In Conversation with Kasia // Duchess & Duke

Name: Kasia Waissmann 
Shop: Duchess & Duke Clothing 
Address: 1824 Government Street, Victoria, BC  
Instagram: @duchessdukeyyj 

An eclectic assortment of vintage goods greets customers at the front door.

What is Duchess & Duke? 

Duchess & Duke is a thoughtfully curated consignment store for all fashion lovers. We offer men’s & women’s clothing, accessories, shoes and jewellry in a variety of modern styles, current trends, classic & timeless pieces and vintage goodness ranging from the 40s – 90s. We also stock a variety of locally made goodness from jewelry to gift cards. We aim to offer high-quality items in next to new condition at affordable prices. 

Can you tell us about your background? Did you have any retail experience before opening Duchess & Duke? 

I’m the only one in my family born in Canada;  my parents immigrated here from Poland in the early 80s with just a few boxes of personal items to start their new life. Money was extremely tight back then, so my mom sourced everything secondhand – from thrift stores to garage sales,  I grew up scouring the secondhand world. I fell in love with the rush of finding that next piece at a fraction of the cost — I became a full-blown thrifter in high school when I was finding my own personal style on a student budget. It took many long and winding roads to lead me to Duchess  & Duke — I studied biology at the University of Calgary, art at Camosun College, worked in restaurants, retail and for a brewery to pay the bills and now I’m back at the University of  Victoria finishing my BSc in Psychology. I’ve been surrounded by entrepreneurs my whole life and they taught me the value of investing in your passions and working hard. Truthfully,  nothing can prepare you for owning your own business other than time and experience, but passion, courage and community are what got me to where I am today. 

Opening hours during the pandemic.

Have you always wanted to run your own business? How did the shop come about?  

Duchess & Duke is an ode to my beautiful sister Maddie who passed away in 2005. It’s the manifestation of a dream that we dreamed together and a promise I intended to keep in her honour. While we may have been raised on a secondhand budget, style was never sacrificed. My sister and I learned about style from our impeccable mother who inflicted us with the fashion bug from a young age. We shared a deep love for all things vintage and hunting through thrift stores together. We spent many days dreaming of renting a truck and driving across this beautiful continent, stopping in every thrift store along the way, making memories and building our collection. Ultimately, we dreamed of opening a cute little shop brimming with the beautiful pieces we collected and forever giving us a reason to thrift. Unfortunately, life doesn’t always go to plan and when Maddie passed away, I set out to make that dream a reality and live it for the both of us. 

Tell me a little about your store name. Any significance?

I wanted to pick a name that reflected the variety of clothing I offer and at the same time nod to vintage dressing – I’ve always loved the opulence and over-the-top styles of royal fashion. When I was deep down the rabbit hole of shop names, a friend mentioned that if my husband’s alias as a performer is “Duke” that would make me his duchess, and so Duchess & Duke was born. On a side note, I think it’s incredibly important to acknowledge that clothing should fit bodies, not stereotypes. I’m a firm believer that fashion should be genderless and instead celebrate the way we feel on the inside by wearing whatever makes you feel best on the outside. 

Beautiful vintage clothing on the shop’s racks.

If you had to describe your shop to someone who hasn’t seen it, how would you describe it? 

Duchess & Duke is in the heart of the design district which was once part of Victoria’s Chinatown, one of the oldest in North America. We’re located in the Lim Dat building, a true brick & mortar shop filled with light, love and fashion. The shop is thoughtfully curated and organized by both item and color – easy to shop and aesthetically pleasing! Our walls are home to a collection of suitcases that whisper stories of times past and you’ll often find our resident shop dog Lucy lounging around (she gives the best fashion advice). Duchess & Duke is more than just a clothing store, we’re a community that cares about reusing, recycling, supporting each other and keeping the spirit of playing dress-up alive. 

Can you tell us a bit about your personal style and aesthetic? 

I used to purely dress in vintage fashion — my closet was brimming with colorful dresses, crazy polyester blouses, and eccentric pieces. I loved that when I wore a vintage garment, I was wearing a piece of someone else’s story while weaving my own into the fabric. These days I am inspired by the minimalist aesthetic mixed with a touch of fun and whimsy. I love romantic details juxtaposed by a hard edge, well-constructed garments with beautiful details whether the fabric itself, a billowy sleeve, or a delicate collar. While my personal style will inevitably change over the years, one thing will always remain the same: I will always have way too many hats!

Kasia puts together an outfit for an Instagram post.

What or who inspires you? 

