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Running a business with a sibling is definitely not for everyone, but Wendy and LaRae Kangas, the partners and sisters behind Duo, have made it work for nearly a decade. Make no mistake, though — things weren't always that way. "When I was in middle school and Wendy was in high school, we didn't want to work together," LaRae shared over iced coffees and lemonades on a warm December day. But things must have changed right around 2008, when they opened up their adorable East Village boutique that's now a favorite amongst downtown locals and girls that wear vintage Levis.
Neither studied fashion in college, but it's obvious that they know what they're doing here: The East 9th Street store is filled with amazing vintage pieces like Calvin Klein cashmere sweaters and reworked denim, plus modern styles by under-the-radar brands. During our visit, we discussed everything from what it's like to share clothing with your sisters to thoughts on launching an in-house collection.
Tell us how the concept for Duo came about.
Wendy: It's something we've talked about since we were little kids, but it wasn't until we were in our young twenties that we moved to New York from Minnesota and it really became a reality. We were like, "We could really do this here. Let's try it." So we started looking for spaces.
LaRae: When we were growing up, we'd always talk about it. We have a lot of entrepreneurs in the family, but when you're 16, you don't know if it can happen. Then we were both in New York at the same time, so we thought, "Should we try this? It's okay if we fail, but do you wanna try?"
Wendy: We wanted to do it our way — not too serious about fashion, just comfortable and very approachable. Duo is for vintage and modern independent lines, and I feel that it's very true to who we are and what we wear and what we like in our lives.
Were you two always close? Did you always want to work together?
"We wanted to do it our way — not too serious about fashion, just comfortable and very approachable."
LaRae: We're four years apart, so when I was in middle school and Wendy was in high school, no, we probably didn't want to work together. There were a lot of, you know, "sisterly bonding fights." But this just happened naturally.
Wendy: It's been amazing to be able to work together since we're family and we think and communicate the same way. It makes it so much easier when it comes to all aspects of the business, and especially the buying part, since we have the same style and taste and we both trust each others' gut.
Were you both always into fashion?
Wendy: We didn't go to fashion school; it's just more of a natural instinct. We grew up in the middle of nowhere in northern Minnesota — we were farm girls! So fashion was definitely very functional at first, dressing for the weather and for being outside. But we like the Scandinavian outdoorsy look, and now it translates to fishermen sweaters and vintage Levis, so it's right on point for us.
Did you share clothes when you were growing up?
LaRae: Wendy would get very angry with me when I would go into her closet.
Wendy: Because I was older and worked at a clothing store, and she would steal my stuff.
LaRae: I wasn't the best at returning things [laughs].
Wendy: I'd say I "shared" — meaning LaRae stole clothes from me — but now we totally share, and it's not a big deal. I'm like, "Where's that white shirt?" And LaRae will show up to work in it [laughs]. It's different now, but that was a natural fight when we were little.
Why did you choose the East Village for the store's location?
LaRae: We live here!
Wendy: I've been in New York for ten years now, and it's the only place that I've lived, which I find is rare for being a transplant. But it's the neighborhood I feel the most comfortable in. And now that we have the store, I can't imagine being anywhere else because it's such a community, especially on this block. 9th Street is such a magical little place — there are so many locals and established stores. The first Eileen Fisher is on this block, and all the ladies that work there are so nice to us. A woman from there bought a necklace, and then she sent three customers in to come get the necklace.
LaRae: I've worked in so many neighborhoods and I've never known so many people on a block before. The guy across the street can see into the store, and he comes in every day to check on us.
Wendy: He brings us food and makes meals for us! It's really crazy for New York, I think.
That sure doesn't sound like New York...
Wendy: No, it's a really weird place!
LaRae: We're kind of on the younger side for the neighborhood, but we like it.
Wendy: I feel like people look to us to see what we're up to. People are very nice to us; I didn't expect the kindness that we get. It's a laid-back neighborhood, and that goes with our store and the vibe of how we're approaching fashion.
Speaking of vibes, the store's is awesome. How'd you come up with the design?
Wendy: Thank you! We're in here all the time, and I feel like it's always changing. Right now, it's a little more streamlined and minimal with some decorations here and there, like the plants. I can't be in here without the plants.
LaRae: We didn't have an architect. We just walked in and decorated it as if it was our apartment, but wanted it to make it still feel retail. We literally did a walk through with our contractor and said that we needed fitting rooms and did our own little mock-ups, and we were here every day of construction.
How do you go about finding the brands that you carry?
LaRae: Initially, we wanted to make sure it was designers that were independent and not too saturated into the market...We wanted it to be special in here. That being said, we have some designers that really got their name out there and it's been exciting to watch. Like Dusen Dusen — we were her first stockists. She was hand-making dresses for us.
Wendy: And she's so popular now — she sells worldwide! And we were her first store! I feel like in the very beginning we were really hardcore about independent makers who only made in New York City, but since then we've broadened things a bit more. We mostly carry American brands with little produced overseas, but everything is still US-based as far as the designers go.
LaRae: There are so many skilled people here that we just felt like were getting missed, and we didn't want something that you could just walk into a department store and buy.
Wendy: We did a lot of research in the beginning, but now we're so lucky to have such a great community of designers. One of them will have a friend who has a jewelry line or clothing brand, and they'll send them to us. They all know that we're a platform for independent brands, so people approach us a lot. It's been nice because we don't have to research as much.
How often do you introduce new brands?
LaRae: Every season, we introduce at least one. This season, we introduced two. For spring we'll be bringing in Priory.
