With competition heating up, retailers are on a constant quest for cool. And few are doing it better than the Seattle-based, century old chain Nordstrom, thanks to a dynamic fashion fanatic named Olivia Kim. Raised in New York, the 38 year-old merchandise maven spent ten years working with hip retailers-turned-designers Carol Lim and Humberto Leon of Opening Ceremony before being snagged by Pete Nordstrom, co-president and director of his family enterprise. Understanding that in order for his business to stay relevant and grow, new customers would have to be attracted. So Nordstrom gave Kim the lofty title of ‘Director of Creative Projects’ for the tony department stores in 2013. Since then, she’s made her mark with a number of conceptual marketing initiatives, including the creation of temporary, monthly shopping experiences called ‘Pop Ins’ in some of Nordstrom’s flagship stores. These themed pop-up boutiques offer a stimulating, eclectic array of merchandise from emerging labels to collectible art to luxury pieces. Credited with a knack for seeking out unpredictable things, Kim is especially excited about Nordstrom’s recent foray into Canada. (With stores already in Calgary, Ottawa, and Vancouver, two more locations are about to open in Toronto.) I spoke with Olivia Kim from her home-base in Seattle recently about how she determines what’s cool, what connotes a great in-store experience, and why she thinks retail stores as we know them will never go away.
Jeanne: When you were first offered this job, what was it that intrigued you?
Olivia: When I first met Pete about four years ago, we had a conversation that was so easy going. He focused on all the things that they wanted to be working on, which I thought was a really humbling thing for someone to say. He said, ‘ We want to focus on the younger customer, driving more customers to our stores, creating these unique experiences…’ He was interested in not only the business side of what fashion and retail are, but about this very experiential quality—this emotional side of it. I felt like it would be a really unique platform for me to try to do what I do in a way that felt much more democratic. I love that Nordstrom is very generational shopping: You can shop with your mom or with your grandmother. And there’s something for everyone.
J: You’re seen as the acid test for cool. Maybe it’s just gut instinct, but you seem to know what the next big thing is going to be. And that’s part of you what you bring to your job at Nordstrom. Does it feel a little daunting sometimes to be responsible for predicting or knowing what’s cool next?
O: I don’t know that I’m necessarily holding a crystal ball or that there’s a formula to what I think is cool. I think you nailed it on the head when you said it’s just a gut instinct. I make a lot of mistakes though. I certainly don’t consider myself a cool person. I just am a very curious person. I ask a lot of questions. I spend a lot of time talking not only with my team, but with other people in the company. I talk to customers all the time. I’m always on the floor whenever I can and so I take all of that, process it up and try to spit something out that seems interesting and cool to a good majority of people. But again I make mistakes all the time. I don’t know that the pressure is daunting. But it’s certainly exciting. I think that Pete has given me a really great opportunity to kind of be the guinea pig of cool.
J: I’m sure there are young people across North America who are looking to you and thinking, ‘Wow! How do I get that kind of job?’ How do you explain the fact that you landed in this wonderful space?
O: My biggest bit of advice for anybody’s that’s interested in trying to have some sort of impact in fashion is that you have to absolutely love what you’re doing and you can’t be afraid of making mistakes. And you can’t be afraid to put yourself out there, especially as a woman. I spend as much time with a lot of our upcoming leaders as possible. I just came back from a trip in Southern California where I met with a bunch of retail interns in our store. The questions that they were asking me were so powerful and all I could say to them is, ‘This isn’t tangible. I don’t have an exact career path for you. But love what you do, keep in touch with me, write me all the time and ask me any questions. ’ And I’ve kept in touch with a lot of people via Instagram or by email or text. I think that it’s not conventional, but who wants conventional? I think that in finding a company that really is supportive of the non-conventional—especially a company that is considered a big corporate company—well, we’re able to do things and execute ideas that feel really small and that’s an awesome place to work.
J: You have been responsible for bringing in some unconventional new labels that aren’t the usual ones you’d associate with Nordstrom. How do you decide who these hot designers are going to be? How do you know when someone’s really got something to say?
O: I think when they’ve got something to say, they’ve got something to say and you hear it and you see it. I don’t know that I’m always making the right choices about what to bring in and whether our customers will respond to it but I think it’s my job to be a platform to support emerging designers and to be a place where they can develop and build a viable business. And that’s something that we really focus on in POP-IN and in SPACE (Nordstrom’s in-store boutiques which feature new labels and complete looks). We’ll often find designers that have never sold or wholesaled before or they don’t even know how to make an invoice, let alone ship to a distribution center. So we spend a lot of time trying to help them understand what customers are responding to, and try to help make their business a bigger one. That’s what I think my responsibility in terms of supporting these younger designers is: To give them a space where they feel comfortable, in an environment that makes sense for them as a brand and they’re proud to be a part of.
