Talking to Bobby Kelley at the bar at El Jefe (yes, we had beers; yes, we had chips and queso), I can’t help but think about Alexander McQueen. No, the Jax-based designer and entrepreneur behind the brand Bobbyk isn’t the kind of mercurial genius who would require a side (drug) room during an event. But Kelley definitely has the same sense of integrity and passion, as well as the commitment to the craft of fashion.
This is especially evident in the Kelley couture dress currently on display in Ties and Knots, a textile-focused art show at Downtown’s Main Library. The piece—an olive-drab underdress comprising strips of cotton fabric sewn together into subtle ruffles, then topped off with an entire gardenful of hand-dyed ombre purple rosettes—is a tough, street-savvy nod toward the 2010 McQueen collection, which itself seems a visitation of McQueen’s obsession with John Galliano’s Victorian-inspired ruffle dress from the ’08 season (and earlier iterations).
“That dress was literally me saying ‘I’m going to go nuts if I don’t make something with my hands,’” recalled the designer, in a rare relaxed moment at El Jefe.
At the time, he was living the dream, working for a corporate designer in New York City and moonlighting during Fashion Week. He was busy, making a living doing the thing he supposedly loved, but he was miserable. Thus, in 2015(ish), he and husband Jonathan Taveras moved back to Jacksonville. Once here, he decided to open his own eponymous boutique, Bobbyk. It’s his way to engage his creative side as well as contribute to the local community and culture.
“I’m not saying I am burning up the world with boutiques,” he said with a chuckle. “But I am doing my part to make Jacksonville a safe space for everyone […] You’re doing yourself and your business a disservice if you’re not doing your part.”
It’s with that strong inner drive that the designer is leaping into his newest venture, a second Bobbyk boutique located in Springfield, “because we don’t want to go into a mall—malls are like death,” he said.
This boutique has a twist, however. Kelley is collaborating with Bark Boutique owner Jamee Yocum-Pittman on a shared space in which customers and clients can get a fashion fix for themselves as well as for their beloved fur-babies. (We hear that tartan is too-too on-trend for doggos this season.)
In fact, Yocum-Pittman said she’s closing her Laura Street location in Downtown, because “so many Springfield people are already clients, it makes sense.” That, and the opportunity to closely work with a person she likes and admires, makes it “perfect, we have very similar tastes, designs and goals.”
The space the two boutiques will occupy is owned by The Block Skate Supply founder James Smith. Kelley describes Smith as “an angel,” and Yocum-Pittman credits him with helping the build-out (not to mention fostering a general fun vibe at the corner of Eighth and Main streets in Springfield. Crispy’s Springfield Gallery and Hyperion Brewing Company are also neighbors.)
“It’ll be a really positive, happy place to be,” Yocum-Pittman said.
More than positivity, both entrepreneurs see their commitment (they signed a three-year lease) as a way of giving back to the community. For Yocum-Pittman, it’s in the surprising details (“… it’s got a huge back yard, and we’re going to have events”) and, unlike the Downtown Bark location, there’s enough room to do grooming for the pups. Clean paws for all!
For Kelley, the larger space means an opportunity to reach out to up-and-coming designers, as well as inviting well-known artists and designers to create capsule collections for NEFLa. He also plans to work locally, offering classes on fashion basics like pattern-making and sewing. “Because an app and color-matching don’t make you a designer,” he said with a laugh, after describing a young person who had walked into his Murray Hill location, saying she needed someone to “sew up” the designs she’d dragged and dropped on her iPhone app.
“You can do this,” he tells her, as he recalls his own road to fashion, “but you’ve got to take what you feel inside and get it out.”
And it is that commitment to authenticity that informs his approach to his work and his funding. In order to open the new location, Kelley explained that he needed to take out a loan of roughly $20,000. His bank wasn’t on board, however; it suggested a $200,000 loan at 21 percent interest with a 14 percent early pay-off penalty.
It didn’t make sense to borrow more than he needed and potentially pay more in penalties alone than he wanted in the first place. So he went to Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC), a lending and capital-building organization. LISC helps generate capital for projects that can improve neighborhoods. In Kelley’s case, this took the form of a micro-grant, one that he’s almost finished paying back already.
“Something I’ve noticed living in Jacksonville is what I call the ‘Noah’s Ark Effect.’ People don’t have the ability to find what the city needs, because the city struggles with its identity. Things here open in twos; you get two craft beer shops, two craft donut shops … people can’t figure out what we need and it’s frustrating. So that’s why I am excited about what Jamee and I are doing. It’s experimental and cool—why wouldn’t you want that?”