“It’s our four year friendaversary!” Sarah Azzouzi of Chicago’s Lost Girls Vintage exclaims, looking to her partner in crime, Kyla Embrey. Raising her travel coffee mug in celebration, Kyla declares a toast. “Let’s cheers! And drink our coffee…because that’s what we do,” she says.
We clink our mugs together and Sarah sighs, “We need this. I wish coffee was hydrating.” The three of us are soaking up one of the first nice days in Chicago, and I’m about ready to chuck my recorder off the balcony of The Goddess and Grocer onto Damen Avenue below. Can we just go get margs and hangout? I want to be the third Lost Girl! Friend crushes are very real, and I have a major one on these two.
Sarah and Kyla have made their dreams a reality, something very few of us have the guts to do. Their business, Lost Girls Vintage, is essentially a vintage clothing store that operates out of a 1976 Winnebago RV named Winnie. But if you dig a bit deeper, you’ll find out that it’s so much more.
Together Sarah and Kyla, who met selling vintage at the same market back in 2012, have created something bigger than a store. They’ve created a lifestyle, and they’re promoting an idea about what it means to thrive. It means living life to the fullest, following your dreams, and looking damn fantastic while doing it. It’s an idea won through their own experiences, reflective of their own bold decisions and big risks.
In addition to the mobile shop, these two have created their own line of fragrances and teach classes throughout the city on everything from product styling to Instagram. With their recent departure from Pilsen’s Modern Cooperative, where they were popped-up for over a year, many are wondering what’s next for these two. Spoiler alert: it involves a new Bucktown show room, a Lost Girls magazine, and a lot more coffee.
As legend has it, you two met while selling vintage at the same market and dove right into a dice game called Farkle. Do elaborate on the Lost Girls history! How did you each end up in Chicago? What brought you to vintage, and to each other?
Kyla: I’m from Georgia originally. I grew up hanging out with my great grandmother at the thrift store she worked at. I also went to yard sales every Saturday with my mom. I’ve always had a love for finding old and unique abandoned treasures. My gateway to the greater Midwest was the University of Michigan, where I studied acting. I moved to Chicago right after school and pursued acting for a while. Eventually I realized I didn’t really like that as a career. That’s when I fell into selling vintage. I had been collecting pieces for a while. I guess it was more like hoarding because it was taking over my studio apartment. I decided I needed to release those items into the wild, so I started selling at some vintage markets just for fun. That’s how Sarah and I met. It just kind of snowballed from there.
Sarah: I grew up in Maine, and I came to Chicago for school. I went to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where I studied fashion, fibers, and hat-making. Once I graduated, I had a little hat business going. It was going pretty well, but it was frustrating to be so limited. I was also managing a boutique that sold vintage and just collecting things. I started selling, and the idea of a mobile shop popped into my mind very randomly. I had thought about opening one, but I couldn’t figure out how to do it. Then Kyla and I met selling at a market four years ago today.
You said the mobile shop idea came to you very randomly. How did Winnie, the ’76 Dodge RV you found on Craigslist, become your “storefront” of choice?
Kyla: Well, while we were both selling at the market, we realized we had a few weekends free going into the fall. We were like, “Screw this, we don’t need to wait for someone else to do something. Let’s put together our own little pop-up.” We did it, and it went really well!
Sarah: We said to each other, “This works! Our stuff goes well together!” It was going so well that Kyla proposed opening a store together. Honestly, I really didn’t want to sit in a store, so I proposed a mobile shop.
Kyla: And I said, “Okay, sounds great! Let’s do it!”
Sarah: I had been talking about a mobile shop for months, though. I had been wanting to do it, plotting it out and planning how to do it. I just never actually went for it.
Kyla: It’s funny, people always ask, “How did you get started?” We just went for it!
Sarah: We just…tore out the inside of an old RV. [Laughs]
That’s amazing. There are so many people who have big dreams like that but don’t think they could ever become a reality. You guys just totally went there.
Kyla: You have to take that leap of faith. One thing we’ve both really learned is that you can’t let what you don’t know hold you back from acting on what you do know. Trusting the expertise that you do have is enough to get you started. If it means enough to you, you’ll figure out the rest along the way. Or you’ll seek out resources that will help you fill in the rest.