J: With Nordstrom’s foray into this country, are you looking at young Canadian labels and trying to give them a platform as well?
O: Definitely. With the launch of the store in Toronto’s Eaton Centre, we’re launching a Canadian capsule with four to five Canadian designers that have done something for us exclusively, which we’re really excited about. We really want to celebrate Canadian fashion designers. One of them is Vejas (Kruszewski), of VEJAS, who was most recently an LVMH Finalist, and we’re working with Brother Vellies (the footwear label helmed by Toronto-native Aurora James). We’re also partnering with a (Vancouver-born) jewelry designer named Wing Yau of WWAKE, and she’s developing a special capsule for us.
J: There are so many retailers struggling to survive. Macy’s is going to be closing about 100 stores. And their CEO Terry Lundgren recently said there’s just too much retail space around. How do you feel about that?
O: I can’t comment on what anyone else is doing, but we’re really focused on just creating amazing in-store experiences that are drawing customers and exciting them. I’m not necessarily interested in making sure that somebody buys something every single time that they’re in our store. I want them to have a great experience, have an incredible connection with the salesperson, have something fun to eat and maybe come back and consider us for the next time that they do want to make a purchase. We’re also doing the same things online and I think that it’s important that our online experience mirrors our in-store experience and vice versa. We want to provide more content and become more aspirational and inspiring. I’m really focused on how can we continue to bring that customer back into our store month after month just to find something that they feel really inspired by.
J: It’s almost as though stores, in the best scenario, are being turned into mini amusement parks: places to be edified and entertained as well as places you can you shop at.
O: I love that analogy! I love the fact that stores can no longer just be a store: You have to provide entertainment. That’s something we’re really focused on as a company, whether that’s through amazing products, really great experiences in our store, or offering a different creative point of view, as well as food and beverage or all the other bells and whistles. I don’t think that retail can continue to just be one note anymore. I think you have to be able to touch on all the senses and hit all the different things that people want to be doing in their times away from their home.
J: Your own personal style has always been a bit of a celebration. From all the pictures I’ve seen of you, it seems that you’re a bit of a walking fashion party in the best possible way.
O: I like fashion, I love supporting our designers, and I think that it’s an expression of who I am. Certainly there are times where I’m just in jeans and a t-shirt and I’m happy that way. And I also love being overdressed at all the wrong times! It’s my favorite thing. People are like, ‘Well I don’t know where I’m going to wear this.’ It’s like, ‘Just wear it to the supermarket!’
J: Are you changing your strategy at all for the kinds of creative projects that you’re going to be presenting at Nordstrom in Canada, because it is Canadian, or do you think that matters?
O: I’ve spend some time in Vancouver, and I spent quite a bit of time in Toronto prior to us opening there, and I think Canadians are super stylish. Toronto is one of the most international cities in the world and I am so in love with how multicultural and stylish it is. There’s so much happening there from a fashion, a film, a culture and art standpoint. I’m hoping that I’m going to be hip enough, and that we’re bringing something hip enough to Toronto to keep it exciting.
J: What are you most looking forward to in this next chapter for retail?
O: I’m really looking forward to seeing how as an industry, we continue to support what the customers asking for. I’m not necessarily a huge believer in the see now, buy now, wear now moment. I think that there is something that I still love about this old school mentality, where you see it on the runway and you have to wait a little while for it. But I do think that there is some validity in the fact that stores are changing and so we need to adapt to it. I’ve been thinking a lot about this idea of just living in these moments because everyone’s moving so fast. Everybody is telling us ‘Next, next, next!’ and so right now, I’m just trying to figure out how to slow it down a little and enjoy the moment and to be able to wear this coat that I just bought for a season longer!
J: But sometimes I worry that the genie’s out of the bottle and I don’t know if there’s ever going back to a little more a slower time…
O: Yeah but because I love retail stores so much—like I’m really a retail person and I love putting things together, and putting things in stores… I like talking to people in our stores, so I honestly believe that’s never going to go away. It can’t. People need connections. People want to touch stuff. They always want to be inspired and educated and continue to feel that there’s more out there. But it is going to be interesting to see how the fashion industry responds to that.