For Retail Guru Jeffrey Kalinsky, Fashion Cares

For stylish New York gays, the annual Fashion Cares benefit at Jeffrey is the social event of the season. We talk to the retail impresario behind it.

BY Brandon Voss

April 08 2008 11:00 PM ET

For stylish New York gays, the annual "Fashion Cares" benefit at Jeffrey is the social event of the season. In its fifth year, the runway show, auction, and cocktail soiree Wednesday, April 9, benefits Lambda Legal, Gay Men’s Health Crisis, and the Hetrick-Martin Institute, home of the Harvey Milk High School. It’s also a notorious opportunity for gay “husband hunting,” though host Jeffrey Kalinsky, a former buyer for Barneys who now runs eponymous high-end boutiques in New York City and Atlanta, cares only about charity. We tried our hardest to split the seams and reveal the fashion maven's softer, fuzzier side, but Kalinsky — not surprisingly — was all business. Hey, that’s the kind of stone-faced focus it takes to stay on top in the brutal fashion industry, right?

Advocate.com: What makes Fashion Cares one of the hottest parties of the year?
Jeffrey Kalinsky: I don’t see it that way, I guess. For me, it’s a charity event trying to raise money for some really great causes but, hopefully, at the same time giving people an enjoyable evening.

But some vapid queens go only to see and be seen.
I hope not! I’m really passionate about the benefit and raising money. It’s a labor of love because the only personal reward in it is knowing that you’ve done something good.

Why are the causes that Fashion Cares benefits so close to your heart?
Well, HIV causes have always been close to my heart. For 16 years I’ve been doing a charity event in Atlanta also called Fashion Cares, raising money for people with HIV and AIDS, so there’s a long history of that. And then, as long as there are kids who aren’t safe in their schools to the point that they’re getting murdered, and as long as I and the entire LGBT community don’t have the same human rights as other citizens in this country, I’m going to be fighting the fight my way. And this is what I can do.

Who are you expecting to see sitting in those $1,000 front-row VIP seats?
People who do care to give some of their money to charity. You know, a $1,000 donation for this kind of cause, if you can afford it, is really not a big deal. We’ve definitely sold them, and we’ve raised a ton of money already in sponsorships, so there will be a lot of our sponsors sitting in those front-row seats.

Speaking of exclusivity, there are some who might feel hesitant to patronize your store in New York due to its reputation for having a snooty staff. Is that reputation unfair?
Completely. I was born and raised in Charleston, S.C., and my family’s been in retail for 57 years, and the one thing that we’ve worked hardest at, more than anything, is making everybody who walks through any of our doors feel welcome. There are people who grew up not feeling comfortable to walk into a lot of stores, so it might be an individual thing.

How did you feel about those classic Saturday Night Live “Jeffrey’s" sketches that spoofed your store?
It was a long time ago, but at the time I was upset. I worked so hard for so long to create an environment where people were nice, where people were treated nice, and where people realized how important it was to be nice. And then there was a skit, and it needed a name, and somehow because we were new in town and doing something different and cool, it got associated with not acknowledging people. It was polar opposite to everything I’m about.

Did you take any action?
There was no action to take. And it was that great thing: All publicity is great publicity. All my friends, anybody that I knew, thought it was the most incredible, wonderful thing in the whole world and that I should be thrilled.

What qualities do you look for when hiring a sales associate?
I’ve interviewed hundreds of people in my life, and people can talk, but you need to see what their actions are going to be.

You seem to have a good number of gay people on staff. Is that intentional or a happy accident?
I don’t hire like that. I have a large amount of straight people on staff too. In my men’s area, for instance, there are six full-time salespeople — two are gay and four are straight.

Do you recognize a particularly large gay clientele?
I don’t know. I don’t approach life like that.

You’re so politically correct!
No, I’m being honest with you. Just because I’m gay, I can’t make my answers gay if they’re not gay.

OK, fair enough. But what about this gossip item I read that said you freaked out when your Tibetan maid folded your underwear incorrectly. Any truth there?
You know, I don’t really want to comment on that. Has anybody ever said that you did something you didn’t do?

I guess I won’t ask if you’ve ever thrown a cell phone at an assistant.
I don’t know how to comment on what people may or may not think of me. I’m sorry, you’re taking me off guard — I thought you were calling to talk about my benefit.

I am! What’s the most covetable item up for auction at Fashion Cares this year?
I don’t know. That might be a question that one of the chairs needs to answer.

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