When we first walk into Native Ken, sunlight pours through the glass storefront, highlighting the stark contrast between the minimalist white shelving on the left and the burgundy brick wall on the right. A single frame is on each shelf, nestled between detailed design sketches. It’s Friday, July 21, and we’re celebrating the official launch of Native Ken’s “Made in the USA” eyewear line. Native Ken is a luxury eyewear brand with a brick-and-mortar in the heart of Chelsea.
Cofounder Chris Tsiplakos is standing behind the checkout table, which will soon transform into a food and beverage table. He’s attending to a walk-in customer who is interested in a pair of sunglasses. Off to the left, co-owner Adam Porter-Smith is surveying the nearby red carpet as his husband, Billy Porter, is perched atop a white counter fiddling with his iPhone. Porter jumps down to greet us and smiles.
By 7 p.m., a steady stream of guests begins to trickle in. Nathan Lee Graham, of Zoolander fame, is one of the first to arrive. He isn’t blue-steeling tonight, but he’s really into spinning for the camera. As the evening goes on, eyewear starts to disappear from the shelves as partygoers take pairs down to sport around the room.
Tsiplakos has built a loyal customer base over the years, and some of the guests are longtime customers. When he and his brother, Tom, first opened Native Ken in 2010, it was called Tina Catherine Eyewear. After joining forces with Porter-Smith, they launched the brand as Native Ken.
“I’ve been coming in here for maybe five years,” says Jerome Brooks after he spent a good 20 minutes filming a moonwalking sequence. The musician happened to walk into the store one day. Brooks wishes he wore his Native Kens tonight, but they didn’t quite match his outfit. The frames he chose for the evening have a delicate gold frame that pair well with his hat and gold skull t-shirt. Brooks estimates he owns at least 30 pairs of glasses and looks for original designs that stand out. He walks off sporting a pair of Bond sunnies.
The Native Ken line is best described as vintage-inspired with a modern twist. The styles range from the Buddy Holly-influenced Rivingtons to what one guest described as “the Jeffrey Dahmer.” These titanium wire Bleekers are the frames that the Tsiplakos brothers imagined their uncle was born wearing. “Imagine a big Greek guy with his shirt buttons popped open,” Tsiplakos says with a laugh.
By 9:30 p.m., the store is crowded, as Broadway shows are letting out and more people are arriving. Kathryn Gallagher steps up to blow us some kisses. Adrienne Warren and Rafael Casal stop by. Kate Rockwell and Vanessa Ray gives us a few high fives and snaps. And Tony Award winner Jessie Mueller does the robot.
The next day, everything is different in the store. A large bar with shiny new taps stands where the red carpet was, and Tsiplakos is planning to serve coffee from Five for Coffee. “Sometimes people come and just want to hang out,” he explains. It’s just another way to cultivate the community that has served them well.
In the upcoming months, Native Ken plans on releasing a new line in collaboration with Porter. They plan on participating in Fall Fashion Week and hope to have another party to celebrate their new coffee bar. Native Ken also offers free eye exams and 30 percent off frames for Equity members.