Call me old-fashioned
If you still think Hong Kong's vintage shopping scene is either about Milan Station - a chain of second-hand shops for luxury brands such as Hermes and Chanel - or the ghetto night markets of Kowloon - often managed and frequented by scavengers - it might be time to take a closer look.
In the past few years, a handful of shops offering well-chosen selections of vintage goods have been springing up across town. These gems are often hidden in hard-to-find locations with more affordable rents, which puts shoppers' enthusiasm to the test.
Luddite, the menswear shop that specialises in vintage military wear, leather goods and denim clothes imported from Europe and Japan, is so well concealed that you would probably have to call the shop and ask for directions on your first visit.
The boutique, owned by Rex Ko Tsz-hong, a fashion design alumni from Tokyo's prestigious Bunka Fashion College, sits amid a string of car repair shops and dai pai dong in Causeway Bay.
'The space used to be a warehouse. I want people to feel that sense of treasure hunting as they come and find us,' he says.
Equally hard to find is Midwest - one of the city's most enduring vintage shops. The shop has been in the same location in a Tin Hau industrial building since it opened in 1993.
Beatniks, a boutique that specialises in 1980s print dresses sourced from Japan, is tucked away in a back alley in Staunton Street in Central, while Microwave moved out of Causeway Bay last year and opened in the quiet yet hip Tai Hang area.
Says Midwest's owner, long-time Hong Kong resident John Hollander: 'The location somehow worked for us because it became a destination location. I had people buying vintage denims here when they were teenagers and now they are bringing their children back to shop.'
Hong Kong's vintage scene can hardly compete with the vibrant scene in London, Paris, or even Taipei, Tokyo and Bangkok today. But Hollander says there was a time when wearing vintage was considered trendy.
'Initially the response was pretty negative because they were used items, but there was a big trend in wearing vintage denim during the mid 1990s when Canto-pop idols such as Jacky Cheung and Andy Lau started to wear them,' he says.
The vintage trend became so popular that it inspired major denim companies to launch distressed jeans and even ones that looked second-hand.
During the peak of its popularity, Hollander recalls, there were more than 100 vintage shops in the city, but many closed over time.
'They were either hit-and-run businesses or they cheated customers,' he says.
Rising rents have also forced some out of business.
'The shopping scene used to be more diverse,' says Beatniks' owner Kee Lau, who opened the boutique with his wife more than a decade ago. 'We had to move into the back alley to survive.'
The shop used to supply vintage clothes, mainly sourced from Japan, to film and advertising crews. They dressed the actors in Tempting Heart (1999), directed by Taiwanese actress-filmmaker Sylvia Chang Ai-chia, starring Karen Mok Man-wai.
The popularity of fast-fashion chains has taken its toll but has also made people realise the value of classics.
'When you buy vintage you're stepping out of what is fashionable and trendy and into garments that are timeless, and made with craftsmanship and quality,' says socialite and vintage fashion fan Rina Hiranand.
The movement has recently gained momentum and resulted in the appearance of hip vintage stores without the musty retro odours and jumbled racks.
Baron Moon Wing-lun's Microwave, although opened only a year ago, has already attracted a bevy of bloggers, stylists and celebrity fans such as Hilary Tsui Ho-ying and fashion designer Johanna Ho.
He and his business partner, Hong Kong-based Japanese-native Masa Mikami, go on monthly buying trips to Japan to scout for second-hand jackets, T-shirts and pencil skirts. They have also hired full-time tailors to help them do alterations.
Business has been good. 'We get a lot of inquiries, especially after our celebrity fans post photos of themselves wearing our vintage pieces on their blogs,' Moon says.
'People appreciate the value of vintage pieces because they are unique and we find it very satisfying because people trust our taste and vision.'
Luddite's Ko agrees there is a renewed interest in vintage shopping in Hong Kong.
'When the big shopping malls are taken over by the big corporations and the same group of designer brands, smart shoppers go for smaller boutiques with character to look for something different,' he says.
Ko returned from Tokyo a year ago to open Luddite. The boutique is named after the 19th-century social movement in which English textile artisans fought against the mechanisation brought about by the Industrial Revolution that left them jobless.
'In the past, people didn't have so many resources, so they could spend years painting something. But these days, you can draw things so easily - even on your smartphone. The level of effort is different,' Ko says.
There has been a string of events around town focused on vintage clothing - a pop-up store, a one-off flea market and swap parties where participants exchange their pre-owned belongings.
Japanese fashion designer Hiroki Nakamura has been collecting vintage denims, kimonos and furniture for years. He was in town recently to open Visvim's 10th anniversary retrospective exhibition at the F.I.L store in Wan Chai featuring items from his personal vintage collection.
