In a kimono-style wrap she deemed a must-have in her spring/summer 2015 trend report – and from lips immaculately glossed with NYX Shocking Pink – Arlene Goldstein tosses one of her typical bon mots:
“If you’re standing still, you’re moving backwards.”
Belk’s vice president of trend merchandising and fashion direction could be revealing the secret to her success as a fashion forecaster for Belk, the country’s largest privately owned department store.
Or to her 32 years in the fashion business, nine of them at Belk that included a stint as a guest fashion blogger for the Huffington Post. Or the private life she’s built with her husband, Milton, and their three children and nine grandchildren.
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But let’s take it as general words of wisdom from a woman reflecting on a career that’s nearly over: Her last day in the sprawling Belk headquarters on Tyvola Road is Thursday, which is also her 70th birthday.
A former elementary school teacher with no formal training in the fashion business, Goldstein now counts some of the industry’s leaders as admirers of her expertise: Designer Trina Turk; shoe moguls Sam and Libby Edelman, and Steve Madden; jewelry designer R.J. Graziano; and internationally known fashion color forecaster Pat Tunsky, among others.
“I never saw myself as a fashion person,” Goldstein says.
If there’s one aspect of her Alabama childhood (born and raised in Montgomery) that hinted at her career path, it’s an unlikely one: Paper dolls.
“I was crazy about paper dolls and dressing them up. I would make up stories about them. I wouldn’t put them in a box because they would move around, so I kept them neat inside the pages of magazines.”
Goldstein graduated from college, married right out of school and started teaching in Montgomery while her husband, Milton, served in Vietnam. Afterward, they moved to Atlanta. They started their family before finally settling in Birmingham for the next few decades. She never sold her house there. It’s where Milton and she will live in a few weeks, after they’ve packed up their Charlotte home.
A friend who owned a modeling agency in Birmingham set her on a course that eventually lead her to traveling, and shopping, the world’s fashion capitals to bring back trends she thought would work for Belk’s customers and fit in with the company’s brand. That brand was more keenly focused in 2010 with the launch of a new slogan: “Modern. Southern. Style.”
“It was the early 1980s, and moms were getting out and getting jobs,” Goldstein says. “Women were calling the modeling agency and asking for a seminar that would help them with wardrobe styling, because they weren’t sure what to wear to work.”
The friend asked her to create one.
Goldstein’s response was, “Me?”
Her friend assured her that if she could write a lesson plan, she could create a fashion seminar.
“I did it, and it was well received.”
That original seminar turned into a monthly “Fashion Break” Goldstein put together when she started working for Parisian, a Birmingham-based upscale department store. Often 100 women met over lunch to discuss with Goldstein ways to enhance their image. One was titled “10 Easy Pieces,” listing basics every woman needs in her wardrobe. “That’s the way to shop,” Goldstein says. “Build the base of your wardrobe, then add the fluff.”
She began doing special events for the department store, and later added fashion director to her title. Another chain, Proffitt’s, bought Parisian in 1996. In 1998, Proffitt’s and Saks Holding Inc. merged and Proffitt’s was renamed Saks Inc. It included 250 mid-to-high-end department stores of which Goldstein became fashion director.
When Saks Inc. began selling off its stores, Belk bought Parisian in 2006 and convinced her to move to Charlotte to not only steer its fashion direction but lead its special events department, too.
Her keen eye for emerging trends and her specialty of coming up with popular events helped set Belk apart from the competition. “She embodies what the perfect fashion director should be,” says Kathryn Bufano, president and CEO of Bon-Ton Stores, who was once president and chief merchandising officer of Belk. “She’s the best I’ve ever worked with.”
Several of the gatherings she created live on. She’s particularly proud of fashion and shopping events in different markets that benefit the community work of the Junior League; bringing Belk to Charleston Fashion Week; in-store appearances by designers carried at Belk, such as Trina Turk, Cynthia Rowley, Betsey Johnson and the late Oscar de la Renta; and her twice-annual trend prediction events for the media. She also loved her seasonal “Most Wanted” list for customers that helped them update their wardrobes.