Wendy: All the time, I guess, but slowly. We never overwhelm the store with 15 new designers at once. We've probably introduced five in the past two months or so. Plus, our vintage is turning over weekly, so I feel that keeps the store more interesting.
What do customers come here to find?
LaRae: Levis 501s [and] cashmere sweaters.
Wendy: Vintage cashmere and vintage Levis are really popular right now. I feel like you can find a cashmere sweater anywhere, but you know that you can find a high-end designer vintage men's oversized sweater that looks really cool for an affordable price here. Our wish bracelets are very popular, the candles have a cult following — anything that's a little more unique.
Where do you source the vintage pieces that you carry?
LaRae: All throughout the country. We really travel a lot. We travel anywhere from Brooklyn to Florida to Minnesota. And then our grandparents will be like, "Oh, you should dig through my friend's closet," which is amazing!...We work mostly with dealers because we hand-pick everything, and it needs to be picked specifically for the store. We don't just let people just ship to us.
Wendy: It's awesome to work with our really strong dealers, because we get to pick from their picks. We thought we'd have all this time for travel when we opened the store, but then we realized that somebody had to be working at the store. We're so hands-on that we like to be in the store at least half of the week. It's hard to manage it all, I guess. Delegating is probably the hardest part about the store.
How often do you change up the store's layout?
"You can find a cashmere sweater anywhere, but you know that you can find a high-end designer vintage men's oversized sweater that looks really cool for an affordable price here."
LaRae: Weekly. We re-merchandise at least once a week.
Wendy: Or we'll put out new product and change things around.
LaRae: Vintage is fresh almost every Thursday, so that alone changes the store.
Wendy: We have a core clientele, and there's always something new for them.
Have you seen some of the emerging designers that you've carried become more well-known after you've picked them up?
Wendy: It's really exciting because we all just started so small, and I feel that we've grown with a bunch of our core designers — it's cool because we can really encourage each other. We were Revisited's first Manhattan stockist, and then all of the Barneys in Japan picked it up, so we're really proud.
LaRae: Because we work so closely with our designers, they'll ask us which stores we think they should approach, and we love to help them.
Wendy: When we can, we help our designers. We also have a lot of feedback on both ends — what we think they could do better, and what they think would sell better for us. It's sort of like a hand-in-hand collaboration.
What brands are really flying out these days?
LaRae: Lacausa. It's so simple, but you look so good and feel so good in it. We're constantly reordering that line, we carry it every season.
Wendy: And it'll sell out so fast. It's just really simple, like sheer tee-shirts and beautiful tank dresses with layered slips that are just perfect. Everybody needed a little dress for the holidays, and we sold out so fast that we needed more.
LaRae: Also, people are obsessed with our Manready candles. They're all-natural and-soy based and they're $28 dollars. Men make them, and I think that's why we like them, because they're not too feminine.
What are your main roles as partners? Do each of you have specific responsibilities?
Wendy: We just kind of fell into our roles of what we were better at.
LaRae: Wendy merchandises more than I do. I'll start, and then she'll make it really nice and streamlined.
Wendy: I used to be a merchandiser in previous jobs, so I'm more prone to getting in the rack and changing things around.
LaRae: I do a little bit more of the bookwork and the behind-the-scenes and the scheduling.
You're more the Type A of the bunch?
LaRae: Yep, definitely. Gotta keep the books balanced!
Wendy: Either one of us can swap roles and take care of each other's jobs. But we're each better at certain aspects of the business.
LaRae: We really push each other to make sure we both know how to do everything, even though we probably won't ever swap. But you never know. One of us might need to take a break for a bit and step out.
Wendy: I can do accounting, but who ever wants to do that?
LaRae: We've also gotten more into e-commerce — we work on the site a lot. I take the photos and Wendy styles the models.
Do you ever think about designing your own clothing or accessories?
Wendy: Yeah, we've dabbled in it a little bit.
LaRae: There's a lot of talk!
Wendy: It's true. I feel our foundation is very heavy on vintage, so I think it would be nice to do a spinoff and have a very small, edited collection, like Duo core clothing. People ask for it.
LaRae: Designers are inspired by vintage, so we have such close access, but I feel like we're a little hesitant because if we start designing it might take away from our vintage and our buying and we want them to both be equally strong, so one day. It's not a no...
Wendy: Future Duo plans, perhaps. We've made a few pairs of shoes and a few dresses, but we have to go all in for the next step, so...2016?
Do you see any plans for expansion in the future?
LaRae: Online. E-commerce is definitely part of the plan, but we're really old-school. We love the brick-and-mortar, coming in to a store and feeling the textures and smells and the environment.
Wendy: We're finding it hard to represent our store online. You need a lot of feeling on a website, so we're working on that.
LaRae: I think we'll always try to stay brick-and-mortar. We always talked about how we could go bicoastal, but we're pretty East Coast.
Wendy: Or Brooklyn. People ask us that a lot.
I totally see that.
LaRae: People ask us once a day if we have a location in Brooklyn, so we talk about it very seriously.
Wendy: For the moment, I think we'll just be launching some in-house stuff and working more online, but who knows?
Let's do a lightning round: Paris or London?
Tacos or burritos?
Summer or winter?
Chocolate or vanilla?
Wine or beer?
Heels or flats?
Tattoos or piercings?
Books or magazines?
Fish: raw or cooked?
Wendy: Actually cooked.
Brad Pitt or Ryan Gosling?
LaRae: Ryan Gosling.
Wendy: Brad Pitt.