An average day at the office for Aimee McQuilkin, 41, and Miranda Hickox, 30, means obsessing over people they haven’t met. Caftans and lingerie from the ‘70s hang along the basement walls of their vintage shop in Missoula, Montana, as well as XXXL nylon jackets, a wool sailor shirt, a classic khaki, camel color trench coat from the ‘50s. There's an oversized denim hooded jacket, a ‘90s black and white floral skirt with buttons along the front, a rainbow crochet baby blanket.
When McQuilkin and Hickox launched a website for their brick and mortar shop, Divine Trash Vintage, in May of 2017 they also started Trash Club, a monthly subscription service that pairs subscribers with a vintage item each month (or each quarter) for $30. They realized subscription services like Netflix could be a way to play the millennial shopping game while staying true to their core belief in the classic thrifting experience.
In August 2005 McQuilkin opened Betty’s Divine, a boutique on Missoula’s Main Street which blends “old West” styles with “new West” trends. Hickox joined the boutique in 2011, and she and McQuilkin started Divine Trash Vintage in the same building.
Since then their relationship has evolved into one where plunging in a frozen creek at 7 a.m. or frequenting Korean spas after particularly grueling buying trips together is the norm.
“I've been married for a year now,” Hickox said, “but…[Aimee and I] decided... we are more married to each other than I am to my own husband: we have a business, we have a car, we have a cat.”
During their downtime in Betty's Divine, McQuilkin and Hickox pick items to send to Trash Club subscribers in locations like Iowa City or Los Angeles.
For some thrifters, the satisfaction of discovering a unique vintage piece after spending hours sifting through the racks and bins of a musty consignment store have been replaced by the anodyne experience of scrolling through Instagramor Depop, where thousands of vintage or thrift shops are able to put their finds up for sale to a wider audience than they’d ever be able to access with a traditional store. Instagram has even reacted to the proliferation of Instagram based stores by rolling out shopping features that allow users to buy items without even leaving the app. This is the exact trend McQuilkin and Hickox refuse to give into.
“We joke about our algorithm and our robots,” McQuilkin explained. “It’s just us in a basement.”
With Trash Club, McQuilkin and Hickox inject the well-established subscription model with an analog mindset. They maintain paper dossiers on their subscribers filled with the details capturing each one’s sense of style. Happy customers send them postcards praising their new items. Each package arrives with a personal note from either McQuilkin or Hickox.
Although they’re on Instagram, have more than 3,900 followers, and admit to even selling a vintage find here and there on the platform, McQuilkin and Hickox agree the in-person experience of thrifting is still superior to the ease of access social media-based stores offer. Not everyone would agree: more than 90 million users tap on posts to see the tagged products each month, Adweek reports. But for McQuilkin and Hickox the goal is to recreate the atmosphere and community found in their brick and mortar shop even as social media takes hold of their industry.
We sat down for a short interview with the founders to find out more about their business.
Walk me through the process: if someone finds the site, thinks Trash Club is interesting and wants to sign up, how does the actual service work?
McQuilkin: Our website has a style quiz that people go through, and we analyze it.
Hickox: Do you have a juicy ass? Do you have no boobs? Each customer is treated totally on their own. We go on their Instagram and their Pinterest, spend time with them, study them, look at their name, where are they from, how old they are, everything. We just walk around the place saying their name over and over again, trying to find something. Or we’ll trade—I’ll be like, Oh I’ll give you this person if you’ll take this one.
What exactly is it about Trash Club do you imagine initially draws people into the service?
McQuilkin: For years people would always be like, Oh, you should have a website. I want to shop this stuff all the time, but I live in New Hampshire. And I never ever wanted that because it was all about the atmosphere and the experience. I really feel like Trash Club does a pretty damn good job of replicating the ridiculousness of us, in an online form. There's no returns, and you have no idea what you're going to get. We really are asking people to trust us and to believe in us and they don't know us. But it's successful because it replicates that feeling in a strange way.
Hickox: We wanted to keep the prices low and we didn’t want to have to answer people’s questions and be having back and forth and have to measure everything. [Trash Club] kind of surprised us both because we were like, Oh people want to be surprised, people want to get mail. So that quickly took off—we’ve grown from zero people to over 200 now.
