This Chicago entrepreneur’s biggest insecurity became her entire business

Merl Kinzie sitting in her shop, The Shudio.
Merl Kinzie smiles in her shop, The Shudio, surrounded by plants and color-coded vintage clothing.

By Neena Rouhani
Medill Reports

During her high school years, Merl Kinzie felt embarrassed about shopping for second-hand clothes. Today, the 35-year-old designer and entrepreneur has turned her adolescent insecurity into an eco-conscious business.

Kinzie’s Pilsen vintage shop, The Shudio, feels like the home of an eccentric aunt — the one who never married and instead spent her time traveling the world, bringing back relics in the form of plants, eclectic furniture and quirky decor. The daughter of flower-farming parents, Kinzie lines the walls of her shop with vibrant greenery. On this Friday morning, light pours in through the storefront windows, nourishing her cacti, succulents and snake plants, all for sale. “I love the thrill of the hunt,” says Kinzie. “You never know what you’re going to find.”

Although Pilsen is rapidly gentrifying, the neighborhood has been a vintage hub for around a decade. To keep community at the center of her business, Kinzie hosts monthly events to build friendships and offer resources for women in the neighborhood. “I love the energy and community aspect of Pilsen,” says Kinzie. “It’s a neighborhood of hard-working immigrants, and I strive to emulate that work ethic every day.”

What was your experience like, growing up in rural Wisconsin?

My real name is Merrillan, which is a mouthful. I was named after a small beautiful town in Wisconsin, close to where I’m from. The town is pronounced Mare-lin but my wonderful parents came up with their own pronunciation for it. I fucking hated it as a kid, I tried to be called Mary and basically anything but my real name because I just wanted to fit in. I was a ginger and was ridiculed pretty hard for that. My mom wouldn’t let me dye my hair so I used to use like a brown enhancing shampoo to try to dull my red hair!

We weren’t related to anybody else so we didn’t have that built-in community. And it’s funny because all of those things are what I cherish most about myself now. The foundation of my entire business is the very thing I was ashamed of as a child. I hated second-hand shopping and wished my parents farmed corn instead of flowers, and now I own a vintage store that sells plants.

That’s such a lesson for young people. When you’re younger, all you want to do is fit in because kids will find the smallest thing to ridicule you about. But when you start to get older you realize how much you treasure the things that make you unique because you don’t want to be like everybody else.

Did you picture yourself opening a business?

I never really thought in my wildest dreams that I’d open a store necessarily. I knew I wanted to be in some kind of creative endeavor, but I also viewed a store as keeping me stationary. But once I did it, I was like, holy s—. I actually really love this because it was my vision. It was really nice to have control over the aesthetic and the pieces that we offer. For a lot of people who aren’t super experienced in vintage or thrifting, they think vintage and picture that ‘70s polyester or a ‘50s really frilly dress, instead of pieces that can acclimate into their modern wardrobe really well.

What is your goal with The Shudio?

My main goal is to encourage people rather than guilting folks into leading a more eco-conscious life. I think a lot of times when people first start to dip a toe into eco-advocacy, they get very overwhelmed because they realize potentially how non eco-conscious they’ve been up to this point which can feel very overwhelming. It truly is fulfilling and to be honest, even a bit addicting when you get started with it. You realize how good it feels to one, support small businesses and thrift stores and two, you end up saving money in the long run even if you are buying modern-made, eco-friendly merchandise or shopping at a curated vintage store. Because your clothes just last longer, so you really do start to shop less and consider more.

What are some steps we can take toward eco-advocacy?

If you’re working on a capsule wardrobe, or if you are getting a new home and you want to decorate it, it’s a good idea, one to list out what you actually need, because then it’s far less impulse buying and so you’re just more conscious about your entire spending habits. But also, if you can say, “OK, out of these five things, I’m going to try to get at least two of them either vintage, secondhand, locally produced, ethically made, fair trade.” There are so many avenues that you can go down to be more eco conscious. It’s just about picking what’s the most important to you. Some people like fair trade. It’s usually done in a separate continent typically than where you live, but you are supporting women and disenfranchised communities to regain their life.

What’s a tip you have for vintage shoppers?

I always say that anything that’s super precious and tied to a particular decade, you just pair it with ripped denim, and it instantly feels modern.

What are some issues in the second-hand industry?

One thing I want people to think about is when they donate their clothing, there’s such an overabundance that the stores can’t dig through everything. So a lot of it gets either shipped off to developing countries where they have too much and they’re refusing to take any more clothing or it gets burned or thrown in a trash heap. I genuinely want everybody who can to shop second-hand to help eliminate that excess. Ultimately, the thrift store is getting everything for free. So the main mission is obviously helping folks get decent clothes at a very affordable price. So it’s really frustrating when you see those thrift stores suddenly like skyrocketing prices. Like come on, now you’re being greedy. You’re kind of going antithetical to what your entire mission is. I know that it’s such a multi-layered issue and I want to encourage people of all walks of life to continue to thrift because there’s so much excess in the world that the more that we shop secondhand, the less we support mass retailers that are just like churning out stuff.

Tell us about the journey of a curated vintage piece, from thrift store to The Shudio.

If I find something on the rack, I look it over, make sure it doesn’t have any really big impossible stains or tears. Depending on the style, a piece may not necessarily be what a lot of typical thrift shoppers are going for so I kind of look at it as saving the piece from potentially the dumpster. And I know my customer would love it. I do a quick check when I’m first gathering stuff, and then I find like a secluded corner and I put everything on a rack and do a more thorough check just to make sure they’re not missing hard to replace buttons. If there’s something that might have a stain, I can dye it if it’s an actual textile or mend a broken seam, that’s a really easy fix. Then just making sure the pieces fit in with our aesthetic.

Once I come home, everything that can be washed gets washed on cold and then I hang dry a lot of stuff. I swear by the Dryel at home dry cleaning kits. Game changer. The dry-cleaning industry is so toxic as a whole since there’s so much waste and also the chemicals they use are really harmful and eventually go into our waterways. So, after everything gets cleaned, we check for stains that we missed, missing buttons, broken seams, anything like that. Finally, it comes into here, gets priced and then put out onto the shop floor. So, it’s not like we go to the thrift store, pull off the paper tag and then toss it on a rack (laughs). Like, you can smell any of our pieces. They smell fresh. It’s definitely a labor of love.

What are three words you want people to associate with your brand?

Eco-conscious, approachable and humorous. I think we really do try to stay approachable but not only when it comes to keeping prices accessible. I hate the word affordable because these days it has come to mean cheap. The biggest thing for me is conscious consumerism. Just being very aware of what you’re spending on and why. These pieces are between 35 and 70 years old, which is kind of bananas to think about. And I don’t want it to break the bank for people, like they won’t be able to pay rent or something, but I do want them to say, “OK, I really love this sweater so I’m good with spending $46 on it.” It’s not like a $15 sweater, it’s priced enough to make customers really consider it. But I know that also means it’s going to last longer in their wardrobe. And I really love that ethos. I mean at the heart of it, we’re all such goofballs here that I think we always have to put in a level of humor and brevity because it should be fun.

What advice would you give to your 15-year-old self?

Don’t worry, your boobs will grow.

Photo at top: Merl Kinzie smiles in her shop, The Shudio, surrounded by plants and color-coded vintage clothing. (Neena Rouhani/MEDILL)