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The Right Fit: 5 Questions for Tony Montoya of Pink Elephant
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I’m thrilled to kick off this new chapter of BSCH with Tony Montoya, co-owner of Pink Elephant vintage in downtown Missoula.
I’ve known Tony for a few years, and swing by the shop often—especially when I’m on the hunt for new jeans. But until we spoke for this interview, I didn’t know much about his personal history, and how it has shaped his passion for fashion.
Tony’s nothing short of a serial entrepreneur. In addition to a nine-year stint in the liquor industry, he’s owned a mobile stage business and a frozen yogurt store. He continues to run the Northwest Margarita Fest in Caras Park, and also recently launched a laundry service through Pink Elephant to clean linens for local restaurants and bars.
Read on to learn more about the surprising influences on his own style, the good fortune that aided him in his mission to open Pink Elephant in 2020 and the bizarre rag houses where he first accumulated his inventory.
Max: Did an interest in fashion get ingrained into you as a kid?
Tony Montoya: Until I was twelve years old, we lived in Glendale, Arizona. As a kid in the inner city, I always saw this glamorization of the gangs, and the way they dressed, and I was trying to mimic that. My friends all had brothers that were in gangs.
One of the really popular things at the time was really big wide jeans that hid your shoes, but then you would cut them and let them fray a little bit, you know?
I saw a pair of these knockoff Converse called NaNas with a one-inch platform on them. I bought those instead of wearing Converse.
And then when we moved [to Colstrip], I still had the same style and I just remember how mesmerized people were by my pants and my shoes. And I was like, alright, I'm just gonna start dressing funky and however I feel.
I wasn't really picking back then, but I was just buying random stuff that appealed to me. It all came from just seeing people's reaction as a kid, and I wanted more of that reaction from them. So I just pushed those boundaries a little bit more.
My mom used to always take me thrifting, but we didn't ever look at clothes— we were into furniture and art at the time.
Thrifting for clothes really didn't start until probably high school. I was always going and looking for something really weird and out there, like a funky Hawaiian shirt.
Did people ever mess with you?
No, I'm the same size now that I was in seventh grade, man (laughs).
Fast forwarding a bit—had the idea for the shop been kicking around for a long time before you pulled the trigger?
I was always just picking for myself. So anything I owned, it would fit me, which also meant it fit like five or six of my friends. I could always gift them things, too. So I would always have a couple of garbage bags in the garage of clothes that I would either pull out and wear, or if somebody's birthday was coming up, I’d find something nice and pull it outta the bag [for them].
When Instagram first came out, everybody was like, Tony, you should really film yourself, show your clothes. But I’m afraid to be in front of the camera. I was so nervous about it.
I've had a couple businesses—in Bozeman, when I lived there, and then here—and with one of the last businesses, I had a really rough time with my investors. And so it took me three or four years to want to get into a business again. I was just so destroyed by that last ordeal.
A year or so before the pandemic hit, I felt ready to get back in. So I reached out to [my business partner Drake Doepke]. He said, let's do something together. And Missoula definitely needed more men's clothing options, but I didn’t want to do new clothes.
I believe in God, and I feel like I was led in this direction [to open Pink Elephant]. Everything was just boom, boom, boom, boom, boom, boom, boom, just happening. There were no indestructible barriers. Like, a wall came up and it just easily fell over, you know?
Just a small example: when this space became available, we [went to the landlords and explained that] we’d need a big buildout, that it's gonna be crazy. They said they’d pay for most of it, like 60%. And it just kept rolling.
That’s wild! Let’s talk about the clothing itself. How big is your inventory at this point?
We're between three and four thousand items.
How do you know if something’s a good fit for the shop? Where do you find your inventory?
It's about how you immediately feel when you see something. If you hesitate on it, then it's probably not as cool as you think.
In the beginning it was just about the enjoyment of cool clothes. Then as I started learning about this industry, [I realized that it’s] really needed. We need to be more sustainable—clothing’s going to the dump or the ocean as garbage. There's so much clothes out there. It's crazy.
When we first started picking we didn't know how to fill the store up. The store needed like 1,200 items just to look okay, right? It would’ve taken me a whole summer of picking to try to get 1,200 items. And so we went down to California and hit up three of their rag shops, which are these crazy huge warehouses, as big as a football field. And they're just out in the desert.
They'll have four by eight sheets of plywood, screwed together into boxes. One’s full of just red flannels. And then the next one’s green flannels and then black flannels. And then all of a sudden, these are Nike t-shirts, these are Adidas t-shirts, these are hoodies, da da da da. And it just goes on forever. Those piles are taller than me or you. So you're just digging through all these red flannels, looking for the ones that you think are cool, and then you throw them inside a 55-gallon plastic barrel drum and you just drag that drum around with you. And then when it’s full, they just come over and give you another one.
Some of it could be dead stock—old clothing that hasn’t been worn and has tags. They sell a ton of it to Urban Outfitters.
There is way more clothes in the world than we need. We could probably just stop making clothes and everybody be fine for a long time (laughs).
So that's how we first started and then it turned into a lot of Craigslist, a lot of garage sales, estate sales. We buy here at the store, too: people can make appointments with us or or trade with us.
Now that it's been over two years, I’ve gotten to know some really cool people.
My favorite is this guy named Richard that I really want to do a short film on or something. He used to own three or four Levi stores. He did that for 30 years. He had an old van [that would fit] a little over 1,100 Levis. And then he'd go down to LA to this big thrift convention and he would sell 'em all there and then come back up and just keep buying and collecting from people. The rarest items I have are Levi's that I've bought from him. He stopped in 2012 or 2013.
He lives in Ronan. He always invites me out and we just talk it up and I ask him questions. He helped me learn how to date the Levis and what I'm looking for and which are the really, really good ones.
Any other ways you’ve become discerning about what to buy?
Yeah. I usually don't like to buy t-shirts [unless] they have a tag. A lot of companies are starting to print their tag on the back of the shirt, and so I know that that's not in the years that I want—ten years or older is what I go for usually.
[Very few companies] are actually making good quality items still. The rest are all getting sent over to China or something.
Like I was saying before, I could see something really cool, but as soon as I see that print-on tag or if I could tell that it's from H&M or something I immediately say no. That’s all fast fashion and it's just going to become garbage. I'm always focused on anything USA-made. I just love the quality of it.
Lastly, what advice you would give to someone who's thinking about opening a small business in town?
I guess it'd be the same thing that my buddy Papu [of four0six clothing in Helena] told me: You have your idea, you research your idea really well. [You ask], how much does that idea cost? How much does that idea make? If you can answer those things and it looks good, then go forward (laughs).
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
One more thing…
I’m a big fan of the Missoula “Western-psych” band Cosmic Sans, and was thrilled to chat with them about their killer new album and their imminent performance at Treefort Festival in Boise for Montana Free Press.
Thanks so much for being here. We’ll see you next week! In the meantime, you can always reach me via email, the comment section below, or on the Elon Machine, @SavageLevenson.