Kim’s Clothing in Germantown is a destination for menswear — with panache. Square-toed Stacy Adams dress shoes and studded Giorgio Brutini loafers are displayed on a silver rack, and suits, of any and every color, hang from the shop’s white walls.
But after 40 years of business, owner Jae Choon Kim and her daughter, Jenny Kim, are closing their doors. “Since my father died, [in 2018], it’s been hard trying to run the business,” Jenny said. “I have a health condition and my mother is getting older, we can’t keep the store open every day like our customers are used to.”
Jae, now 82, opened their first store on 131 Chelten Ave. in 1979 with her late husband, Byung Chul Kim, after moving to the U.S. from South Korea five years earlier. Having worked in clothing retail in South Korea, Jae was familiar with how to run the business, but language barriers and building credit to secure business loans were challenges during the early years.
“It’s not an easy process as immigrants to come in and start a business,” Jae said. “America is a country where you have to have credit history, or [the banks] won’t give you anything.”
By 1988, Jae and her husband saved enough money to move into a bigger location, a couple of blocks down, where the store has been since: 154 W Chelten Ave. Jenny, now 55, said her mom knew their customers’ taste and how to sell. With Coogi-inspired sweaters, pastel-colored linen suits, closed-toe sandals, and Kangol hats, Kim’s has been an oasis for folks of a particular age who are looking for a little soul in their attire.
“A lot of our customers have grown up with us. … Their style has changed over the years,” Jenny said over a murmur of “Can You Stand the Rain” by New Edition.
For decades, Jenny and her mother kept the store overflowing with inventory by attending trunk shows in New York and Las Vegas, and placing orders. Mr. Kim handled back of house duties, such as organizing racks and ordering supplies. Jenny did a bit of everything.
John C. Peterson, 53, said he’s shopped at Kim’s since he was a teenager when his mother would purchase his Easter suits because, at Kim’s, “everything matched.” And for the past five years, Peterson has worked in the store as a shop associate.
Peterson was “real sad” when he found out the store would soon be closing for good. “[Mr. Kim] will be truly missed and the store will be truly missed,” he said.
Of the many reasons Jenny believes that the business has lasted so long, a strong work ethic and deep relationships with the members of the community are among the top. “It’s become one big family,” she said.
“We have a lot of customers from Africa that buy up a lot of things,” Jenny said. “We also have a lot of pastors that buy suits.”
Jae remembers a day in the late ’80s when a man walked into the store on a winter day. He didn’t have on much to protect from the cold, so Jae, at no cost, offered him a pair of shoes, socks, a jacket, and gloves. She said she never learned his name, but will never forget his face. “He’s doing really well now and still buys clothes.”
Jesse Speaks, 65 of Germantown, has bought “all my suiting” from Kim’s for the last 15 years, he said, attired in a mustard, double-breasted suit, punctuated with a black fedora. “I like the way they treat me and they give good deals.”
“One time, I didn’t have that much cash,” Speaks said. He needed a suit for an event, "and they came through for me.” The news of Kim’s closing shocked him, but he understands why the store has to shut down. He doesn’t know where he’ll buy his suits now.
In the time that Kim’s has been open, Jae said she’s only taken vacation twice, and she works six days a week — Monday through Saturday, reserving Sundays for church. Above all, she’s tired. And Jenny doesn’t have the bandwidth to run the store alone.
With her free time in the upcoming months, Jae plans to become more devoted to her church and spiritual practices, as well as partake in community volunteering in Montgomery County, where she lives.
The store will remain open until most of the inventory is sold, and according to Jenny, the family will donate the rest. Right now, customers can enjoy sales up to 75% off as they bid their final farewell to Kim’s.
“I’m so proud of my parents. There were days where they couldn’t take off. It was very difficult,” Jenny said. “It was never about making a lot of money, it was about helping people out.”
After news of the coronavirus closing nonessential businesses, Kim’s will be closed until further notice.