Bobby K has always been one of the city’s more colorful characters, but he’s especially so on this particular Wednesday afternoon. He’s fussing and fidgeting with the flecks of white paint dotting his fingers on one hand, in marked contrast to his multicolored unicorn hair, while the other hand hoists a pint of the J’ville Lager. “It tastes like liquid bread,” he says, approvingly. “If there was a piece of ham in this, I wouldn’t need to have lunch today.”
He clinks his glass against my Skate Line IPA and takes a sip between soundbites at our friends’ hip new bar. Town Beer Co. opened in Murray Hill just a few months ago, just around the corner from Moon River Pizza, selling exclusively locally made craft beers to a community that’s been expanding steadily throughout the year, with eateries and shops for virtually all ages (Salt & Pepper Gourmet Street Kitchen food truck is highly recommended). And now Bobby K is helming the latest in a string of new additions to the neighborhood; that’s where the paint comes in.
It had been only two days since he began renovations on the space now housing his own boutique at 1188 S. Edgewood Ave. “I feel like we’re getting in at just the right time,” he says. “Half of Murray Hill is vacant, but people are moving in at, like, Mach 3. It’s going to feel like what Five Points felt like in the ’90s.” He’d been planning the move since July before signing the lease in October; friends and neighbors helped him make rapid progress in advance of the grand opening Oct. 21.
Born in December 1982, Bobby Kelley’s passion for fashion first developed while he was a student at Ed White High School, where he was the school’s only male cheerleader, loading his schedule with art electives to get out of there early. He first began building the Bobby K brand while at the University of Florida in 2006, before moving to Brooklyn a decade ago, working a corporate job by day and making his name in the industry by night. “I worked and wholesaled Bobby K there for about five years before I moved [to Brooklyn] full-time, but I was up there two weeks out of every month.” In New York, he saw the industry from the inside, an experience that was equal parts thrilling and exhausting.
“Fashion Week, from any perspective, is incredibly stressful and hard, and it’s not fun,” he says. “You get up at four in the morning, you work all day, and work is, like, ‘Oh, we forgot to bring these shoes for the show, and they’re 25 blocks away, and there’s no way you can get a cab and get back here in time.’ I’ve definitely RUN down Sixth Avenue with a rack full of clothing, and then you get there, and you realize some of the hems aren’t done, so I’m on my hands and knees, sewing the girl into [the clothes] while they’re trying to get her shoes on, get her wig on. You get done with all that, packed up around nine, 10 o’clock, and then there’s an after-party. You gotta network, so you’re there ’til two. Then you go home on the train, take a nap, and get up and do it again.”
Changing economic times have brought changes to the industry, not all of which are necessarily bad. “I worked with a lot of celebu-tantes,” he says, laboring anonymously for people spending their parents’ money on some ill-conceived vision of fashion fame. “Out of all of them, only one is still in business today.” It’s not as easy now for new designers, though still rewarding for those who make it. “You have to have a product—that’s the disconnect. You used to be able to sell an idea, but now you’ve gotta have something in hand. … I know people tend to buy into the Bobby K brand a lot, because I always try to have tangible items for them. If they can’t afford a handmade dress, I’ve still got T-shirts or tote bags or 3D-printed jewelry.”
“You really can create an industry [from] a simple trade,” he says, “but tailoring and sewing is almost becoming a forgotten trade, because people aren’t bothering to learn it anymore. It’s kind of an old-school cliché, like the steam engine or something.” To that end, he’s made his space, BobbyK Boutique, open to new designers, doing regular pop-up events where the focus isn’t just on his own brand. These include events by Doble Ve on Dec. 1, Wardrobe by Carla Coultas with Bridge 8 on Dec. 8, and Bisbee & Yuma with The Car Unraveled on Dec. 16. Part of Bobby K’s goal is to pass his skills along to younger people, giving back what was given to him almost 20 years ago. In the process, he’s taking a lead role among the new generation of creatives bringing new artistic swag to historic Murray Hill.
Limited edition “Avondale is the tits!” T-shirts now available at only BobbyK Boutique, 1188 Edgewood Ave S., Murray Hill.