This Kansas City couple is making a name with 'slow fashion’ reimagined from thrift store finds
With tens of thousands of social media followers, the fashion brand Yvonne and Mitchel is the passion project of Jared Armstrong and Caylin Willis. They take clothing and materials from secondhand stores like Scraps KC and repurpose them into new outfits.
A Kansas City couple’s upcycled fashion brand is making waves, as thousands of social media followers — and some high-profile names — have taken note of the company’s repurposed “one-of-one” clothing pieces.
The passion project of co-founders Jared Armstrong and Caylin Willis, Yvonne and Mitchel takes clothing materials from thrift stores and reimagines them into new, unique outfits.
“There are a lot of pieces at thrift stores that are damaged, but that still have potential, and a large portion of people just don’t have the time or the knowledge of how to repurpose them,” Willis said. “So, we decided we could make an even greater impact by honing in on these materials and clothes at the thrift store that have the potential to be repurposed and reimagined to live a new life.”
Yvonne and Mitchel sources nearly all of its materials secondhand, many of them coming from Scraps KC, where Armstrong works part-time.
“People might not recognize the small stuff, but it is fun for us to push the boundaries to see how sustainable we can be,” Willis said, adding that Armstrong sews handmade shipping bags that provide “a special touch.”
Armstrong, the brand’s designer and seamster, said he allows artistic inspiration to guide him toward an original finished product, adding that he had always dreamed of making a living off his creativity.
“I let the project take me where it wants to go,” Armstrong said. “I might have an idea, but I don’t do any sketches. In that aspect, it makes it feel more like an art piece to me.”
Running Yvonne and Mitchell allows both founders an opportunity to explore a number of creative outlets and showcase a variety of skill sets, Willis said.
Willis leans on her journalism and content marketing background to build the company’s digital footprint, in addition to focusing on the business operations side.
“Being able to fulfill that dream of selling (Armstrong’s) own work while also making our business more sustainable was the perfect concoction that we didn’t even really plan for,” Willis said.
Embracing a ‘big mental jump’ (and relocation)
The genesis of Yvonne and Mitchel can be traced back to 2016, when Armstrong and Willis met as students at the University of Missouri, quickly bonding over their love for thrifting.
“Still to this day, thrifting is our favorite thing to do,” Willis said. “We’ve always loved going around Missouri to thrift stores. Those were our dates, because that’s all we wanted to do.”
About a year into their relationship, they decided to found Yvonne and Mitchel — a nod to their middle names — though the business was initially focused on selling clothes found at thrift stores, not repurposing them.
“We saw a business opportunity where we could almost be like personal shoppers for people and help them find cool clothes,” Willis recalled. “We find such good stuff at the thrift stores, but we can’t keep everything, so we could fulfill that need for people who don’t have time or don’t want to go to the thrift store.”
Most of the customers during the first few years were fellow Mizzou students, which Willis said allowed them to more easily deliver merchandise.
However, after the couple graduated in 2019, they faced a pivot point, realizing that their customer base would no longer be confined to one location.
Armstrong remained in Columbia until 2020, honing his sewing skills after the COVID-19 pandemic began, he said.
Eventually, the couple moved to Kansas City in August 2020, beginning to phase out the personal shopping aspect of the business in favor of Armstrong’s original designs.
“It was a big mental jump,” Willis said. “It was like, ‘OK, we’re going to shift what we’ve been doing for the past three years, the only thing that we’ve known so far, and we’re going to totally pivot the business. Now it’s going to be only (Armstrong’s) designs.’ It was equally nerve wracking as it was exciting.”
By January 2021, Yvonne and Mitchel had established its website and its Kansas City roots, according to Willis, and the transition was complete.
Social exposure is great, ‘but we need groceries’
Social media, specifically TikTok and Instagram, have been key drivers in expanding the brand’s reach, Willis said, noting that those platforms have accelerated the popularity of thrifting in general, too.
“Instagram was the first place we started,” Willis said. “For the first three years, we didn’t have a website or use any other platforms, just Instagram, which served us well because it’s such a visual platform, almost like an online portfolio.”
Without the money for a brick and mortar location, Yvonne and Mitchel leaned heavily on its social media presence, racking up 60,000 followers on TikTok and 27,000 on Instagram.
“Social media was the main justification for why I believed moving to Kansas City would work for us,” Willis said. “With social media, it doesn’t really matter where you are anymore. … You don’t have to physically be in a location in order to put yourself in the right environment.”
Choosing to settle in Kansas City — neither Armstrong nor Willis is from the area — was also motivated by their desire to blaze a new trail, Willis added.
“We wanted to go against the grain,” she said. “Instead of moving to a huge city where a lot of people traditionally go for clothing or fashion businesses, we wanted to challenge ourselves and also take part in a different movement to build something somewhere else, in a place that felt special to us.”
Willis also runs a second Instagram account called Experyments, which she said serves as the brand’s “creative lab” to release clothing pieces that don’t fit the aesthetic of Yvonne and Mitchel’s seasonal curated collections, called waves.
Ironically, the Experyments page began to gain a following first, catching the eye of stylists for several well-recognized musicians and celebrities, Willis shared.
However, because every clothing item Armstrong creates is one-of-a-kind, he said the couple opts to focus on selling its creations instead of giving them to celebrities for the hopes of potential exposure.
“It’s just better for us to sell things than to get the exposure,” Armstrong said. “The exposure is cool, but we need groceries. … I love those opportunities, but it’s more of an ego thing. There are people who have been following us for the longest time, and they’re spending their hard-earned money on something that I’ve made. That needs to be cherished.”
Breaking the cycle of ‘just tossing it back out’
Moving forward, Willis and Armstrong plan to keep evolving Yvonne and Mitchel as the brand grows alongside their lives, they said.
In order to produce at higher quantities, the duo hopes to hire other designers to assist in the advancement of their “one-of-one” fashion vision.
“We’ve talked about getting to a point where we can have other makers who are able to execute his designs, and how he envisions them, so that we can just have a higher quantity,” Willis said. “We still really love the idea of doing one-of-ones, embracing slow fashion, and having a non-traditional business model.”
By centering that model, Willis hopes the brand can lead people to be more intentional in their purchasing habits, she said.
“I hope that intention plays a role in consumption, so when people buy from us, they’re not as likely to get into that cycle of buying something and just tossing it back out,” Willis said.
On the Yvonne and Mitchel YouTube page, Willis has embraced thought leadership, she said, sharing business lessons with subscribers.
“We can still establish a connection with somebody even if they’re not able to purchase from us,” she said. “We can still grow an audience. It’s not only transactional. We want to hopefully inspire you and impact your way of life. That’s become the biggest goal for us.”
Even though Yvonne and Mitchel will always rely on its digital content to grow the brand, Willis said, she and Armstrong have begun exploring more in-person interactions.
“That’s not something we’ve really touched on yet,” Willis said. “We’ve been talking a lot more about pop-up shops and collaborating with different artists and spaces to do exhibitions. That’s something we’re going to be coming into soon.”
Regardless of how Yvonne and Mitchel evolves, Willis said, the company will maintain its physical presence in Kansas City as it ships one-of-one clothing items all over the world.
“It just feels like the more time we spend here, the more it makes sense,” she said, “and the more grateful we are to be a part of the city, and to be growing here.”