2 min

Vancouver’s underwear King

Top Drawers turns 20

"Every day I would see fingerprints on the windows when I opened the store, and I knew it was a good sign," says Top Drawers owner David King. Credit: Jessica Oddan

When David King opened his underwear shop several blocks beyond the traditional boundaries of Vancouver’s gay village 20 years ago, he wasn’t necessarily thinking long-term.

“It was definitely a departure at the time, back 20 years ago, as all gay businesses were up on Davie St,” he remembers.

The lack of a suitable space for his store on Davie pushed King a few blocks over to Denman ST. “I thought if Denman doesn’t work I’d move somewhere else. I even looked at Robson as well, but this location kept coming back to me.”

He needn’t have worried.

“I remember the first weekend being very exciting and being able to pay the rent after those first couple of days,” he says.

“Every day I would see fingerprints on the windows when I opened the store, and I knew it was a good sign.”

Originally a journalist, King not only needed to learn the business side of underwear, he also realized early on that to survive he would need to take risks with the lines he carried.

“When the store first opened it was strictly black and white underwear,” King says. “It was a real focused concept look, but it didn’t last very long. It looked good but didn’t sell that well.”

In the last two decades, King has seen many changes in men’s underwear design and prices. Not only are gay men willing to pay more for what he calls a recession-proof luxury, but today’s top-selling underwear is almost unrecognizable compared to the shapeless boxer-brief, tighty-whities and Lycra bodysuits he remembers from 1992.

Today it is all about fit, colour, fabric, sex appeal and anything that enhances. “Things like hidden pockets in the front pouch that give you a boost to lift or shape, sort of enhancing what you already have,” he says.

“Fabrics are also big,” he notes, “like modal, which is like a bamboo and is so light and comfortable. Skimpy is a big thing, too. There is a much bigger market for it now than there ever was.”

As Top Drawers evolved, King went beyond simply chasing the next big fashion trends of the established brands and began to carry local designers, too. One such designer whose work caught King’s eye was Ryan McKillop, who credits King with giving him his big break.

After losing his corporate job and unsuccessfully attempting to join Project Runway, McKillop found himself on King’s doorstep three years ago, hoping to sell a few pairs of his hand-sewn underwear samples. He never expected to walk away with an initial thousand-piece order.

“David made my dreams come true, and we’re still on the journey together,” McKillop says. “He cultivates new brands, sticks it through, and he is so willing to work with someone like me.”

“I have had all sorts of guys starting underwear lines, but very few actually made a go of it,” King says. “What I was really happy to see in Ryan was that he worked his ass off and made it work.”

Though he insists his interest in underwear is not a fetish, King’s passion for his business is unmistakable as he walks around his store, enthusiastically pointing out lines and chatting about the future.

“While I plan to be personally involved until the 25-year mark, I’m actually working on something a little different, something on the internet,” he hints. “But for now I’m not saying much until I see if it pans out.”