Elle Magazine, September 2014 Life & Love | Personal Style | Change Agent: Olivia Kim
How Olivia Kim Is Bringing Downtown Cool To The Heartland’s Favorite Department Store
The former Opening Ceremony buyer brings her eye for cutting-edge designers to Nordstrom
Olivia Kim in a Creative Growth Sweater by Ruth Stafford and A.P.C. jeans; Courtesy of Kyle Johnson
‘I want to be less,” says Olivia Kim from her new nest in Treat House, a landmarked 64-room Arts and Crafts mansion-cum-apartment building in Seattle’s historic Queen Anne neighborhood with a view of the Space Needle and Puget Sound. That concise – and somewhat elliptical statement sums up the former Opening Ceremony star buyer’s fashion philosophy since decamping from New York City last year to take a job as a director of creative projects at the Pacific Northwest headquarters of Nordstrom. The tattooed poster child for cool wants to be less…what? Overtly hip?
As the first employee of Opening Ceremony founders Humerto Leon and Carol Lim, Kim proved her avant-garde mettle by consistently bringing fashion-obsessed New Yorkers the new, the now, and the next. She spent a decade helping define the influential downtown emporium’s signature eclectic edit, a mix of indie labels (Rodarte, Suno, Delfina Delettrez) and the coolest pieces from established luxury brands. ‘Olivia helps to represent what customers expect from us going forward,’ says Pete Nordstrom, president of merchandising for the all-American bastion of Oscar de la Renta daywear and Sorel boots, which operates 117 stores in 36 states. “To stay relevant and grow, you have to attract new customers. Broadly and philosophically, that is the kind of stuff we focus on with Olivia’s efforts.”
Staying fresh is no small endeavor for a chain that has a larger geographical footprint than Saks Fifth Avenue, Barneys, Bergdorf Goodman, and Neiman Marcus combined, and has plans for a 285,000-sqaure-foot West 57thStreet flagship that will anchor what is to be one of Manhattan’s tallest skyscrapers when it opens in 2018. In her new role, Kim provides insight on everything from visual merchandising to getting millennial shoppers hooked through social media (she shares fashion-week photos as well as motivational Snoopy GIFs on What’s Up Olivia, her daily blog on Nordstrom’s website). She also curates Pop-In @Nordstrom – a rotating series of pop-up shops with themes such as French fling and American road trip – at Nordstrom’s largest and highest profile stores as well as online: The shop’s purpose is to introduce new designers and offer limited-edition pieces to customers of the 113-year-old family-run company. “We gave her complete creative control, some floor space, and a very small budget, then turned her loose,” says Nordstrom. ‘Olivia is used to being scrappy and resourceful, and it has been pretty amazing what she has been able to accomplish in a pretty short amount of time.”
For her part, Kim is excited to go big: “We’ve introduced over 150 new designers to the Nordstrom customer!” But on a personal level, she sees her cross-country displacement – which meant, for starters, giving up the sprawling SoHo loft where she amassed treasures – as an opportunity to start fresh. A self-confessed “compulsive collector’” Kim has filled her old pad with enviable accretions: a dozen pairs of Alaias, 100 Isabel Marant pieces, and practically all of the Marni spring/summer 2004 collection, as well as flea-market finds including brass candlesticks and wooden apples. “I sold them all for a dollar each,” says Kim, who held her own version of a sample sale for her friends. “Paring down felt great.” What escaped the auction block? Kim’s assemblage of what she terms “wackadoodle” skirts: feather and pearl encrusted specimens from Dries Van Noten and Simone Rochas, as well as a voluminous vintage black tulle Comme des Garcons number that she wears layered under a matching mini from the label. “I’m not a superflashy dresser, but I think my skirts are a little outrageous, so I go for a boring top,” says Kim of the classic button-downs from Lanvin, Valentino, and COS that complete her version of an office uniform.
“I don’t like the idea of being dressed up for work,” she says. “I try to downplay whatever’s happening, so if I’m wearing a lot of print, then I’ll do a normcore shoe.” That doesn’t mean she chooses Louboutin pumps now that she works in a corporate environment. Kim loves flats- including tone-on-tone Doc Martens and her Nike Air Jordans in the New York Knicks’ colors – but if she’s in something comparatively staid, such as Frame denim, she’ll make and exception with a glittery heel from Prada or Miu Miu: “Miuccia’s are the funnest of the fun.” For evening, she’s all about repurposed vintage: She recently wore a 1920’s beaded silk gown – backward – to a formal dinner.
“It started out as being about sustainable fashion,” says Kim, of this month’s shop-in-shop. “But all these friends of mine are doing these incredible ‘do-good’ things, and I changed it to not only be sustainable, but also social and responsible.” Kim partnered with and Oakland, California based nonprofit, Creative Growth, which supports artists with disabilities by selling one-of-a-kind pieces such as a colorful Shetland sweater with sequined felt patches. There are also vegan handbags by Freedom of Animals and interpretations of traditional desert boots made by artisans in Africa from Brother Vellies. “It’s important to ask: Are we doing the best we can?” Kim says. “Does everything that we’re consuming and buying come from a good place?” It’s an exciting question from a woman in a position to change the way millions of Americans shop.
By Alison S. Cohn
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