A favorite of hers is the Southern Designer Showcase, a competition founded in 2012 that helps find, and launch, talented new designers who vie to have their creations sold at Belk. “It was so much fun to surprise the winners in person in their hometowns and to see their faces when they found out their lines would be carried at Belk.”
Fitting, then, that her last day will include a luncheon celebrating this year’s Showcase winners.
“I feel I’m making the right decision,” she says about retiring. “It’s the right time. It’s on my own terms, and it’s while I’m still healthy and high-spirited.”
She won’t offer a prediction about what will happen with Belk, which announced recently it’s hired Goldman Sachs to evaluate the company for a potential sale.
CEO Tim Belk is also quiet about the chain’s future. But he has a lot to say about Goldstein.
“Arlene is an authority on fashion, respected by the media and the apparel industry,” he says. “When we bought Parisian, she had many other offers, and we were thrilled that she joined Belk. She (knows our brand) and helped differentiate Belk in the marketplace. We will miss her so much.”
Her immediate plan for retirement is simple. “I want to spend more time with Milton and my grandchildren.” One of them, Oscar, 5, may have inherited his grandmother’s talent for convincing people to try a new style.
“I wear a lot of black clothes and I used to wear red lipstick a lot, but Oscar told me he thinks pink lipstick looks better on me. So now I’m wearing a lot more pink.”
Arlene’s style favorites
Anyone who knows Arlene Goldstein knows that she has mastered the art of the perfectly polished look. Reporter Cristina Bolling asked her to share some of her tips with readers.
Q: Your sophisticated, sleek hairstyle is one of your signatures. Who in Charlotte is responsible for your cut/color?
A: My hair stylist is Ryan Stillman at Carmen Carmen Belk SouthPark.
Q: What are some cosmetics you can’t live without?
A: When it comes to beauty, I like to keep it simple. A few of the beauty items I cannot live without are: a super-sheer foundation – Chanel Vita Lumiere Aqua Tint Parfait, Clinique Superfine Liner for Brows, Laura Mercier Pencil Eyeliner in Jade. And I love a bold lip: MAC Morange, MAC Lady Danger, NYX Shocking Pink.
Q: What does your skincare routine entail?
A: I never, ever go to bed without carefully removing my makeup, usually with cosmetic wipes for sensitive skin. My favorite new thing is Rose Oil from Laura Mercier. It makes you look so dewy. I use it with my moisturizer. Someone at the Laura Mercier counter gave me a sample and now I am addicted – in a good way!
Q: You’re an avid traveler. What fashion or beauty items do you always pack when traveling?
A: A small cross-body handbag, a large lightweight tote (it holds three individual medium-sized cosmetic bags), a large scarf, a few statement jewelry pieces to compliment a mostly black travel wardrobe, flip flops, nuts and energy bars, my passport, eye drops and antihistamine. I try to catch up on fashion reading and research when I travel. I usually bring an issue or two of Women’s Wear Daily, British Vogue and Elle Decor. On the way home I try to grab the New York Times and USA Today in the airport. My beauty items for travel are consistent with my regimen at home. I exchange large sizes for minis, when available.
Q: What beauty items are always in your purse?
A: I never leave home without the following in my handbag: Chanel Double Perfect Powder (for an easy mid-afternoon touch-up), extra contact lenses, Q-tips, hair elastics and an array of lipsticks.
Spend a few minutes talking to Arlene Goldstein and she’s likely to throw out a line that will not only sum up a situation or feeling, but also make you laugh. A few of our favorites:
▪ “Animal print is my favorite color!”
▪ “If you don’t go, you don’t know.” (This is her mantra for getting out in the world and seeing what people are buying, wearing and doing.)
▪ “The world is flat... Thanks to the Internet, everyone sees everything and nothing is startling anymore.”
Inside the mind of a fashion trend forecaster
While interviewing Goldstein, I told her I was not a fan of some of the fashions at the recent Met Gala in New York City. A few celebrities were wearing nude body suits sprinkled with rhinestones that passed as gowns.
But Goldstein’s take on it showed how her mind works. “There are always going to be those people who take fashion to an extreme to be noticed,” she said. “You have to look beyond the person and see the message. And the message is sheer fabric.”