A Vintage fashion lover is in it for the long haul. Great finds either come the hard way, through painstaking searches through mothbally, hum-drum second-hand racks, or the pricey – imported selections from the professionals, mended and dry-cleaned into submission at a boutique store.
Either way, the investment ensures the wearer treats their find with the awe that will see it through another thirty or fifty – or seventy – years.
As the taste for vintage style develops in Phnom Penh, clothing stores advertising vintage and retro are popping up like mushrooms in an Enid Blyton wood. For foreigners well-versed in the fashion, vintage clothing has an established cultural appeal.
The appreciation is growing on Cambodian consumers too, say business owners.
“I think people like it but it’s something they have to be introduced to,” says Ly Yann, co-owner of clothing store Lost and Found. “In our shop, a lot of people ask us, ‘are you sure it’s second hand?’ because we try and find the best condition.”
The 1960s and ‘70s era of music and film, which holds a growing fascination for a new generation of young people, could be a source of inspiration for young people, says Srin Sokmean, creator of the Facebook page Amazing Cambodia, which publishes vintage photographs of Cambodia and has attracted almost 20,000 likes.
“From my perspective, 60s’ local arts, ranging from fashion to music, and cinematography are uniquely fantastic and regarded as the golden age of modern arts of Cambodia. The fashion styles at that period were so stylish and attractive that some of them are even used again nowadays,” he says.
The superior quality of pre-1990s made garments and shoes over new is what attracts most local second hand consumers, says Philippines-born Don Protasio, fashion designer and editor of F Magazine, from the recycled men’s shirt shops scattered around Phnom Penh to the random recesses of Sakura, the Japanese thrift stores.
“[People] like the quality of it, even if you don’t know the labels. You like good leather, good porcelain. It’s not the label, it’s the quality of the stuff. When you think about it, you’d rather go to the thrift shop than [retail] stores that sell [cheap quality] stuff from Thailand and Vietnam.”
Protasio prefers the thrills and spills of treasure hunting at Sakura and O’Russey, where Japanese and Korean imports sometimes yield valuable finds.
“The best [vintage] I’ve found here is in the thrift shop. I got a few Hermes special designs by Martin Margiela when he was the creative director of Hermes. They were knits...I’ve been going for a long, long time already but I hadn’t found a lot of these pieces. For me the rarity of [finds] is what makes it special”
In the crowded second hand clothing area of O’Russey market, a Harry Potter-esque half-floor between levels one and two, vendor Ouk Vann says affordability then quality are the drawcards for her customers.
A second hand clothing seller for more than 30 years, Vann hunts around for something that might be considered older style and pulls out a succession of technicolour polyester tops, that look like they’re from the 1970s, at the very least.
“I have everything but I don’t know whether any of these are from...we have all kinds of clothes,” she says. The clothes are bought from a wholesaler at Olympic market and come originally from Korea, China and Japan.
Nearby, second hand shoe seller Hy Rotha, 33, who sells a range of men’s leather shoes, Converse sneakers and roller blades, says her husband goes to Poipet to buy footwear in bulk.
She does notice a few customers with more sartorial intentions, but agrees that most are anxious for decent quality leather at a price they can afford.
Ironically, says Phnom Penh-based vintage clothing importer Bloom, “Cambodia is actually the entry point for a lot of vintage for the world.”
From the border town of Poipet, Japanese and Korean clothing enters the massive Thai markets, where it is sold to buyers from across the world.
“Thailand has a big appreciation for vintage. Chatuchak market has a big area – they know their labels and they know that foreigners go for certain labels and certain looks,” says Protasio.
“Here in Cambodia, there is not much knowledge about vintage yet. The Philippines are more Americanised when it comes to their ‘look’. In Bangkok they have some diversity and they have a more developed street market. The way I look at it, it’s because of street style and all these street style happening in Bangkok that’s influenced by Japan and Korea and European appreciation of vintage.”
Technically, garments more than 20 years old are vintage, says Bloom, who says much of Poipet’s second hand market is more recent.
“I think people should know the distinction between vintage. There is such depth and history to the era. It’s so romantic and there is so much to know.”
At Lost and Found, Ly Yann says Western and local fashion tastes are managed by astute co-operation between her and her two Khmer co-owners.
“We buy them here but they are imported from Korea, Japan, Hong Kong, Taiwan.
“We go to wholesalers, at warehouses and they have big bales of clothes and we have to sort and handpick everything. [They say] ‘do you think westerners would like this?’”
Once picked and sorted, the clothes return to the clothing rack for another shot at life - perhaps as a vintage find, or else as something a few decades shy.