Who are the subscribers you’re reaching at this point?
McQuilkin: We're in almost every state. It’s definitely hipsters, New Yorkers and particularly Brooklyn — particularly women who are comedians. People who are drawn to vintage are always people who want to stand out or want to be unique. So it didn't surprise us at first that there's people who are in bands and people who perform.
We also have, like, a teacher in Iowa, and a 15 year-old feminist speech and debater in Seattle. It's not for everyone. We definitely have people start and they're like, “No, it's not worth it to me” or “This thing, it shows wear.” And we're like, “Yeah, bitch, it's vintage.” So it's been interesting kind of stumbling through it and figuring out who's right, what's right, how to really present ourselves in the world. But the important part is we're having so much fun with it.
Are there any stories behind certain pieces that have stuck with each of you?
McQuilkin: There was one woman, she was a flamenco instructor here in Montana. She died a couple years ago and we went out to her house — which is the most beautiful place I've ever seen — and we became friends with her daughters, and just learned so much about this woman: She skied up until the day she died, she danced until the day she died. We both have a few of her pieces, and they just bring me so much happiness. We have maybe one or two more pieces left in the shop, but we've sent most of them to our Trash Club subscribers, and we talk about her and talk about how she lived her life and hope that they can do the same. Miranda and I both love history and stories and storytelling and it just fulfills all of that, how much you can learn from a person through their clothing.
You have to be kind of selfless in this game; you find the most amazing things and you have to get more pleasure from matching them with other people than you do from keeping them for yourself but occasionally there's something where you're just like, oh my god I need this.
Hickox: I remember this perfect little mustard gold jacket we got from her. It was one of the few items that wasn't really stained, I remember that it had these perfect little buttons on it and, good thing for this one Bay Area customer; it was a little too small for me. So, I remember sending it to her and I wrote all about the original owner on the tag, and the customer just loved it. I remember being so happy that she got it and understood because to us those items are so precious. We need them to go to the right homes.
Being a small business, just the two of you and a few staff, do you guys plan on capping the number of subscribers at some point?
McQuilkin: We're not ready to cap it yet. I knew once we hit two hundred we'd have to make major changes. By major changes, I mean we might invest in a $200 label printer for our packages. We're definitely going to have to cap it at some point because we see how important it is to get the personalized notes and to really put the time and the energy into the piece. We don't want to sacrifice that at all.
Did y’all have any interest in really capitalizing on selling on Instagram? It seems like everyone is doing it these days.
Hickox: We like to show off [on Instagram], you give people a taste of what we're about and hopefully when they look at it they'll be like, 'Oh they're that kind of vintage store.' But I don't see us ever — especially because we did the website to avoid selling on Instagram. Of course we make sales off of our Instagram, but that's not what we set out to do and we never want to be one of those stores. Also we don't like being on our phones for work constantly, it's just a little exhausting and spending too much time on social media will break your brain.
McQuilkin: The reality is we're shop girls. We've been doing this for years, we're just savvy business ladies. I see Instagram as more of a trend;everyone's side hustle is selling vintage. And what's cool about that is it allows people to access something, have that experience of putting it out there and financially benefiting off of it which is great. Scavenging and reusing: that's rad. Who knows in two years, five years what that will look like.
What do you imagine the next five, ten years down the road will be like for vintage shopping?
McQuilkin: [Vintage] is so big and so popular right now. But we don't know what's happening. Vintage is a relatively recent development and it's something that's very American. When I’ve been to vintage stores in Helsinki, in Reykjavik, it turns out they come to the United States to get their vintage. Other countries aren't as excessive as we are.
So this might be a blip in the history of clothing and how we wear it and how we reuse it and how we get inspired. It's so interesting to me that we're always looking back. We're rarely coming up with new, new things. Fashion designers or people in fashion design school, they're going to vintage shops or junk stores and copying. It's this whole romance with the American past, back when we didn't have an orange for a president.
And that's where Miranda and I are. We're not just shop girls that like fashion, we're also self-proclaimed cultural anthropologists, historians. We geek out about styles and brands and trends and how things are made, where they're made, and we get really deep into it. And vintage, it is part of that fascination for pockets, rivets on jeans, shoulder pads, and what it all communicates. Vintage really fills that need with us. But maybe it won't last forever.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.