As luxury brands have become more ubiquitous, the Chinese consumer is now looking for unique fashion items that are exclusive and available to only an elite few. What better way to show off your style prowess than with a rare Rolex timepiece or one-of-a-kind Hermès handbag?
"Vintage is the 'in' trend in Asia now, whether it's decorating your house or buying that cool car that no one else has. In fashion, it's ultimately about the accessories, like a vintage watch or a vintage croc Kelly slung on your shoulder," says Eric Ku, a vintage watch dealer and owner of 10 Past Ten, which is exhibited in Hong Kong through Lane Crawford.
It's no secret that watches are the most popular category for vintage collectors in Asia, especially among men. While modern brands, such as Franck Muller and Richard Mille, appeal to the nouveau riche, the more sophisticated shopper is lusting after rare models from established horology specialists, such as Rolex and Patek Philippe.
"They are the two blue chips of the vintage watch world. Both brands have storied pasts, and their histories are the stuff of legend. Rolex watches were used by the explorers who first climbed Everest. Patek Philippe, on the other hand, has a history of bespoke and personalised services, making it a favourite among titans of industry and nobility," Ku says.
When it comes to investing in vintage watches, he says the watch's condition is of the utmost importance. Two of the same styles in varying conditions can differ in price dramatically - details are everything. Customers should pay attention to original parts, as models with modified parts will be less valuable. Then it's about knowing what to look for. A vintage Rolex, for example, will have acrylic crystal glass covering the watch's face as opposed to sapphire crystal, which was only introduced in the 1980s.
"Fakes are relatively easy to spot, but when in doubt look at the details. A refinished dial on a rare watch could kill the value, as could an over-polished case or any other negative detail. Before becoming an expert yourself, it is important to work with a reputable and honest dealer that will help you avoid pitfalls," Ku says.
As for market trends, he says under-the-radar brands - including Audemars Piguet (especially Royal Oak models from the 1970s), Longines Chronographs and vintage Blancpain diving watches - are favourites.
While watches top men's wish lists, women cannot resist the lure of a vintage handbag, especially from renowned brands such as Hermès and Chanel. According to Nicola Robinson, founder of London-based Hermès vintage specialist Maia, rare styles that are discontinued are among the most desirable. She says Hermès bags that are 10 years or older are classified as "vintage", while model doesn't necessarily determine the price.
"It's all about what's rare and individual, rather than what's popular [like a Kelly or Birkin]. Right now, styles from the 1990s are hot," she says.
As counterfeit Hermès bags abound, Robinson suggests that buyers check authenticity with the Hermès atelier, which keeps written records of every piece made. First-time buyers should look for unusual materials such as pigskin and lizard skin. While size determines the value - 20cm and 50cm Kelly and Birkin bags are more covetable, as they are no longer produced by Hermès - condition is everything.
"It is important to check the bag for marks and abrasions. Also, check that the leather is not dry and that the sheen on shiny croc is consistent on the item. Always open the bags, as they can have a terrible odour. Also, check that the bags always have the clochette lock and keys. When it comes to upkeep, take them for refurbishment or cleaning at the dedicated Hermès Spa based in France," Robinson says.
Depending on the model, she says most vintage Hermès bags can increase in value up to 20 per cent each year, making them a sound investment.
Lane Crawford is launching a "Mini-Vintage Accessories" project at the beginning of November. It will focus on a collection of smaller-size and miniature rare vintage bags and accessories, including vintage Hermès from Maia.
Chanel bags are also a hot trend in Asia, according to Seth Weisser of New York boutique What Goes Around Comes Around. Vintage styles often cost less than new models, making them a good starting point for collectors. He says classic styles are still the best investment, but shoppers should look for fashion-forward touches - unique materials like wood, and embellishments.
Interestingly, handbags aren't the only category attracting women. Cameron Silver, who has been running famed vintage boutique Decades in Los Angeles for 15 years, has seen a steady rise in his Asian customers. "Our Asian clients naturally buy a lot of Hermès and Chanel, but we also have many Hong Kong- and Singapore-based socialites who buy incredible evening wear from us.
"If you want to be stylish, it requires wearing something vintage that has mystery and not being in head-to-toe designer runway looks. Anyone can buy a brand new runway look from a hot 21st century designer, but don't you think it has more cache to have the original inspiration?" he says.
Silver compares buying vintage clothing to art - because numbers are limited, once it's off the market, it only returns at a higher value. For those starting out, he suggests researching the history of fashion in order to see what brands and items hold special significance. His latest book, Decades: A Century of Fashion, is a definitive history of fashion over the last century and is a good starting point. Asian favourites now include American sportswear by 1980s designer Ronaldus Shamask. "His clothes have been hugely popular with our Asian clients, and there is a very elegant and effortless style to Shamask's designs that remind me so much of current Celine," he says.
While accessories and clothes are more obvious investments, lifestyle products are a relatively new addition to the vintage world and are designed with the true luxury connoisseur in mind. No one knows this better than Adrienne Ma, daughter of retail guru Joyce Ma and partner in Hong Kong's latest retail concept, Bernardini Luxury Vintage.
This chic showroom at On Lan Street stocks rare, mint-condition luxury collectibles from renowned vintage dealer Bernardini in Milan. While the shop boasts unique pieces ranging from vintage watches to bags, it's the customised or restored trunks that take pride of place.
"Max [Bernardini, the owner] has always collected trunks, but they were never customised. Then he showed me his first hanging bar housed in a Louis Vuitton trunk a few years ago and I was blown away. He's the only one in the world who does this and as such we are now developing a whole new range of products," she says.
Bernardini is a pioneer in that it is one of the first companies to repurpose Louis Vuitton, Goyard, Hermès, Moynat, Gucci, Prada and Valextra vintage trunks and cases with a modern customer in mind. Each piece is transformed into contemporary furnishings such as cocktail cabinets, a music system complete with docking station, vanities and humidors, making them the ultimate toys for the urbanite. Offerings include a Louis Vuitton gentleman's hat box from the 1930s that is now a pet carrier complete with toys, bowls, cashmere blanket and animal print interior. Another briefcase has been transformed into a mahjong set. One of the most special items in store is a Louis Vuitton wardrobe trunk in yellow leather designed exclusively for the Russian Romanov family. It's not available for sale, but its value is more than HK$1 million.
"Trunks and cases have a beautiful history behind them but many people feel they are no longer useable or functional. Here, you get the chance to appreciate a true vintage product but you can also use it. It's a great concept for Asians who like to buy a product that has history but is still new and fresh," Ma says.
Due to the delicate nature of the job, all the customisations are done by a team of skilled artisans who previously worked with musical instruments. Each original trunk or case has been sourced by Bernardini, whose family has been in the business for more than 30 years. "People have been collecting trunks since the 1940s. They are only going to get more popular. These are valuable pieces that have an upward appreciation," Ma says.
From far left: Rolex ladies' Datejust Lapis Lazuli Stone Dial watch, available at Pedder, HK$104,000; Rolex men's Oyster Perpetual Date Champagne Dial watch, available at Pedder, HK$67,500; Chanel Gripoix Glass Master Piece necklace, available at Pedder, HK$73,500