Success in any business depends on a multitude of factors. Product is obviously key to meet the supply and demand of the customer. Sticking to and executing your business plan is just as vital. Arguably as important as any of those variables is desire. It’s that desire that has helped Kenneth and Anna Kim establish and invest its roots into the west side of Chicago for 34 years, overcoming several competitors and a devastating fire to still remain highly relevant throughout the windy city. The history and tale of Diana Shoes and Dream Town isn’t one of just sneakers, it’s one of perseverance, investment within the community, family and a foundation that continues to evolve just as the culture on which its business revolves around.
In 1979, the Kim’s opened a wig shop which became their bread and butter. As faith would have it, they received a supply of boots from someone as the winter season was quickly approaching and that side of their business was set to blow up thanks to good old Mother Nature.
“That year, we had a real bad blizzard, like 12-feet of snow,” said Anna. “We didn’t know much about shoes, but after the blizzard, it was like bam! Everyone is coming for the boots and so eventually, we moved the wigs to the back of the store and the shoes towards the front.”
Close to 20 inches of snow poured down during a two-day period in January of that year and unlike the snowfall, the Kim’s business was beginning to heat up.
“I found out, every year in Easter, people [within the community] liked to wear new clothes and new shoes,” said Anna. “All the kids that were coming in wanted to dress up and every year we’re finding out new things because we’ve never experienced it. People just loved the shoes on the west side and we found that out and gradually we built ourselves up. There was a time during Easter where we had to lock the door because there were too many people coming in. That was a great time.”
Business was good, but they weren’t the only ones vying for a stake in the interest of fresh threads as Kenneth notes there once was over 30 shoe stores within two blocks of their location.
They outlasted that competition thanks to their perseverance and keeping up with the trends of the customer. With business booming, the Kim’s bought two bigger buildings, just down the street from the original shop that would be named Diana Department -named after singer Diana Ross and at first, carrying only women shoes – and what would be Dream Town (aptly named after the ’92 Dream Team).
With the 80’s came a hip hop culture that intertwined perfectly with fashion as artist’s and groups spearheaded new trends. “All this time, we always had the big-name shoes,” said Kenneth. “When L.A. Gear was hot, we had L.A. Gear’s. When Air Force 1’s were hot, we had Air Force 1’s. We followed the trends of the street and that’s the name of the game”
Then came His Airness. “[Michael] Jordan brought the shoe business to another level,” said Anna Kim.
The GOAT’s style, flair and court dominance would revolutionize the sneaker landscape and made the Kim’s business a prime destination on Jordan release dates.
“We sold a thousand pairs in one day,” said Kenneth. “At that time, [Nike] didn’t have a limitation [on number of pairs per store]. It was all unlimited. We could sell as much as we could so we booked one-thousand pairs and people lined up and we were sold out in 4 hours.”
While Jordan’s success launched the Kim’s business into a hotspot, it would be that same success that led to one of the dark moments in the business for the Kim’s.
After the Bulls’ second championship against the Portland Trail Blazers, fans flooded the streets in celebration. However, those same Bulls faithful celebration would turn into rioting, looting and violence throughout several parts of the city, with the Kim’s business being in the crossfire of the ugliness.
“They broke in with a large semi-truck and hit the back of the building and once that was open – this was the biggest store on the west side – everyone came in and begin stealing,” said Anna. “Right by the back door, there were boxes of baby clothing. Someone just got a lighter and set a fire that burned through all the floors to the roof of the building. Everything burned and the store was on fire for almost an entire day.
“From the top floor down to the basement, that was all water. Almost everything was damaged from the fire trucks trying to extinguish the fire.”
Diana Department was just one of the many of businesses that were affected due to the rioting and looting. While they were devastated, they would not be deterred and would be determined to make the business bigger and better than before.
Salvaging what little they could, they began the process of rebuilding Diana Shoes from the ground up.
“This is what we know,” said Anna. “We had to start everything from the bottom-up but this is what we know and we love to do it. [Kenneth] has been a good business man. A lot of people moved out from the west side after the fire. We came back and re-invested into the community and that’s how we started back up. Things changed a lot with remodeling but we’re still here and we’re still strong.”
With Dream Town opening its doors later that year also, the Kim’s reign on the west side continued as they began offering several exclusive products that many retail locations didn’t carry.
Through consistent remodeling to keep things fresh, they built a basketball court as something to keep their customers entertained.
“It’s fun for people to come in and do something [besides shopping],” said Anna. “Not only buy more shoes but shoot a ball a little bit. That gives a different feeling inside the store unlike a regular retail store. It’s a way to give the customers some fun. Like stores with video games inside where the customers can play, I had the space so we put the court inside.”
With 34 years in the business, the Kim’s legacy is now being carried by sons Robert and David who don’t take it lightly.
“It’s an exciting challenge. I definitely learned the value of hard work as my parents have definitely set the bar,” said David. “With us, it’s about bringing the youthful knowledge into the business. That combined with their hard work, it’s a great combination and I think I can help them to where they can start to enjoy their life a little bit more outside of the day-to-day responsibilities.
“They can slowly back away since they don’t need to be here because everything is in good hands. I also think it’s important that we’re a family business. It just can’t be anyone running the store because who is going to do a better job than the family? I couldn’t imagine selling or giving something that’s so closely tied to us away when I worked my entire life for it.
“I think it’s a great and very exciting business,” continues David. “It’s also stressful but it keeps you going, hard work pays off. We have everything to gain but we also have everything to lose. This was built entirely from an immigrant family with nothing and taking things one day at a time and just exploding with all of their hard work and persistence. That’s what our parents have taught me and my brother, so while it can be stressful and challenging, it’s a good challenge and it keeps us all close.”
West Madison Street Chicago, IL 60624
Interview by Oscar Castillo
Words by Christopher Cason
Photography by Justin Ji