The first day I meet Kenny King, his nipples show through a short-sleeved white button-up. So does a tattoo across his belly that reads “KING.” Oddly, the see-through shirt isn’t the first thing I notice. Instead, upon entering Frock You, the Park Boulevard vintage-clothing store where King works as the manager, I’m mesmerized by his hat. This tall, woven straw number calls to mind the Amish, though I imagine they’d consider the long (pheasant?) feather ostentatious.
King’s whole package reads as bizarre — from the hat, to the high-waisted twill (or is it tweed?) pants too short to even graze his ankles, to the bolo tie, the crocodile shoes, and the four turquoise rings that adorn his fingers.
When I suggest that the outfit reads “naughty Amish,” King laughs. “That’s the look I’ve been rocking lately. It’s a kind of minimalism.” Then he adds, “I’m all over the map. When people ask what my favorite decade is, my answer is ‘Now. Because we can mix and match.’ I can walk down the street wearing a muumuu, gold chains, and cowboy boots, which I do, and nobody cares.”
4121 Park Boulevard, North Park
The second time we meet, over coffee at Influx in Golden Hill, his look is more subdued. King is off work, sporting a Monsters of Rock T-shirt from 1988 that features Godzilla in a pair of sunglasses, carrying an electric guitar. King says he’s wearing 1960s swim trunks — they’re colored with bright fish — because his new tattoo needs to breathe.
Then he shows me the woman etched into the back of his thigh. Her lashes are long and she wears a neck-load of jewelry.
“I like that she’s pretty and holding a bat,” he says (think Dracula, not baseball).
Today, for our third encounter, King has on a T-shirt with a repeated Campbell’s Soup print. His snapback trucker hat is also printed with the soup logo. Black cut-off jeans and red high-top Chuck Taylors complete the look. He says he’s dressed himself as a tribute to Andy Warhol (who’s tattooed onto King’s left forearm).
It’s day one of the August Huge Frocking Sale, an every-other-month event at Frock You. The store is located on the border between Hillcrest, University Heights, and North Park, on a wide boulevard that still exhibits some of the area’s working-class roots. Despite the increased presence of spas and expensive-trinket boutiques, an occasional elderly resident still walks by carting bags of clothes to the laundromat.
Today, racks of sale items have been set up in the partially tented yard between Frock You and a weathered apartment building next door. The combination of signage, an open fence, and foot traffic around the storefront give the block a festive atmosphere. Though it’s midday and sweltering, the yard is abuzz with early-bird shoppers. Inside, where the goods are full-price, King mans the register under the breeze of ceiling fans. A line snakes around to the open front door.
“I love that shirt,” says a guy in a black rock T-shirt. He nods at King. “You’re rockin’ the hat. That’s fkin’ killer.” The guy places a taupe-colored gabardine shirt on the counter for King to ring up.
“Yeah, thanks,” King says, bagging the shirt. “I actually took a picture of myself in front of the original [Warhol] paintings at the Museum of Modern Art. I literally cried.”
The guy looks away and mumbles, “Right on,” clearly not the type to cry and talk about it.
A moment later, a tall girl with a black pixie cut greets King familiarly, coming around the counter to kiss his cheek.
“I’m here for the Burn,” she says. That would be Burning Man, the annual weeklong “experiment in temporary community dedicated to radical self-expression and radical self-reliance” (as stated on the event website) that takes place in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert.
“Sure,” King says. “There’s tons of stuff outside.”
Before pixie-cut leaves to shop the racks in the yard, she points at King. “You look great. I love it.”
Along with Frock You, three other vendors have set up shop outside. One is known for vintage costumes, a big sell in the months prior to Burning Man. Furs are a hit, too, as temperatures at the desert event can go down to freezing in the pre-dawn hours. A sporty California blonde couple in khaki shorts and tank tops throws a pile of $40 as is fur coats on the counter, along with an $8 pink-and-gold turban. They’re both sweating.
“You guys are going to Burning Man, I take it,” King says.
“No,” the woman says, smiling. “We’re just really cold.”
“Yeah,” the guys adds. “This summer’s not hot enough for us.”
King laughs. The couple does, too.
Across the store, two women flip through a rack of floral prints reminiscent of Little House on the Prairie and grandma’s-closet-scented housedresses. One woman pulls out a peach-and-green plaid dress.
“This is so Peggy,” she says to her friend, referring to Mad Men’s ambitious young feminist character. “You’re so Peggy.”
When the line dies down for a moment, King takes a break. “People come here for several reasons.” He leans against a rack of old-timey fancy lady slips. “Some come for costumes, so I have to be educated about the different eras. Others, who are collectors, come because they have a love of a specific decade or a specific label. Some come just for the fun of treasure-hunting. I get a lot of kids coming in for prom dresses. They’re the ones who want to stand out and be unique from the pack.”
For the next few minutes, King philosophizes that creative people are drawn to vintage clothing because they want to stand out. Frock You, he says, and other vintage stores in what he calls the “tri-neighborhood area” (North Park, Hillcrest, and University Heights) fill a need in San Diego, helping it to develop its culture away from the sameness of a military-or-beach-only vibe.
While racks at stores in the mall are all hung with the “standard black mini-dress uniform that women think men want them to wear,” King says that vintage-clothing stores offer an opportunity to create a unique look.