Wendy and LaRae Kangas are the founders of the New York-based vintage and modern clothing boutique DUO NYC. The Kangas sisters grew up on a farm in Minnesota, where clothing was more about utility than fashion. They wore denim jeans and canvas jackets that had been passed down through their family, only to discover later in life that those very hand-me-downs had become fashion staples in urban cities and small towns alike.
Sustainability was something that was intrinsic to the Kangas sisters’ lifestyle in Minnesota, and it stuck with them after they moved off the farm. They were taught the importance of recycling clothing, and the vintage clothes they wore inspired them to start selling vintage on eBay when they were in college. But while Wendy and LaRae were always interested in fashion, they never expected they would set up shop in New York City.
A few stints working in retail combined with a handful of research and a dash of naiveté led the sisters to opening up a storefront in the East Village in the fall of 2008, when Wendy was 27 and LaRae was 23. I spoke to the sisters at their store, just a few months away from their business’s ten year anniversary.
SHRIYA: What were you two like in high school? Did you intern or work anywhere?
WENDY: We grew up in a tiny, tiny town in Minnesota, population of 190! We actually didn’t live in the town, we grew up on a farm 20 miles outside the town. We had a pig farm with 500 pigs. We had animals around all the time–our dad would bring home a turtle, a deer, a snake from the fields! It was very outdoorsy but also super Scandinavian because everyone there was Norwegian or Swedish. High school was so small; I had 20 people in my class. I worked at McDonalds–that was my first job after farmwork and babysitting. I worked there for a summer, then I worked at a clothing store, and all through college I worked in department stores and vintage stores.
LARAE: I was a babysitter, then I worked at a Pamida which was like a local K-Mart. I stocked the beauty department. I worked there all through high school, and in college I worked in restaurants.
How were you interacting with fashion and clothing when you were growing up? Since you were on a farm and not in an urban setting.
LaRae: We’re really focused on workwear, utilitarian clothes, and sturdy, solid pieces.
Wendy: The clothes that we had to wear outside, we would have them forever. What we were wearing had been in our family for generations, like we’d be wearing our grandpa’s snowsuit. We also grew up with brands like Levi’s and Wrangler.
LaRae: Our mom saved everything. In our basement there was a section of totes of clothes that we would dig through.
Wendy: She wasn’t a hoarder, she kept everything organized. So we grew up with wearing a lot of passed down clothing. I think it was the mentality where her parents grew up during the Depression era, and then she grew up on a farm, and we were not able to buy things as readily as if you lived in a city.
LaRae: Our mom is also a sewer and a quilter so she would take those clothes and make them into a blanket.
Wendy: We always had a relationship with vintage clothing even though we probably didn’t know it at the time. We were always excited to go to the mall and buy something new!
LaRae: Everyone shopped in the same place–since there were only 20 people in a class, we were always trying to figure out how to dress differently and stand out. I remember we would both lay our outfits out in the hallway the night before school. We would decorate the bottom of our jeans with beaded pins and figure out how to alter our clothes.
How did you end up in New York City?
Wendy: So we both went to college in Minnesota. Joe, my boyfriend at the time who is now my husband, said he was getting a job in New York after college. I never thought I would move to New York–if anything I thought I’d move to California if I was going to leave Minnesota. But he found a job in advertising research here, and I moved out a couple of years later. Since 2006, we’ve lived in the exact same apartment in the East Village!
LaRae: I was still in college when Wendy moved out here. I was never super goal oriented; I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do. I studied abroad in Australia and took all these naturopathy classes, so I was studying natural medicines. Then my visa expired and I had to come back to the States, and Wendy said, “Don’t go back to Minnesota, come here!” And so I moved to New York and I never left!
Wendy: I was managing a store at the time and so I told LaRae I could get her a job and I hired her. But before that, for my first job here I was working at Bloomingdales. I was a visual merchandiser–I’d get to work super early in the morning and I’d be stocking the floor and doing all the visual displays of the clothing. After that, I dressed mannequins and did window displays, too. It was really hard and super physical! I was on my feet for 10 hours a day lifting and moving around tons of clothes. Then I worked at a store named Mink in the East Village and ended up managing it, and that’s where I hired LaRae.
LaRae: We had talked about having our own store because we were selling vintage on eBay during college. And then in New York we were selling vintage in the store we were working at. So it was definitely something we had discussed.