Trendy Cambodians and their foreign counterparts are combing through the racks of Phnom Penh’s second-hand clothing boutiques in search of vintage fashion, but what many are finding is retro – imitation vintage.
“Everyone is looking for something unique to wear,” says Sovandalis Chum, general manager of Color, a vintage clothing shop on Street 13. “They want something that is only for them, so they won’t have to worry if someone else will be wearing the same thing as them at a party.”
Sovandalis Chum’s search for vintage fashion to fill her shop has stretched from Europe to the US, as well as Asia. “Genuine vintage is hard to find in the real world, but we try hard. We know that’s what the people want,” she says.
As genuine vintage is rare and rather pricey, most second-hand clothing boutiques stock retro – fashion which imitates vintage – and sell it as vintage.
Tith Dalin, 24, is one of three owners of Tin Tin, a second-hand clothing boutique that sells such vintage-style fashion.
Unlike Colors, whose main clientele are foreigners, most of Tin Tin’s customers are Cambodian. Tin Tin does attract a trickle of foreigners and according to Dalin they “are always surprised when they find us because they never think Cambodia has shops like this.”
Tin Tin sells vintage and modern hand-me-downs imported from Korea, Hong Kong and China.
“I’m not a designer, but I love fashion. I watch it and I follow the trends and I see that Cambodians are starting to follow it too,” Dalin says. “Vintage style is the fashion, especially among our higher-class customers who understand it.”
The most popular fashion items in Dalin’s shop are skirts and dresses, which take up the majority of rack space, and sell for around US$3 to $5. She also sells tops, pants and shoes, though in lesser amounts. The most popular colours in the vintage style are earth tones of brown and yellow, she says.
She finds that in Cambodia’s class-consumed society there is a marked difference in taste between those at the top and those further down. “I find with the lower-class customers, they don’t understand vintage as much, they don’t really know what it is and so they go for more modern fashion,” Dalin says.
Modern fashion is what her customers call “sexy”, she says. This means short enough to reveal plenty of leg and tight enough to mimic curves.
Nearly New, a second-hand boutique on Street 2004, also offers imported vintage-style and modern second-hand.
Its owner Thida Nyroth, a 23-year-old Royal University of Law and Economics student, says she imports from South Korea, Hong Kong and China.
Nearly New is further out of town than its rivals (it is on the way to the airport) and attracts fewer foreigners and wealthy Cambodians than Colors and Tin Tin do.
Nyroth notices that taste has more to do with age than social class. Vintage-style clothing is more popular with young adults and middle-aged customers, while younger girls are scrambling for “sexy dresses”, she says.
Perhaps vintage, whether genuine or imitation, is trending out – becoming a sign of ageing. In fashion – youth rules. Some young shop owners, and creative dressers, may already be mixing and matching to create retro-vintage-sexy in Phnom Penh’s burgeoning second-hand clothing shops.