'When I started my own brand, I decided that my goal was to compete with these vintage garments,' Nakamura says. 'I felt vintage always had a very strong spirit, even a piece of fabric or old boxes. I don't know what it is, but I feel constantly inspired by it and it speaks to me.'
Two weeks ago, socialite Lumen Kinoshita and her friends organised a charity sale of a collection of their pre-owned items and it proved so popular that they held another sale last week.
'I believe strongly in re-cycling and I also think that buying vintage pieces can broaden our choices and allow us more freedom to mix and match so that Hong Kong ladies will not be so cookie-cutter-like in their fashion pursuits,' she says.
Ko says he's made a lot of friends through the shop. Among them was a gentleman in his 80s, a fan of military uniforms and a member of the Royal Hong Kong Regiment (The Volunteers) Association, an association Ko never knew existed.
'I think they like it when they see it,' says Ko. 'I have some regulars coming back every week.
'Some design students come here not necessarily to buy but to learn the old way craftsmen did things.'
To attract younger shoppers, some stores have created 'vintage-inspired' collections or incorporated vintage fabrics or elements for a more modern look. Upstairs boutique Aalis in Causeway Bay, owned by collector Alice Tam, is among those famous for its vintage-inspired fashion and accessories.
The trend has not gone unnoticed by local high-end retail chains. Lane Crawford offers a range of vintage jewellery, mainly Chanel from Christopher Denave vintage collection, and bags from as early as the 1960s from American vintage brand What Goes Around Comes Around. On Pedder has also recently started sourcing vintage Chanel bags and jewellery.
'It's quite popular among some of our regulars,' says Jenny Pan, of On Pedder.
'We source only top-grade vintage items, with dust bags and certificates. Although they are second hand they are well preserved and people understand their value and how exclusive they are.'
'Something timeless and something fun have always been part of the vintage style,' says Midwest's Hollander.
'Hong Kong has passed way beyond that negative mentality of wearing 'second-hand' clothes.'
The shop offers a range of vintage wear sourced from Japan and specialises in retro worker wear and military accessories, from antique US Post messenger bags to aged leather flight jackets and 1950s Italian navy uniforms. Owner Rex Ko also designs a collection of retro-style menswear. Shirts start from HK$300 and handmade leather high-top boots are about HK$800.
15A Haven St, Causeway Bay, tel: 2870 0422; email@example.com
Opened by Kee Lau and his wife, Ah Mo, over a decade ago, the boutique moved to its Central back alley location about four years ago. The shop has an impressive selection of reasonably priced dresses featuring vintage prints, mainly from the '80s. A vintage lace wedding dress costs about HK$2,000. The interior is decorated with vintage toys collected by Lau over the years, some dating back to the '50s.
31 Staunton St, Central, tel: 2881 7153
This spacious store has a well-chosen, broad range of vintage clothes and accessories sourced from the US. Its popular items include leather jackets from the '60s and denim garments from as early as the '50s. Prices range from HK$20 for a vintage belt to over HK$2,000 for a leather jacket. Its First Edition collection features recreated vintage garments with a modern twist.
Shop 58, G/F, Victoria Centre, 15 Watson Rd, Tin Hau, tel: 2802 6886; midwest-vintage.com
The shop has a cool collection of vintage 1980s flared pants and Harley Davidson T-shirts, as well as metallic skirts and high-waisted denims sourced during the owners' monthly buying trips to Japan. The collection focuses on bright colours and sometimes over-the-top retro styles beloved by fashionistas such as Hilary Tsui and Johanna Ho. Shop keeper Erica Chan Tsz-ying also models the collection.
7 School St, Tai Hang, tel: 2566 8823; firstname.lastname@example.org
Lane Crawford and On Pedder
Both retailers stock vintage Chanel bags and jewellery. One-of-a-kind pieces can cost more than HK$40,000 for a Box 2.55 bag and HK$11,000 for an '80s chain belt.
The boutique owned by avid collector Alice Tam features vintage jewellery, hats and veils, some from the '20s. It has recently acquired vintage dresses sourced from London and the US during the staffs' travels. Their vintage-inspired collection has attracted fans including Canto-pop idol Charlene Choi.
2/F, 31 Yiu Wa St, Causeway Bay, tel: 2575 8938; aalis.hk
Mee & Gee
If you don't mind elbowing your way through the dusty heaps of clothes, Mee & Gee has a selection of authentic vintage pieces for as little as HK$5. We spotted a few retro high-waisted silk dresses with polka-dot prints and ruffles for less than HK$40. Blogger Susie Lau of stylebubble.co.uk also dropped in on a recent visit to Hong Kong.
181 Fa Yuen Street, Mong Kok; 9 Li Yuen St West, Central. (Also on Wan Chai's Tai Yuen St and Granville Rd, TST); facebook.com/meegeeco