Sarah: We have two very real examples of that. They’re both really silly, because that’s our life. [Laughs] When we were first tearing out the RV, we had no idea what we were doing. How do you tear out the inside of something? The contractor that we were working with was like, “I don’t know…just take a hammer and swing at it.” That is literally all I would have thought to do, and that is actually what you do. The only thing we had a problem with was the toilet.
Kyla: Uh yeah, the contractor handled the toilet–
Sarah: But then we had to shuffle it from alleyway to alleyway.
Kyla: Oh yeah. I forgot about that part…
Sarah: The other example I can think of is: Kyla was out of town two weekends ago, and I was at the shop working. Lauren, who owns the lifestyle collective Foxtail and Moss, was there too. I was like, “This wall would look really cute pink.” And Lauren agreed. Then I waited for someone to give me instructions. I just stood there, waiting for Kyla to say, “Yeah let’s do it.” Instead, I had to decide. I said, “Okay…let’s do it? I guess we should just do it?” Now it’s pink with cacti on it!
For the past year and a half, Lost Girls also operated out of the Modern Cooperative storefront in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood. How did that work out? Did you seek out a space, or did the opportunity just present itself?
Sarah:Modern Cooperative approached us at the exact time we were looking to open a storefront, but we weren’t quite sure what type we wanted. They asked us if we wanted to do a pop-up, and it just worked for the time.
Kyla: We were at dinner with Rick and Ashley Ortiz from Antique Taco. They’re kind of our small business mentors. They’re the most wonderful people. We love, love, love them! They were helping us talk through ideas about what our next steps would be and what our long-term goals were. It was while we were at dinner with them that we got the message from Modern Cooperative. They had the opportunity to expand and asked if we wanted to have a piece of the expanded space as a longer term pop-up. It just kind of all fell into place.
And now you two are opening a new space! Tell me about your latest project. Is it going to be a storefront as well?
Sarah: We’re opening Friday, June 3rd! We’re calling it our Summer Camp, since we’ll be set up there all summer. We’re sharing the space with Foxtail and Moss.
Kyla: It’s not like a traditional storefront. It’s not going to be open seven days a week, and it’s a little more hidden. You kind of have to be “in the know” to know where we’re at. We’re planning to do a lot of events and a lot of collaborations. It’s in Bucktown on Damen, between Armitage and Fullerton.
Sarah: The address is 2320 North Damen. Right past the highway, immediately before the Popeyes. [Laughs] At Modern Cooperative, we had regular customers who were traveling pretty far to Pilsen. They would always say, “You’re the only reason we’re coming all the way down here!” That got us thinking maybe we should move closer to everything.
What do you two have planned for the grand opening?
K: For the grand opening we’ll have so much more than just great shopping. We’re very excited to be partnering with Pisco Portón, all the way from Peru, to offer up some amazing cocktails. We’ll also have a smattering of events throughout the weekend, including a braid bar sponsored by Solo Salon, flower crowns by Blumgarten, and fun DIY projects with Foxtail & Moss. That’s just a few! We’ll be listing all the details on our Instagram.
What were some challenges you stumbled upon starting your own business? How did you overcome them?
Sarah: I think the most basic challenge was the fact that, when Kyla and I first started, we had no mechanical experience whatsoever. We had to learn a lot of stuff about fixing this 40 year-old car. You would never think, “I’m going to go into fashion, I’m going to fix a car!”
Kyla: Yeah my acting degree is coming in handy for that one. [Laughs]
Sarah: My art degree is working pretty well! [Laughs] Every time I would take Winnie to the shop…many times it was because she was leaking something and I had no idea what it was. The mechanic would tell us, for example, that she’s leaking steering fluid, and we just have to refill it. But how do I do that? Where do I look? That’s how we ended up learning all this stuff. I would just stand next to the mechanics and ask, “Where are you putting that? Can I do it?”
