Aug 12, 2023
Dominique Darabi, Longtime Owner Of Wicker Park's U.S. #1 Vintage And Dog Lover, Dies At 75
A former French chef, Darabi collected and sold high-end vintage clothing and other goods on Milwaukee Avenue for decades. "You don't know Wicker Park if you don't know Dom." WICKER PARK — Dominique
A former French chef, Darabi collected and sold high-end vintage clothing and other goods on Milwaukee Avenue for decades. "You don't know Wicker Park if you don't know Dom."
WICKER PARK — Dominique Darabi was a bridge between the “wild” Wicker Park of years past and the more expensive, sanitized one that exists today, his friend Teddy Varndell said.
A former French chef, the longtime vintage and antique picker operated U.S. # 1 Vintage Clothing in the neighborhood for almost 30 years. As a consummate collector, Darabi sold clothing and memorabilia that ranged from t-shirts to rare vintage finds from the ’50s, Varndell and Darabi’s stepson Angelo Avina said.
Darabi was a neighborhood fixture who would stop in at stores all over Wicker Park and talk to anyone, friends said, including young vintage pickers who were just getting into the industry.
Often by Darabi’s side was one of his beloved dogs, who he would take on long walks every day and feed farmers-market grade meals, according to a 2018 Block Club obituary for Kohl, his German Shepherd.
U.S. # 1 Vintage closed in late 2020 after an illegal partial demolition of its Milwaukee Avenue building ultimately forced Darabi out. But he remained a regular presence in Wicker Park, often setting up racks of clothes outside to sell while chatting with neighbors.
Darabi died earlier this month at the age of 75, Avina confirmed. Friends and family remember him as an inquisitive, sometimes gruff man who at his core was deeply generous and caring, especially for his dogs.
“He would rescue dogs that really didn’t have a shot, big dogs that were raised in a crate, and spare no expense getting them to Chicago and giving them a loving, permanent home,” Varndell said. “It was just his kindness. His caring.”
Darabi was born in Iran and raised in Marseille, France, Avina said. After moving to the United States and living in several different cities, he relocated permanently to Chicago in the early ’80s, according to a newspaper clipping Avina shared with Block Club.
For several years, he ran a French restaurant and antique store, both on State Street, according to the article.
Varndell met him in the ’80s when Darabi was running the restaurant while also buying and reselling antiques.
“We were like competitors, trying to vacuum stuff out of Michigan flea markets. He’d leave the restaurant after it closed, so he could be the first guy in the door at these things,” Vardell said. “We had a lot of mutual interest in vintage clothing and places to source vintage clothing and Native American jewelry.”
Over time, Varndell said he and Darabi got to know each other better and began swapping tips on collecting and how to land the best finds. And he attended several of the intimate dinner parties Darabi would host every New Year’s Eve.
“When everybody else was on the internet, he was still reading the weekly copy of the Maine Antique Digest. So I suggested some books. And I believe he pursued them and his eye and his taste got better, which made it harder for me,” Varndell said.
Avina met Darabi in 1992 when he was just 12 years old. Darabi took him and his brother under his wing, he said, essentially raising them and teaching them about the antique and vintage industry.
In 1994, Darabi opened U.S. #1 as an antique shop in the 1500 block of North Milwaukee Avenue, Avina said. He later moved just south to the store’s longtime home at 1460 N. Milwaukee Ave. where he focused mostly on clothing.
Besides local customers, Darabi frequently exported vintage jeans and other items to Japan in the ’90s. His emphasis on wares made in America inspired the U.S. #1 name, Avina said.
“He dealt in other stuff but that’s what he liked. He always liked ’50s, ’60s clothing for guys. And he always liked ’50s items like bicycles, chrome stuff, anything that was from the ’50s,” Avina said. “He was picking stuff before people knew what to pick.”
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For years, Darabi was rarely seen without a dog. His love for animals was well-known, so much so that Block Club ran a 2018 obituary for his German Shepherd, Kohl.
After Darabi had to have Kohl put down, word spread around the neighborhood and flowers, candles and condolence cards flooded into U.S. #1.
“I am heartbroken. I cannot keep straight,” Darabi said at the time. “‘Where is your buddy?’ People are asking me, everyone is asking.”
In 2020, U.S. #1 Vintage unexpectedly closed after the building’s owner illegally demolished part of the historic building, which sat within the Milwaukee Avenue Historic District.
“The landlord was not supposed to do that to the building,” Avina said. “And [Darabi] lost his business due to that. It was just a big mess.”
But lack of a physical space to sell his wares didn’t slow him down. For the past few years, Darabi would often set up racks of clothes and other items on Milwaukee Avenue.
“He had to turn into a street vendor because he didn’t have the business anymore,” Avina said.
As Wicker Park gentrified and corporate chains moved in, Varndell said Darabi remained one of the last links to a previous wave of resellers and pickers who set up shop in the neighborhood, most of whom are now gone.
“I mean, think of all the antique and vintage clothing shops that were on Milwaukee. And there’re just not there. People can’t afford to pay the rent,” he said.
Darabi was “a mentor to the new generation of vintage pickers,” throughout his life, Avina said.
In recent years, that included Alex Gruezo and Kevin Vilchez, who met Darabi when they started scouring Wicker Park’s secondhand shops for their own fledgling resale businesses.
The two friends hit it off with Darabi, who took time to educate them about individual pieces and their history, they said.
“I think what makes a store is the person running it. And I feel like his personality was really easygoing. I mean at first, he was kind of a hardball but once you shop with him and get to know him, he could be such a sweetheart,” Gruezo said. “A sweetheart you won’t forget.”
Darabi would stocks t-shirts from the ’80s and ’90s but also a swath of “true vintage” items from the ’60s or earlier, Gruezo said.
“He literally had everything. I like to say he was a one-stop shop for all things vintage,” Gruezo said.
Soon their friendship with Darabi turned into something more like a mentorship, Vilchez and Gruezo said, which partially inspired the opening of their own brick-and-mortar vintage store with Gruezo’s brother Adam and friend Jake Fernandez.
Layers Vintage opened this winter on North Avenue in Wicker Park, where they sell t-shirts, hats, posters and much more.
In their dealings with customers, business partners or really anyone, the Layers guys said they try to mimic Darabi’s spirit by emphasizing personal relationships and education.
“You don’t know Wicker Park if you don’t know Dom,” Vilchez said. “He was more so like the fortitude of that community. Everyone knew Dom. Dom said hi to everyone. I guess that’s what’s kind of missing [now].”
When Layers first opened, the store had a line down the block of eager customers. Gruezo said Darabi strolled up, right past the crowd, to say hello and deliver them a bouquet of flowers and well wishes.
“He handed us the flowers and said ‘good luck, I’m proud of you guys.’ And then he just walked away,” Gruezo said. “That was just a tearjerker moment.”
At a memorial service this month, Avina gave Vilchez and Gruezo a copy of an article on Darabi from a Japanese publication that they’ve since hung up in their store.
And six months since Darabi dropped off the bouquet of flowers, it’s still on display.
“I still have it here in the shop. I couldn’t bring myself to get rid of it,” Gruezo said. “It’s dead, but it still brings us life.”
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