Business of the Month: Dö Kham, 117 First Avenue
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Our neighborhoods are filled with bright spots and cool shops that just compel you to go in and check it out. Walking along First Avenue, one such colorful storefront is sure to pique your curiosity. With traditional Tibetan colors adorning the sign out front, and a rainbow of prayer flags and hand-crafted silken garb and classic jewelry behind the glass, you’d be remiss not to explore Dö Kham, our March Business of the Month.
Some New Yorkers will already be familiar with the look and decor, and the Tibetan flag that used to fly out front, from when this family-owned business opened in 1988 not far away on Prince Street. Back then, foot traffic was light, but as it and the store’s popularity increased, they were able to expand to the storefront next door. But rising rents and other challenges led to a move a few blocks north, and Dö Kham arrived here in the East Village last year, already 30 years strong (the location on Frist Avenue just north of 7th Street is where Village Kids Footwear store used to be). The ownership team likes the East Village as a place of unique shops, great people and restaurants, and co-founder (and father of the other two co-owners) Phelgye lives right nearby, so the commute is easy too!
Their devoted and loyal customers, of course, followed them to First Avenue. Costume designers and TV and film people, celebrities, actors and musicians, all visit regularly. Many just walk by and in, drawn by the aura. Many out of towners make a special visit to the shop between East 7th Street and St. Marks Place. One of the L Word stars stops by to buy her incense when in New York.
Especially known for the traditional hats they design and carry, Dö Kham‘s jewelry and clothing remain more or less the same over the decades because they are based on traditional patterns and designs that haven’t changed for centuries. The store is an assemblage of items and clothes curated as a special collection.
Silk Chupa dresses are also popular items, in a variety of striking textures and popping colors. All pieces are traditional or modern adaptations the Dö Kham folks have designed. And in a time when awareness of cultural appropriation is especially heightened, Kunsang says of their pieces “it was designed, by us, for the Western world, made for you to wear.” They have casual and formal wear and everything in between, all imparting the timelessness of the culture they represent.
Dö Kham was originally created by the husband and wife team Anna and Phelgye Kelden. The original small Soho boutique was designed for “bringing treasures from Tibet and the Himalayas” to New York City. They have remained true to that mission, stocking items from Tibet, India, Bhutan, Mongolia, Afghanistan, and elsewhere. Besides the unique clothing that fills the space with a profusion of color, the spiritual objects and the musical sound healing instruments are an important component of their business.
It is indeed a family business, with each member of the team offering different energy and a way to relate to a different clientele. The father, Phelgye, with his monastic background and quiet and graceful presence, is not only is a fantastic designer, but an easy and wise listener. People come to the store not only to buy some of the wonderful things adorning the small shop, but to share about their lives or inquire about Buddhist teachings or Tibetan culture. Daughters Kunsang and Dechen are stepping up the social media presence (you can find them on Instagram here), and offer “millennial wisdom” as Dechen put it. Another member of their team administers “High Peaks, Pure Earth” a source of historical information and human rights efforts.
Dö Kham is more than a store, it is a realm of desire, with material items that transcend their East Village location and help take you to another place. So go to 117 First Avenue, and visit Dö Kham, our March Business of the Month.
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A Brief History of Dö Kham
Founded in 1988, Dö Kham was created by husband and wife team Anna and Phelgye Kelden as a small Soho boutique “Bringing treasures from Tibet and the Himalayas,” to New York City. Phelgye, a former Tibetan Buddhist monk born in Phurdak, western Tibet, and Anna, a Kalmyk-Mongolian photographer born in the United States, met in New York in 1983.
Phelgye grew up in a nomadic family before becoming a monk at the age of seven. In 1959, at nine years old, Phelgye and his family were among the thousands of Tibetans who made the escape into exile due to China’s occupation. They traveled on foot over the Himalayas for two months before reaching Nepal.
His father, being a merchant trader frequently traveling between Tibet and Nepal for business, knew the path well. After a brief period in Nepal, Phelgye moved to Dharamsala, India to join Nechung monastery. In 1979, Phelgye made his first trip to the United States to fundraise for the rebuilding of Nechung monastery in Dharamsala and later established the Nechung Foundation, a center for Tibetan Buddhism and Culture.
Anna is well known for her documentation of Tibetan and Mongolian diasporic culture in America as well as Tibetan Buddhist culture. Her work documenting His Holiness the Dalai Lama has been featured in exhibitions at the Newark Museum and Rutgers University, as well as being featured in publications such as Tricycle Magazine and The New York Times. Anna’s photographs of the Nechung State Oracle of Tibet are also featured in John Avedon’s seminal history book on Tibet, In Exile From the Land of Snows. After attending the School of Visual Arts and studying photography, Anna spent time visiting Tibetan settlements and communities in Nepal and India, photographing Tibetans in exile and Tibetan Buddhist ceremonies previously undocumented in the West. In 1979, Anna was designated as the official photographer for the first visit of His Holiness the Dalai Lama to the U.S. and traveled with him documenting the visit.
As the interest in Tibet grew in the West so did Dö Kham’s profile as a fashion destination in New York City. In December, 1991, Phelgye was featured as a New York Times Style Maker known for adapting styles of traditional Tibetan clothing to fit the modern world. The traditional wa-sha Tibetan fox fur hats are worn in Tibet to help keep warm in the harsh climate, but as a part of his modern design, Phelgye’s modern design includes a faux fur version, and have been sold exclusively to Neiman Marcus as well as Bergdorf Goodman. His adapted pieces continued to be featured in fashion magazines and editorials including a Calvin Klein winter ad campaign shot by Bruce Weber, appearing in Elle Magazine September, 1987.
In more recent years Do Kham has expanded their line to include high-end fashion pieces from all over Asia. The Kelden family continue to sell treasured items from vendors all over the world, representing many ethnic backgrounds much like those along the Silk Road. In January 2018, Dö Kham relocated from Soho to the East Village, bringing their vibrancy and rich culture to the area. Phelgye and Anna’s daughters, Kunsang and Dechen have now joined the Dö Kham team, keeping it a family run business.