Kyla: I think it’s a struggle starting any small business if you’re dedicated to it and giving all of your time to it. There are going to be people in your life who don’t understand or fall away from that. It’s hard not being able to spend as much time with people who don’t run in this circle. We are very fortunate that we’ve made so many close friendships with other small business owners and other creatives that understand the time demands. It’s hard with the friends who work nine-to-five jobs and have weekends off. They invite you to do things on the weekends, and you have to decline for the tenth time because that’s when we work. That’s been a personal struggle for me with starting the business. We’re at a place now where there’s a little more balance. As you get older, you realize which relationships are the most important. There are ones to focus your energy on, and ones to be okay with letting them sit for awhile.
Did you find anything more challenging about opening your own business as women? Is anything made more challenging presently?
Sarah: I personally hate it when men ask if we need help because we’re two women driving a large vehicle. We’ve had a lot of really great people come up to us and tell us how rad Winnie is. Then there are the dudes that are like, “Are you okay? Do you need help?” It’s frustrating because we know her so much better than them!
Kyla: We get dad jokes about our name all the time from middle-aged men. “Oh, are you lost? I can tell you where to go!” or “You’re right here, you can’t be lost!” Then they get their fragile egos hurt when we don’t laugh or if we’re not interacting with them.
Sarah: What kills me is that they generally feel that, after being in business for three years, we haven’t heard at least 200 dad jokes about our name. Women NEVER say things like that.
Kyla: Women NEVER do! It’s also never someone who is our customer. It’s always a smart ass passer-by. Then they almost always get offended when we don’t boost them up because they made a funny joke. I would say that is the biggest thing we face as women, but even that is pretty minor.
Sarah: We also get a lot of men offering to lift heavy things for us, but Kyla and I are, like, freakishly strong. It’s kind of silly how strong we are. We’re stronger than a lot of men.
Kyla: I can do three pull-ups.
Sarah: I can’t do three pull-ups, but I can hold a plank for a really long time.
How would you describe your dynamic as business partners? Is one the “fun one” and one the “responsible one,” or is it pretty even?
Kyla: People always say we’re like a married couple. We make that joke, too. We bicker like a married couple. Sometimes people see us squabbling and get nervous that we’re not okay. We have to explain that everything is fine. We’re just working through our ideas.
Sarah: The responsible one and the fun one though…the thing is, I’m not not responsible. I would say in our dynamic, though, people do see Kyla as being the one who is in charge.
Kyla: I would say it’s more I’m the reserved one and Sarah’s the loud one. I think the most important part of our dynamic, and what makes it work so well, is that we talk about everything. I think that’s where the genuine comparisons to a strong marriage come in. We communicate everything. We matter so much to each other, and what we’re doing matters so much to each of us that we don’t want to let things build up or go unsaid. We don’t want frustrations to not be addressed.
Sarah: Someone asked us last week about which road trip we fought the most on. We were talking about going to Morocco and how we didn’t kill each other for three weeks. That was the longest we’d spent together consecutively since we started working together. We didn’t even come close to killing each other! Didn’t even approach that territory.
Kyla: Yeah, it was totally fine. Granted, later in the year, we went on the road for about a month where we had a big breakdown-slash-breakthrough at the start of the trip. We were both blubbering like babies in the parking lot of a Home Depot, inside this ice cream truck painted orange with chevrons across it. Then it was fine! Once we addressed and talked through it, we were fine for the rest of the trip.
You’ve got to have some pretty killer stories about your treasure hunts. What are some of your favorite finds on your journeys?
Kyla: We found this dress in the last year. It’s this beautiful black and white polka dot fit-and-flare dress with a gorgeous red ribbon on the bodice. We just kept commenting on how beautiful this dress was and how well made it was. There were no tags in it. One day someone tried it on, and as I was helping her out of it, I realized that sewn into the inside of the seam on the skirt was a Christian Dior tag. It was a Christian Dior piece from the 1960’s. I was like, “I’m sorry, I can’t sell this to you.”
Sarah: Oh my god. I forgot about that! That would have been the biggest tragedy if we sold that.
Kyla: Oh my god, yes. It made so much sense though. We had been in awe of how beautiful this dress was and how well it was made. Then when we found out it was Christian Dior…
You two have such good eyes. I do not have that same gift. I feel like I can never find anything when I’m out shopping. What is the trick to finding and curating a great collection?
