Best New Place to Buy Old Clothes

Dr. K’s Vintage Clothing Store
1534 U St. NW, (240) 888-6284
Photograph by Darrow Montgomery

Some vintage clothing has a way of bringing you back to a time you didn’t live through in the first place. It’s not often you might think that someone, somewhere, sometime actually wore that Members Only jacket without irony. Back then, it was as hip as Huey Lewis. But when you see someone wearing a relic like that nowadays—and not only wearing it, but rocking it—the past feels closer and more real than ever. It’s like time travel, only cheaper.

My experience with vintage clothing stores has been a mix of incredible owners whose collections are the pride of their life, and hole-in-the-wall basement boutiques looking to con every unlucky customer that wanders in out of a buck. It’s a mixed bag—you have to crawl through a lot of overpriced rip-offs before you come out with that perfect Wild One-era moto jacket. But some places you can just tell are different as soon as you walk in, and from the minute I saw Dr. K’s on U Street NW last October, I knew I’d found a goldmine.

It was Halloween night, maybe a few hours before I’d promised a friend I’d meet her at her roommate’s costume party, and I was at a loss. I needed a quick fix for an inspired—but not too high-maintenance—getup that’d turn some heads, maybe one that’d finally give me the moxie to talk to that girl in the Tinkerbell costume.

As any Halloween costume connoisseur might tell you, it’s a fine line between don’t-you-get-my-witty-reference pretension, blatant unoriginality (The Joker has been done before, guys), and sheer over-the-top failure—and I’ve done my share of all of them. To make things worse, I’d already lost a bet earlier that week limiting my costume options to Charlie Sheen characters, and my roommate’s Mo Vaughn jersey circa junior high was more than a few sizes to small.

But after glancing through Dr. K’s pristine collection of vintage fatigues (some of which date back to World War II and are nearly impossible to locate, I’m told), I quickly found the answer to my problems. I resolved to go for Sheen’s Platoon look—razor sharp, dirty Vietnam-era fatigues with a rolled-up red bandana and a soft pack of Lucky Strikes at the ready. The Doctor found everything I needed: Perfectly-fitting fatigues neatly decorated with company crests and rank insignia patches down the arm, a vintage bandana, authentic dogtags, and size-12 combat boots. And while it might not have been the most original costume ever made, everything clicked right down to the details. I swear I was a briefcase of cocaine away from being Sheen himself.

With costume in hand, I could now afford to kill some time. I asked Dr. K, who’s originally from Thailand and known to friends as Somkiat Umkerd, to show me around the store, and he quickly and cheerfully obliged. He guided me through racks of old college sweaters from the ’30s and pristine leather jackets from the ’50s, troves of old Harris tweeds and cowboy boots, and a clutch of authentic vintage rock tees—I saw some rare Metallica, Minor Threat, and Iggy Pop tour shirts from the ’70s and ’80s. His passion and knowledge about each item in his modestly sized—though totally packed—space was evident, right down to the mess of H Bar C Western shirts, double-breasted blazers, Navy-issue peacoats, or hard-to-find leather messenger bags. It’s obvious that most of this stuff isn’t cheap, but rest assured you’re getting what you pay for: The collection is hard to beat, full of incredibly rare and sought-after items, many of which have gone untouched for decades.

But here’s the real reason why Dr. K’s is such a game-changer for D.C: Almost all of the store’s clothing is for guys. While vintage clothing stores have become de rigeur for the fashion-focused, District women have disproportionately been the benefactors of chic retro styles thanks to the area’s generous supply of female-focused vintage shops. And while Dr. K certainly has an impressive collection of retro floral sundresses and hip-hugging bell-bottoms, the focus here is almost entirely on the dudes. Whether you’re buying that vintage bowling shirt to be hip, square or even just to look a little more like Charlie Sheen, let it be known: The Doctor is officially in.

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