Written and styled by Tracy James
Photography by Chuck St. John
At the beginning of my own career in the fashion industry, I was contracted by Birmingham’s “hometown store,” Parisian, to coordinate events, filling in when the permanent staffers were overburdened with requests, which, fortunately for me, was often. Being trusted to travel solo as a proxy for the beloved retailer was thrilling, but the biggest privilege accompanying the job was an invitation each season to attend the trend updates led by Parisian’s Fashion Director, Arlene Goldstein. It was in those conference rooms that my ears were first tickled by the language of fashion, up close and personal–style knowledge eloquently and aphoristically spoken, straight from the lipstick-lacquered mouth of a striking beauty with tightly pulled raven hair and icy blue eyes. Here was this fashion maven with no formal industry training who possessed not only an innate sense of style and fashion-speak fluency, but also an ability to skillfully communicate these messages to women.
Goldstein was set on the course of what would become a lifetime career when, in the 1980s, the then school teacher was asked by a friend who owned a modeling agency to develop a class in wardrobe planning. “Women were returning to the workforce and needed help updating their closets,” Goldstein explains. Figuring that if she could create a lesson plan, she could create a style seminar, Goldstein accepted the challenge. The program, which she titled “10 Easy Pieces,” identified basics every woman should have in her wardrobe. “Because that’s how you shop—build a base then add the fluff,” she says.
The seminar was well–received, and Goldstein was inspired to make a career change. She joined Parisian as the special events coordinator at the downtown location, where her job was to get customers into the store. To start, she created “Fashion Break,” a monthly how–to seminar that brought women in from all over, especially those working downtown. “It became a phenomenon,” Goldstein says. She parlayed this success into becoming special events director for the entire company, later adding fashion director to her title as well. There she birthed the now infamous “Must Haves” and “Top 10” lists, eagerly anticipated guidelines to the top trends of the season. By attending Fashion Week shows and scouring favorite magazines such as British Vogue, Porter, Harper’s Bazaar and Women’s Wear Daily, Goldstein spared customers the complex task of deciphering for themselves what was deemed en vogue that spring or fall, and thus should be considered as a wardrobe addition.
Fortunately for shoppers, the end of Parisian was not the end of Goldstein’s quippy advice. True to her own mantra that, “If you’re standing still, you’re moving backwards,” when Belk purchased Parisian in 2006, the North Carolina–based retailer convinced Goldstein to bring her formidable skill set to their headquarters in Charlotte, as vice president of trend merchandising and fashion direction.
Goldstein is quick to point out that her bits of advice have never been intended as rules. “Today fashion offers an incredible menu of style options for women to explore and embrace if they so choose,” she says. “I find it annoying when so-called fashion authorities give women rules that label, limit, and pigeon hole them, stifling that experience.” In fact, Goldstein so avoids labeling, that, to my inquiry about her own personal style, she admits she has never analyzed it. Reflecting, she says, “Like many women, in my closet there are way too many clothes…black basics and not-so-basic jackets, skirts and pants popped with of–the–moment seasonal statement items.” But never gimmicky. Never contrived. Another one of Goldstein’s notorious tidbits is, “The look is in the mix,” with designer duds and vintage finds hanging beside bargain gems. Increasingly popular “fast fashion” discount retailers such as Zara, Forever 21, and Topshop are the result of the “trickle–down effect” Goldstein looks for when scouting trends. She notes, “Miuccia Prada said herself, ‘My fashion gets to H&M before it gets to Bergdorf’s.’”
When asked about the effect of social media and the internet on fashion, Goldstein proffers another one of her oft–uttered sayings, “The fashion world is flat.” Elaborating, she says, “Someone from Topeka, Kansas, can receive the same style information as someone attending the shows in Paris. We can all be clever purveyors of trends.” That said, true trend forecasting is achieved by scouting the world’s fashion meccas, such as London and Paris, where Goldstein visits to primarily learn from observing street fashionistas—or “early adopters,” as Goldstein calls those willing to take fashion risks. “If you don’t go, you don’t know,” she exclaims, encouraging opening our eyes to the world around us to be “gatherers of information.”
At the end of May, Goldstein’s last day at Belk happened to coincide with her 70th birthday. Fashion legend Diana Vreeland famously quipped, “The best time to leave a party is when the party’s just beginning.” Now that Goldstein and her husband, Milton, have moved back into their longtime Birmingham home and have more time to spend with their three children and nine grandchildren, perhaps the celebration has just begun. “One of the joys of my career has been to meet and support so many diverse and talented people,” Goldstein says. “Those faces and personalities are etched in my memories forever.” No doubt the many she influenced feel the same way.