Sarah: I think you can find anything anywhere.
Kyla: Our approach is to find pieces from whatever era that you can mix and match with contemporary pieces. We never like to look too “of one period,” if that makes sense. Don’t get me wrong, we have some pretty outrageous, fun show pieces that might be better suited for somebody in a rock band than a nine-to-five job.
Sarah: The real trick is to give yourself a lot of time.
Kyla: We tend to, at the start of each season, comb through Instagram, magazines, and blogs trying to figure out what upcoming trends really resonate with us. We’ll keep a list of pieces we’re on the hunt for personally. If I know Sarah is looking for a minimalist pinstripe jersey dress with a high slit, I’m going to grab that for her if I see it. Being specific with what you’re looking for helps, but at the same time, you need to be open-minded to what’s out there.
The Lost Girls aesthetic is mentioned often. How would you describe that exactly? What does being a “lost girl” mean to you?
Kyla: Lost Girls Vintage is more than just a vintage clothing business, it’s a mindset. It’s about unapologetically living a fearless life of fun and adventure. It’s about never giving up, following your dreams, and breaking all the molds. It’s about knowing yourself, loving yourself, and confidently presenting your true self to the world.
Sarah: We only sell what we love, from Victorian garments to pieces the Spice Girls would be proud of…and everything in-between. Our influences range from Carmen Miranda and Stevie Nicks to Moroccan design, Emmylou Harris, American rodeos, and all the amazing adventurers we meet on the wide open road…and the wide open internet.
How would you both define success? Do you consider yourself successful?
Sarah: I always thought that I would feel most successful if I could pay all of my bills and not be stressed out about money every month. Also just be happy overall. We’re almost there!
Kyla: That’s a big part of it – the financial security. Being able to pay bills, splurge a little on small indulgences, put some money aside and still have enough to keep the business growing. Up to this point, it’s just been a lot of reinvesting. We have been growing and able to do a lot more than when we started three years ago, but I think we’re still getting to the point of total financial security.
Sarah: If we were to have kept the same business model as when we first started, we may have reached that goal by now. If we didn’t grow at all and were just the mobile shop. That was never our plan, though. We never wanted to be just another mobile shop. We want Lost Girls to become an all-encompassing brand. We keep adding things to it! And that means having to pay for them.
It’s pretty amazing how you guys took a dream and made it into your reality. What advice do you have for anyone who has a passion and love for something, but doesn’t really think they can make a career out of it?
Kyla: First off, start small. Neither one of us just up and left our day job without testing the waters and figuring out what worked. Sarah had been selling vintage for almost two years before we launched Lost Girls. I had been selling vintage for a year. So, we had time to hone our aesthetic and figure out the details. A lot of those little things you can’t know until you start doing them.
Sarah: I think that after you start small, really sit down and reflect on what’s working and what’s not. If something’s not working, you don’t have to keep it – change it. We do that every week.
Kyla: We’re constantly analyzing.
Sarah: Which may seem a little obsessive, but it’s helped us so much. It’s also really important to figure out who you’re targeting and what you’re helping with. What is this business for? Is it to help people, because there’s a demand for it, or just because you love it? Figure out what audience you want to target, pinpoint what they like and how they respond to certain types of advertising.
Lost Girls Summer Camp opens on June 3rd. What happens after that? What is the future of Lost Girls?
Kyla: We’re working on Lost Girls Magazine!
Sarah: That will be coming out in the summer. We are thinking about adding more scents to our fragrance line as well.
Kyla: We’ve had a really overwhelming response to our fragrance line. We want to eventually have stockist for it so we’re not just selling in our own store.
Sarah: We also want to start designing our own stuff.
Kyla: Yeah, expanding and not just doing vintage. Having some limited runs of select pieces is a future goal.
Sarah: So we have some pretty big things in our future. We’re never not going to be poor, but it’ll be great! We’ll be swimming in perfume and magazines. [Laughs]
You can find out more about Lost Girls Vintage on their website, Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter accounts. Chicago babes, check out the Lost Girls Summer Camp grand opening on June 3rd at 2320 North Damen!