Putting together unique looks is his forte.
“I try to never wear the same thing twice,” he says.
For the past four years or so, he has snapped a photo of his outfit every day.
“I’m not sure what I’m going to do with them,” he says. “Maybe an art show or something.”
He shrugs off the idea of creating a blog to showcase the photos. He’s not interested in doing what everyone else does. A few days from now, he’ll email a handful of the outfit photos to me. Some are as…interesting as the Amish get-up he wore the first time we met.
In one, he wears a red-and-white-striped jacket, black pants, and a flat-topped straw hat adorned with a wide black ribbon. He looks like a popcorn-seller at the circus. In another, he wears black jeans, a black T-shirt that says “Fk the Man” (spelled correctly), a black, short-sleeved hoodie, and a silver-studded rocker vest. The hood is pulled up, and his long hair is combed over his face.
“I’m not a fashionista,” he says. “I have fun playing. Every day’s an opportunity to push the envelope.”
On the street, people sometimes whisper and laugh at him. When they do, King considers the outfit “a job well done.”
I assume he’s hiding hurt feelings about being laughed at, but looking at the pictures, particularly one in which he wears a large floral-print muumuu and has his head wrapped, African-woman-style, in an orange-and-brown paisley scarf, it’s clear that these outfits are Kenny King’s art medium. It’s also clear that he likes to amp up the shock value.
King offers a story to explain his point of view.
“About two months ago, my home was ransacked, robbed, violently intruded — by two men, I suppose. They kicked my door down and came in with butcher knives from the [apartment] downstairs.”
Luckily, King wasn’t in his Logan Heights home when this happened. He knows about the butcher knives only because the intruders left them behind. The burglars stole jewelry, clothing, credit cards, his passport, and other things that he shrugs off now.
“What they did take that hurt for a few days is my fireproof filing-cabinet safe that held 15-plus years of photographic negatives. It was something that could only mean something to me and that I could never replace. Now, it’s in a landfill somewhere, I’m sure.”
As much as that hurt, though, King began to see “details and synchronicity.” It made him believe “there’s something greater in the works.”
There were, for example, photos in his collection that he’d considered burning in the weeks leading up to the burglary. The burning would symbolize “liberation from the past.” The break-in accomplished the same thing, if on a larger scale.
“For so long, I was trying to be an artist, to be somebody,” he says. “Now I can be liberated to become a nobody, which is really to be somebody.”
He cites the Socratic Injunction “Know thyself” as the theme of the “inward journey” he is now on, and he’s ready with an answer when I ask how dressing for a reaction from other people constitutes an inward journey. “I’m not trying to create art as a product,” he says. “I’m on a quest for the art of being.”
That quest has specific particulars. For example, every suit King buys for himself lands in the hands of a seamstress before he wears it. Though this may not seem unusual, his request of the seamstress is: he asks her to make the pants highwaters.
“The first few times I went, she pinned the hem right at my ankle. I was, like, ‘Higher, higher,’” he says.
Then, there’re his orange socks. Again, not so strange, except that he went to great lengths to get them. After failing to locate the right color anywhere else, he found himself in a Hermes store. The salesperson looked online and discovered, in their inventory, that there were only two pairs in the country.
“I said, ‘Can you ship them to me?’ So she did. There are only two pairs in the country, and one of them is mine.”
How much is a pair of orange Hermes socks?
“About 50 bucks. I know it’s a splurge, but they’re great.”
King’s love of all things vintage began in junior high in Salinas, California, where he was inspired by the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, and Country Joe and the Fish. He grew his hair out and started collecting vintage rock T-shirts, of which he has about 120 today. He shopped for himself at thrift stores and eventually became a “picker” — someone who shops at garage sales, thrift stores, and estate sales, to find things to resell at buy/sell/trade stores.
Salinas had a good supply of vintage clothing, but no demand, so whenever King was ready to sell his booty, he traveled 100 miles north to San Francisco.
Although the bulk of his formal education is in fine arts and art history — which led to jobs with antiques dealers, fine-arts appraisal companies, and the San Diego Museum of Art — his obsession with silent films and classic cinema drove his study of fashion.
“In those old movies, whenever there’s a crowd scene, I’ll pause [the movie] and take it all in.”
If I hadn’t originally been directed to Frock You by so many hip and vintage-happy San Diegans, I would never have guessed from looking at him that King is the Frock shopper’s go-to stylist for local Mad Men parties and back-in-the-day photo shoots. His aesthetic is far less era-specific than, say, a modern-day Don Draper wannabe or a James Gatz (Gatsby) reenactor. But listening to him now, as he helps bag the goods of another Burning Man–bound couple, he sounds like he knows his stuff.
“Are you getting that Odd Fellows costume?” he asks the man, who holds up a coat with gold fringe on the epaulettes.
The man says it’s already been paid for, that he purchased it from one of the vendors outside.