If you check out my Instagram, you’ll see that I follow a lot of fashion accounts – if it’s fashion, I want to know about it. I love street style, Scandinavian style, mixing high & low fashion, and of course the dreamy musings of the major fashion houses such as Dior, Gucci, Chanel, etc… If there ever was a single collection that speaks to me most it would be Christian Dior’s 2018 Resort collection — be still my fashion-loving heart! 

In fashion, each season represents new styles, new trends, new products. What do you look for in consigned pieces? How do you choose? 

I like to approach accepting consignment on a neutral plane — I take my aesthetic preference out of the mix and instead look at the construction, quality and style of the item. I want my shop to have something for everybody, so variety is the key. There are certain items that you know will sell in a heartbeat, some that are trends, some that are timeless, and some that are just too good to not have in the shop – even if just to look at.  

A few custom accessories on offer.

You’ve been in business for 7 years — huge congratulations! Can you tell us how your business has evolved over those years?  

The shop has come a long way over the years — it’s hard to believe that we’ve been part of the business community in this city for that long! The biggest evolution for the shop has been the community of consignors; I have a database of over 2500 people we’ve worked with – that’s a lot of clothing! The years have brought a lot of lessons and progress — I still cringe when I think about those early years, we learn by doing! For me personally, the honor of being a young woman in business has been my biggest evolution. I have gained so much from this experience and count my blessings every day for having the opportunity to do what I do. 

Your shop is not online. Can you tell us a little about that? 

The truth is I’m an old school gal through & through — I prefer a phone call over text, I avoid upgrading my iOS like the plague and I rarely order anything online. It’s not that I don’t appreciate online shopping — living on the island may be paradise but it does have its limitations! We all have many strengths and weaknesses, and the key is to play to your strengths. I’m not particularly talented at social media or being present online (call me a Luddite) but I am a people person. I like to focus my energy on making shopping at Duchess & Duke a personal experience. I know most of my consignors by name and over the years many of them have become regulars and friends. I like to think that there is room for both online and brick & mortar stores to coexist. Sometimes you want to drink wine and order something in your sweatpants on the couch, other times you need someone to tell you that you look amazing in that outfit and go out for a glass of wine with you after. I’m all about having your cake and eating it too! 

Shoes — hooray!

What are some of the hardest lessons you’ve had starting your business? How have you overcome them? 

There have been so many lessons, some good, some bad and some ugly, but I’m grateful for them all. One of the hardest lessons has been that you can’t please everyone — sometimes it will be your fault and other times it is not — but don’t take it personally, no one is perfect. Another lesson that has been hard is setting boundaries and saying no when it’s the best thing for you — owning a business means that the line between yourself and the business is blurred, and if you’re not careful it can consume your personal life. There are a lot of tough parts that come with owning a business such as theft, vandalism, negative comments, and uncomfortable interactions, but these adversities are where you grow the most. Learning to navigate these situations with grace, humility and humour is one of the most valuable lessons I’ve learned.

What advice would you give to someone wanting to open a business? 

Most importantly: come up with a business plan, do your research and follow through on your due diligence. There are so many moving parts to a business and knowing what you are getting into will set you up for success. The other piece of advice I would offer is to hire people who are skilled in your weaknesses — you aren’t supposed to be good at everything so find the right people to support you where you need it most.  

We are in a pandemic and small retail businesses have been affected significantly. How are you coping? What’s been working for you?  

In the words of the wonderful Dr. Bonnie Henry: Be Kind, Be Calm, Be Safe & Be Brave. Life is tough and we’re all in this together, so celebrate your victories, find ways to show and share love, and keep playing dress-up! 

Vintage wedding outfits.

As we navigate our new reality, what advice would you give to your fellow shop owners on what keeps you moving forward? Any helpful tips?  

More than ever before, running a business is a moving target so be willing to change. Things aren’t always going to look and feel the way you wish they would and that’s ok. If you stay flexible and adjust your expectations then you’ll see that there are still a lot of wonderful things happening in these dark times. Now more than ever before, we need to come together as a community and support each other, so reach out — we’re here for you! 

Have you made any hard decisions to get you through this difficult time? Where are you finding strength these days to make decisions?  

Aside from being closed for 3 months during the lockdown, letting go of my staff and running the shop alone has been really challenging. This is not a one-person job so I’m learning to accept that I cannot and will not be my best in these times. I’m also in my last year of my undergrad at UVic so tackling online classes and running the shop is a humbling experience. One day I’ll look back at this time and wonder how I ever did it, but for now, a glass of wine goes a long way.

Shopfront on Government Street in the Design District.