Long before Atlanta was home to Dior or Tom Ford, there was Jeffrey. Perhaps no clothing store has had more of an impact on Atlanta than the luxury boutique founded by Jeffrey Kalinsky 30 years ago, which put Atlanta on the fashion map and introduced designer lines like Manolo Blahnik, Prada, and Dries Van Noten to the city. This year, it closed its doors permanently amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Kalinsky grew up ingrained in fashion, helping his father at his Charleston boutique, Bob Ellis Shoes, which closed in 2016 after 66 years in business. Before Jeffrey, well-heeled Atlanta women would drive the five hours to Charleston for posh lines and a perfect fit.
“I didn’t understand at the time why Atlanta didn’t have more in the way of a shoe store,” says Kalinsky. “Atlanta then had Saks and Neiman’s, but”—he says frankly—“their offerings were like a C-plus.”
As a 27-year-old working in New York as the women’s shoe buyer for Barneys, Kalinsky decided to open his own shop. “It was going to be way too expensive to do it in New York,” he says, although he would open a store there years later. “My father wanted me to open in Charlotte. But I knew Atlanta. And I was aware at the time that I was gay, and I wanted to be in a city where I would feel comfortable.”
In 1990, he opened his eponymous store at Phipps Plaza as “the perfect shoe store,” with relatively accessible lines like Stuart Weitzman, luxury labels like Ferragamo, and lesser-known designers like Robert Clergerie and Stéphane Kelian. “It was immediately successful,” says Kalinsky. “It was crazy. It feels like that was the happiest time in my life.” A few years later, he introduced women’s ready-to-wear, bringing in high-fashion labels like Ann Demeulemeester and Marni and, in more recent years, menswear. He proved luxury could thrive in Atlanta and paved the way for other retailers.
Jeffrey was known for stellar, old-school service with personalized attention. “Helping customers was where I got my oxygen,” he says. He revels in the joy of outfitting women for their most special occasions.
Lila Hertz met Kalinsky in his store in the early ’90s. “His favorite thing to do was help customers,” Hertz says. “We became incredibly close.” For Kalinsky, dressing others is an art form. “He has an uncanny eye,” says Hertz.
In 1999, Kalinsky opened Jeffrey New York—the first fashion business in the Meatpacking District, which was then a gritty stretch of slaughterhouses and sex clubs. “It’s what I could afford,” says Kalinsky. But glamorous marquees from Hermès to Apple, the Whitney Museum of Art, and the tourist-slammed High Line followed. Jeffrey became such a symbol of high fashion that the store was immortalized in recurring roasts on Saturday Night Live starring Jimmy Fallon and Will Ferrell (“This is Jeffrey’s—even our labels have labels,” mocked a kimono-clad Fallon in 2001).
But Jeffrey was about more than clothes. Its annual fashion fundraiser, Jeffrey Fashion Cares, not only became the stylish, star-studded society event of the season but also one of the largest contributors to the Atlanta AIDS Fund and Susan G. Komen Greater Atlanta. Combined with Jeffrey Fashion Cares New York, launched in 2002 to benefit LGBTQ+ causes, the events brought in more than $14 million over 26 years. “In 1993, AIDS was very much on a rampage,” says Kalinsky. “There wasn’t a large community-based fundraiser for AIDS at the time. I just thought, as a gay man, this would be a great thing to do.”
Hertz, a breast cancer survivor, cochaired Fashion Cares for nearly 20 years. “It’s remarkable what it turned into,” she says. “We raised so much money for two grassroots organizations that really changed lives.”
In 2005, Nordstrom took a majority ownership of Jeffrey and brought Kalinsky on as director of designer merchandising and eventually as executive VP. Soon after announcing it would close 16 of its department stores across the country due to the pandemic, Nordstrom revealed it would shutter all three Jeffrey boutiques—in Atlanta, New York, and Palo Alto—and that Kalinsky would retire.
“I was heartsick,” says Hertz.
But Kalinsky has no plans to retire from fashion altogether, and he knows what he wants to do next. “I’m not a designer, but I want to create the product for a brand and work on the strategy,” he says. “So, what’s that, creative director? I really understand what people want, what product is sellable; I feel like I understand image; I feel like I would be a good strategist.”
For now, Jeffrey Fashion Cares is in a “pause moment,” although Hertz says the organizers are discussing options for a new fundraising fashion show for its longstanding beneficiaries. Says Kalinsky: “I don’t know if there will ever be another Jeffrey Fashion Cares, but if I were ever in a position again to raise money creatively for HIV, breast cancer, and human rights, I would never ignore that opportunity.”
This article appears in our October 2020 issue.