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.
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.
King says, “Okay. Cool. It’s just so esoteric. It’s amazing.”
The man looks confused, and King explains that the Independent Order of Odd Fellows is a fraternal organization, not unlike the Freemasons. The coat, he says, is “Edwardian.” The man nods absently, watching King’s hands as he folds and bags red-and-black houndstooth-print pants. The man has purchased them for $36.
“Aren’t these buckles beautiful?” King asks.
Again the man nods.
When the couple has gone, King says to me, “I’d love to own one of those Odd Fellows costumes.”
Three long-haired teenage girls in halter-tops stand around a rack of sunglasses by the register. They’re spinning the rack and trying on shades, checking themselves out in a full-length mirror. Every ten seconds, one puts her hair up in a loose bun on top of her head while another shakes her hair free. Up and down the hair goes.
Meanwhile, King resumes his cash-register duties, ringing up customers and bagging their new/old clothes.
A woman who’s purchasing a blue-and-white dress says to King, “I think you dressed every single one of the men at a Mad Men party I went to. Every time someone would say, ‘Hey, where’d you get your suit?’ to one of the guys, he’d say, ‘Frock You.’”
I’m running my fingers over a slip at the front of the rack, priced at $24. It’s long, pink, and diaphanous — dying to be worn by a woman with a drink in one hand and a cigarette in the other. I tell King it reminds me of Betty Draper.
King says, “Mad Men has rekindled our interest in the early 1960s. That was a good era.”
He explains that his six years on the job at the shop have been an education in all things fashion-related.
“You become kind of an amateur historian,” he says.
An older woman in a purple paisley top lays a black-and-white polka-dot dress ($60) and a pillbox hat ($28) on the counter. King will later tell me she’s a “reenactor.” At the moment, she’s telling him about a costume party at the Corvette Diner. He suggests that she maybe add to her costume a pair of stockings with a seam up the back. She groans at the idea of stockings in this heat, then says that this particular party isn’t really her thing.
“I wear the corsets and the bustles,” she says. “That feels like a second skin.”
“Right,” King says, “it’s not your era.”
Later, he’ll explain that, for some, connection to a particular era is more about how the styles of that time fit their bodies. For instance, that woman might not care for the bias cuts of the 1930s because she doesn’t like how they fit her shape.
“Our greatest work of art is ourselves,” he says.
“Is that a quote?” I ask him. Did someone famous say that?
King shrugs. “Don’t know. I would assume so.” ■