

PA: It’s close enough. How do you eat your eggs?

JK: Scrambled. Soft.

PA: How do you drink your coffee?

JK: Hot, I drink it black. Iced, I drink it with whole milk—a splash.

PA: What’s your favorite Jewish Holiday?

JK: I don’t know if I have one, but if I had to pick one, I would definitely pick Rosh Hashanah.

PA: Why?

JK: You know, it’s the new year, it’s happy.

PA: Did you grow up Jew-y?

JK: Yes. Very!

PA: Tell me?

JK: Well, we kept kosher.

PA: Really!?

JK: We weren’t Orthodox but we observed all the holidays. Until 2014, I closed both stores for both days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Then last year my brother decided he was only going to close for one day of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, so I did the same. Then I made the decision to stop closing for Rosh Hashanah.

PA: Is your brother in Atlanta?

JK: No Charleston. He runs the shoe store my father started in Charleston, which I grew up around. [He shows me a picture]. For me, this picture has always said everything about who I am.

PA: I just got goose gumps! Were your parents super Jewish?

JK: Their parents were.

PA: Where were they from?

JK: My father’s parents lived in a town called Holly Hills, South Carolina until they moved to Charleston and my mother was born in Savannah and her parents lived in Savannah.

PA: Are there any other Jews there?

JK: Yes! Don’t be like that.

PA: You had a bar mitzvah, I’m assuming. What did you wear?

JK: Friday night I wore a double breasted cream blazer with I don’t know what color pants, I don’t remember. Saturday morning, I wore a powder blue three-piece suit and Saturday night, I wore a three piece, some odd color of velvet that was a cross between burgundy and magenta.

PA: That sounds incredibly stylish.

JK: It was all bought from the Barney’s boys department. People always said to me, why did you open here? And my big thing was, why won’t people come to 14th between 9th and 10th in 1999 when in 1975, I went to 17th and 7th and I lived in Charleston, South Carolina!?

PA: It’s a very good point. What shampoo do you use?

JK: A weird shampoo called DHS.

PA: Gefilte fish or lox?

JK: If you made me choose, I would have gefilte fish.

PA: Really?!

JK: Yeah.

PA: Do you hate lox?

JK: No, it’s just so salty.

PA: Five things in your bag right now?

JK: Workout gloves, an apple, a banana, an iPhone and glasses.

PA: Favorite pair of shoes?

JK: I don’t wear shoes anymore, so I would have to say my Nikes. I don’t want them to be my Nikes but they just are.

PA: What do you want them to be?

JK: I want them to be cool and be Adidas Ultra Boost or something, but Nikes are just more comfortable.

PA: Well, I err on the side of comfort myself and I’m pretty sure you’re cool with or without your Ultra Boosts.

Periel Aschenbrand, a comedian at heart, is the author of On My Kneesand The Only Bush I Trust Is My Own.