Jeffrey Kalinsky has been a recognized fashion insider and retail trendsetter since the 1990s, when he founded his first namesake boutique in Atlanta before setting up a second shop in New York City’s Meatpacking District, in the process helping spur the neighborhood’s renaissance. He has also spent more than a decade in senior leadership roles at Nordstrom.
In 2003, he founded Jeffrey Fashion Cares, which has raised millions over the years for a variety of causes, including HIV/AIDS; our very own Todd Sears helped run it for ten years.
When and how did you first realize you were gay?
When I was growing up, I wouldn’t have known how to identify myself. I just knew that I was different. I remember in second grade being called a sissy for the first time and that felt like a warning shot about how I needed to maybe act or behave, so as not to draw that kind of attention to myself.
How did you come out at work?
I was fortunate, in a way, that I had my own business by the time I “came out” at work. And I’m sure everyone knew any way, and I was in a profession that accepted gay people.
My big coming out story was having to tell my family. That was the hard part.
Who would you describe as a role model?
If I told you that my role model was Barack Obama, or someone laudable like that, I’d be lying. While so many great leaders in the world do inspire me, I get even more inspiration from my dialogues with my friends in my everyday life. I have one friend, Lila, in Atlanta. She is such a good mother, she is such a good grandmother. She gives so much to the community in Atlanta. I also have a friend in New York, Barry, and he’s always doing inspiring and innovative things at work and in his personal life. I think it’s important to surround yourself with people who you sincerely respect, and who inspire you to do better, and I am fortunate to have many.
What’s an important thing that you’ve learned from a boss?
I’ve learned a lot about what not to do, at work. Sometimes what you don’t do is as or more important than what you do. My boss right now has really taught me a lot. I’m a person who sees things in black and white. And when things come up, I often see a crisis, as something that must be solved right away. He deals in gray much better than me, and he’s taught me that often, if you can just sit with something, it can shift and change and then it doesn’t have to be such a big deal.
If you could tell someone who’s graduating from college this year one thing that you’ve learned, what would it be?
I think persistence is very important. When I was first starting out, I had a job interview at a wholesale shoe company, and they asked me what I would do if I called up somebody and they said that they weren’t interested in my product. And I said, “Well I guess if they say no, they say no.” And this person was like, “No, you don’t give up. You persist.” That always stayed with me, and it’s served me well, most of the time.
Who would you say is your most important ally?
Who would you identify as your LGBT or your gay hero?
I really admire our activists. The people who stand up and say, “We’re mad as hell, and we’re not gonna take it anymore.”
People like Larry Kramer, and the other people who founded ACT UP.
I’ve been friends with a person named Kevin Hertzog for a long time. He’s now one of the founders of Gays Against Guns. After the Orlando massacre, they stood up and said “No more.”
Somebody has to do something. I respect that kind of advocacy.
What was your first job?
I don’t really know what my official first job was. Was it working at the Jewish Community Center at night answering the phones and selling hot fudge at Bingo, or was it selling shoes part time in college?
What’s a leadership opportunity in the world that stands out to you?
That’s a really big question.
I’ve always thought that, as a gay man, I should be able to do and have anything and everything that anybody else in this country can. I think our leadership opportunity is to get full human rights.
What’s your motto?
Make things happen.
What are six things you could never live without?
Family, friends, prayer, sun, my therapist…
How about your favorite vacation destination?
I like the South of France. Of all the places I’ve been so far that’s my favorite place. I find it very visually appealing. I totally love water. I need water. I need to see water. I don’t want to go to the south of France in the winter, but the south of France in the summer, I just find it visually a treat.
What are three books that you would take to a desert island?
They’d be three I haven’t read.
Is there anything you’d like to share that we haven’t covered?
It’s so important not to lose sight of your belief in yourself and in what you’re doing.
I never thought that at this point in my career I’d be working this hard or feeling like I knew so little. There’s still so much to learn. But one thing I’ve always been clear on is that my secret weapon is me. No one can be me, except me, and as long as I stay true to that I’m doing alright.