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Vintage Vanities

VINTAGE clothing and accessories are all the rage in the West and Japan, but Chinese are wary about other people's things. Still, cool old clothing, handbags and vintage artifacts are catching on. Michelle Zhang reports.

Vino Sun is a fixture in Shanghai nightlife and known as a daring, devil-may-care dresser who dons astounding, funky, quirky or glamorous duds.

The 27-year-old editor of a weekly newspaper is a favorite with party organizers for his willingness to get into the spirit and embrace every theme and "dress code," from glamorous all-white to Barbie pink.

Sun does a lot of shopping to pick up those oh-so-special items. However, he rarely visits brand stores. Nor does he like to shop at boutiques, which, in his opinion, are often overpriced.

In fact, most of the trendsetter's funky and quirky outfits were sourced from a vintage market.

And vintage ?? whether clothing, furniture or accessories ?? is catching on, though many Chinese are still wary of wearing and using other people's things. To some, vintage sounds like used, second-hand, second-rate.

At the crossroads of Anshun and Kaixuan roads, Sun's favorite market, a daily event, is frequented by middle-aged people looking for cheap clothes, and fashion students from nearby Donghua University.

"I haven't shopped anywhere else since I learned about this place a year ago," says Sun. "You can find literally anything there. Most things are one-of-a-kind pieces and surprisingly cheap."

Once he bought an old Burberry coat for only 150 yuan (US$22), and a Missoni cardigan for 120 yuan. Skinny jeans in bright hues, which are most popular this season for the back-to-the-1980s styles, cost only 60 to 80 yuan.

"For me, it's not just about the price," says Sun. "It's more about the pleasure of spotting treasures."

One man's trash is another man's treasure. And buying vintage clothing, furnishings and other items is getting popular ?? and it's not just a way to save money.

When Xiao Ye started to collect old furniture five years ago, many of her pals thought she was ridiculous.

At the time she was an architecture student at the Fine Art College of Shanghai University, earning money by creating oil paintings for a restaurant. She spent all her money on old furniture, decoration and memorabilia.

She frequented Dongtai Road antique market whenever she had free time, scouring for interesting things.

"A lot of old houses in the city center were torn down for urban construction back then," says the 26-year-old who now runs a store selling collectibles. "I bought old stuff that people didn't want to take with them to the new place. Or I just picked up things that they threw away."

She has collected a lot of memorabilia from the "cultural revolution" (1966-76), including cupboards and radios bearing slogans, posters of late Chairman Mao Zedong and common housewares. She also found objects from the 1920s and 1930s, such as lamps, irons and even old-style hotel catering carts.

"When I touch an old object, I love to imagine the story behind it," she says.

A year ago, Xiao Ye and her boyfriend, a former classmate who shares the same interests, opened a store called "Bai She" to sell their increasing collections.

Walking into the 80-square-meter space on Yan'an Road M., one feels as if entering a time tunnel, which is filled with mementos of yesteryear.

At first, most patrons were expats. These days, however, young people of Xiao Ye's age represent most of the clientele.

"In Shanghai, most old furniture stores are run by middle-aged people or old people," she says. "Their tastes are quite different from ours, and they usually sell pricey antiques that not many young people can afford."

Xiao Ye and her boyfriend suggest young customers buy small objects like tableware sets and lamps. "They don't cost much (lamps start at around 600 yuan) but if you mix and match them with modern furniture you already have, the result is amazing," she says.

Vintage clotheshorse Sun agrees: "It is nonsense to wear vintage clothes as a complete outfit. Just one piece or two ?? a shirt, a bag or a scarf ?? is enough to make you stand out."

Beijing native Ma La spent the Chinese Lunar New Year holiday in London, where she was fascinated by how stylish young Londoners easily mix vintage pieces with high-street fashion.

She returned to Beijing with many beautiful vintage bags and jewelry she and her friends sourced from flea markets and vintage shops in London.

On Valentine's Day, they launched an Internet store ( to sell those "trophies," together with other personal vintage pieces they collected from Europe in recent years.

People can find Bally and Coach handbags dating back to the 1960s, as well as mahjong-inspired cufflinks and grandmother-style brooches in the store. There are also exquisitely beaded clutches for the evening and unisex leather doctor bags and schoolbags.

To many Chinese people, "vintage" equals "second-hand," and hence, less desirable than something brand-new. Ma, a fashion industry insider, thinks differently.

"To me, vintage pieces are like living fossils, from which people are able to tell the changes in the fashion history, from silhouettes to the use of fabrics," she says.

Most of hers are well-cared-for items made from the 1940s to 1980s. Buying second-hand branded bags at a relatively cheaper prices, which is popular with office ladies in big cities, is not buying vintage. Similarly, buying retro-style clothes manufactured by fast-fashion chains like H&M and Zara, is not buying vintage, either.

"Fashion is by no means fast-consuming goods," Ma observes. "In another sense, wearing vintage is also environmentally friendly. A bag can be used for a century or even longer, from grandmother to granddaughter."

However, compared with the fever for vintage clothes in Europe and Japan, there's not much of a trend in China.

"I don't like wearing clothes or accessories that have been worn or used by other people," says Rekko Zuo, a fashion editor at a major international fashion magazine. "Who knows what happened to their former owners? I think most Chinese people are conservative about these things."

There are also hygiene concerns. "I don't dare to wear clothes worn by other people, especially from the old days, because I'm afraid of getting skin diseases," explains Jin Zhan, a fashion-addicted young Shanghainese. "I'd rather spend more money on new clothes and shoes."

Collector and store owner Ye says she repairs every piece of old furniture before she sells it. Usually she airs it out for at least a week, before further cleaning, lacquering and polishing.

"The key is to keep it the old way it is, not to make it like new," she points out.

Sun says he washes and disinfects the old clothes he buys. Sometimes he has them tailored before wearing his new duds.


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