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Phnom Penh's elusive vintage clothes market

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081231_13.jpg

Vintage shopping is all the rage among the hip and heavenly the world over, but Cambodia aficionados have to make a bit of an effort to score bargains

Photo by: Tracey Shelton

Secondhand bargains at BKK market.

As containers full of used clothes arrive in Cambodia, they are filled with exactly that, used clothes. However, as enthusiasts and savvy retailers pile through the clothes, some items are discovered, put aside, washed and declared vintage. The term gives these particular garments an aura of elegance and sophistication, and very often a higher price tag, too.

According to Erin Gleeson, founder of vintage event Circa, the term vintage refers to second-hand garments made in the era their style reflects.An example would be a '70s-style dress actually being from the '70s, while a similar-looking dress from the '90s would simply be second hand, though also likely to sell thanks to its vintage look.

Gleeson hosts Circa every three to six months at changing venues around Phnom Penh.

"I started collecting vintage items some four years ago, first for myself and my friends," she said.

Soon, however, Gleeson started hosting vintage sale parties at her house, and eventually began Circa, an all-day event featuring secondhand and vintage clothing for women sold in a chilled-out atmosphere complete with music, drinks and nibbles.

"Vintage makes people feel at home. Women say particular items remind them of something, or someplace," she said.

Terms of trade

Secondhand clothes arrive in Cambodia in containers mainly from Korea. Massive 100-kilogram sacks of garments are then sold to retailers for around US$100-$150.

Vintage makes people feel at home. women say ... items remind them of

something, or some place.

Some of the sacks are bought by Cambodians who sell their contents outside markets. Piles of these clothes, straight from the sacks, can be browsed through, most notably at the southern end of BKK market, as well as in a small alley off the Russian Market.

The activity is time-consuming and demanding, the incentive being that real vintage items, as well as decent secondhand attire, can be had for a mere 2,000 riel - assuming you find them.

This is how Gleeson unearths many of the gems sold at Circa, revealing that she once even stumbled upon a Chanel item.

To make the job somewhat easier, however, she has developed relationships with many of the vendors over the years, to the extent that they put items away for her to pick up.

Other sacks are bought by traders. They open the sacks, sort the clothing, repack and compress garments, and then sell them onwards. A large amount of the clothing thus gets shipped to neighbouring countries to be resold.

Some of the stuff even makes it all the way to Africa.

"Most Africans in Cambodia are involved in this business," said Mike Osemwegu from Nigeria, sales manager at CAO Ltd, based near Olympic Market. "We ship these bags to Africa, where 2,000 riel jeans sell for $2 to $3. Because we send them in such quantities, there's a profit to be made."

"Secondhand clothing is big business," acknowledged Gleeson, raising an eyebrow at how seemingly donated clothes are sold to vendors at points of entry into Cambodia. "I use the profits from Circa to fund various arts projects I am involved in," she said, adding that art projects are very underfunded in Cambodia.   

 

Hidden gems

While finding those real vintage items can be a mission and a half, local markets, or more specifically the alleys outside the markets, are worth browsing through for some secondhand bargains. BKK market is where to go for jeans. Starting from around $2, denim trousers are available in all shapes and sizes. Brands include Levi's and Abercrombie & Fitch, but it may take some digging to find your size.

There are no changing rooms, so it's a good idea to wear a dress when you go, although the vendors do have skirts you can borrow.

Men will just have to cope with the indignity of standing in their boxer shorts in public. BKK has a large amount of men's shirts and a decent collection of vintage-looking shoes for around $5.

Central Market is also worth popping by. True to its reputation as a more expensive market, jeans here are in the $5-$10 range. There is, however, a notable collection of leather jackets as well as some fur coats that clearly have gotten lost in the wrong part of the world. Most jackets are in the $30-$35 range, and while some of them remind you mainly of what a chain-smoking Russian cab driver would wear, others are actually nicely cut and great if you're heading to colder climates for the festive season.

More secondhand clothes are sold outside Olympic, O'Russei and Russian markets.

Seemingly the only actual shop in town selling second-hand clothes, Thrift Japan, north of Wat Phnom, is a small piece of paradise for vintage lovers.

Items start from 2,000 riel and although there is no air conditioning, there are fans, changing rooms and the clothes are hung on racks as well as sorted by item. As in the markets, it takes a lot of browsing, but there are some seriously stylish outfits to be found there. An added bonus is that by buying 10 items you get a 50 percent discount on the sum total of your bill.

Finally, if you have time and patience, search through the piles outside markets, for those true 2,000 riel bargains. Or wait for Gleeson to do it for you, and look out for the next Circa.

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