By Jennifer Moulaison | Photos by Alex Rios
Few things are more intimidating than starting over. Wayne Kaleck, managing partner for Gene Hiller, chose to uproot his life out of a deeply personal necessity. Today he credits his success to having the courage to leave behind what was safe and comfortable to pursue a more authentic life.
Born into a successful family-ran produce and trucking business in Texas, Kaleck possessed a strong work ethic, taking a part in the family business early on. Serving in various roles, from packing produce to office management, he spent 14 years working under his father and describes the experience as challenging. “Not to say I was underprivileged in any way. My family was affluent, and I have great memories of growing up. But I was under my father’s thumb,” says Kaleck. “[It was] very much a ‘do as I say, not as I do’ sort of mentality,” he shares.
The pivotal point was the passing of Kaleck’s younger brother, who was 26, and had been battling HIV for several years. Kaleck called his parents, who were vacationing in Atlantic City, New Jersey, at the time, to let them know of their son’s death, but the news didn’t have the impact Kaleck expected. “When I told my mother, she said, ‘You can’t bother your father right now, he’s in a craps tournament,’” recalls Kaleck. At that moment, he realized that he needed to make a change. He had no idea what to do but was sure he needed to leave his father’s sphere of influence.
At 32, Kaleck came out as gay male to his family, packed up, and moved to La Jolla, California. He was taking time to reflect and get his bearings when a new restaurant opened and piqued his interest. “I showed up for an interview in my best Armani suit, and when I was asked what I’d like to do I responded, ‘Well, I’d like to be the manager,’” he says. Kaleck took a position as a waiter but earned the role of manager in six months.
After two years, Kaleck began operating a restaurant and nightclub in the Bay Area. Then his father died suddenly of a cerebral hemorrhage and seven months later his mother passed away in her sleep. “The two were deeply in love and I’m convinced she died of a broken heart,” says Kaleck. Despite having left the family business, Kaleck had maintained a close relationship with his mother. After a whirlwind year of loss, he immersed himself in the wild nightlife scene of San Francisco.
Kaleck felt himself heading down the wrong path and decided to take back control. Answering an ad for an opening at Macy’s in Santa Rosa, Kaleck once again donned his Armani suit and told his interviewer, “I’d like to be manager.” He was hired as manager of the men’s suiting department, where he worked for a year before moving to a small luxury men’s boutique. At this time, Kaleck also met his life partner, Michael Rose, who encouraged Kaleck to take the advice of one of his best clients and join the team of stylists at Gene Hiller in Sausalito.
Kaleck’s tenacity landed him a substantial first sale, and he quickly climbed his way up to general manager and partner. Now in his twenty-third year at Gene Hiller, Kaleck attributes his success to the genuine pleasure he finds in building relationships with his clients. “I think it’s pretty special to have the opportunity to dress people for some of the most important events in their life,” he says. “It’s gratifying to bring people out of their shells and encourage them to embrace their aesthetic.”
During one of Kaleck’s last conversations he had with his father, he was told “You’ll never make it without me.” Perhaps he didn’t “make it” according to his father’s perspective, but Kaleck is steadfast in knowing that he’s built a life out of love and passion, and that might not have happened if not for being pushed to explore his curiosities.