Past the coffee-shop uncles having a good smoke with their afternoon beers, past the giant table of pungent durians, past the provision shop shelves crammed with sponges, incense and other household necessities, my friend Jeanette and I strolled, keeping our eyes peeled for signs of fashion.
Just when we were about to give up, there it was: In the shop window behind an old-school metal gate painted a frothy sea-foam hue were mannequins filling out gauzy maxi dresses, and a simple wooden sign: “Dust Bunny.”
The store was locked, but I texted the number pasted on the door, and a few minutes later the owner, Pia Chew, turned up, apologizing for taking a break in her nearby home. She unlocked the shop (Block 112 Bukit Purmei Road, No. 01-203), and we stepped into a head-spinning swirl of 1950s party frocks, vintage film posters and carefully preserved leather pumps.
Where to begin? There was the hefty collection of patterned Japanese day dresses from the 1960s that were fitted on top, then subtly fluffed out into a fetching flare from the waist. Or the vintage jewelry and evening bags, including a shiny metal clutch the size of a large cigarette case that contained slots to hold cosmetics.
There was also the most unusual piece in the store, a kitschy apple-red satchel with a phone receiver for a handle and push buttons. When we saw it and laughed, Chew told us that the bag, 800 Singapore dollars (about $660), was no joke, and then proceeded to open it, unwind a long cord and offer to connect it to a wall socket to make a phone call. She didn’t need to.
Vintage shopping once was more rare in Singapore, a city that has long prized modernity and owning (or building) the next new thing. Secondhand clothing has tended to be seen as something that one would only buy out of necessity, further stigmatized because people here can shy away from wearing the garments of someone who may have passed away.
But in recent years the shopping culture here has shifted as women have warmed up to Western attitudes regarding wearing used clothing. And my friend Jeanette, one of the most fashion-forward people I have known since we were high schoolers in Singapore, had been telling me of these shops for years. On a recent visit, she took me on a little vintage expedition.
“People are looking for alternatives to current fashion trends right now — they want something that looks different,“ said Chew, who noted that when she started her business in 2004 as a way to offload the increasingly unwieldy collection of old designer handbags she had amassed, “there was not much awareness of vintage and very little interest.”
That has certainly changed. In the Peninsula Shopping Center, a fusty mall filled with stores selling soccer jerseys and electronics, Jeanette and I found a little gem on the third floor: Granny’s Day Out (3 Coleman Street, No. 03-25). From the beaded curtain hanging in the window to the colorful assortment of belts dangling from a suspended wire bustier in the middle of the store, we could tell that this would be a shopping experience to remember. The store’s hundreds of dresses, shoes, sunglasses, purses and jewelry come mostly from the United States and Europe, with some pieces dating back to the Victorian era. More-unusual pieces included a 1920s translucent red flapper dress featuring a delicate veiny pattern and a khaki Thierry Mugler pencil-skirt suit from the 1980s with metal chains draped all over it.
When we started trying pieces on, the owner, Hsiao Ying Loh, a former editor at a fashion magazine, jumped in to offer suggestions for belts and necklaces. I found a beautifully cut 1950s white cotton swing dress from Britain that fit me perfectly, and Loh beamed like a proud mother, whipping out a camera and insisting on taking a photo. She has a wall of Polaroids of happy customers — as well as a Facebook page and website (grannysdayout.com) on which she posts meticulously styled clothing shots that might be found in a fashion magazine.
Her infectious effervescence stems in part from the thrill of seeing women come around to vintage.
“Asians are generally superstitious, and many Singaporeans were initially hesitant: the idea of wearing a ‘dead woman’s’ clothes — horrors!” Loh said. “I remember my very first customer. When she found out our shop sold old dresses and that she had one on in the fitting room, she couldn’t take it off fast enough. Thankfully those days are over, although I still get the occasional raised eyebrow.”
Some shops are worth checking out because of the vintage nature of their settings as much as their stock. Dust Bunny, for example, is in the heart of an early 1980s residential neighborhood that’s still infused with the languidness of its time of birth. And Flea & Trees (68 Seng Poh Lane, No. 01-10) is worth a visit not just for its vintage brooches from Paris, dresses from Tokyo and 50-year-old luggage pieces from London but also for its neighborhood, Tiong Bahru, one of the oldest residential areas of Singapore and one filled with beautiful 1940s Art Deco buildings.
Still, several of these stores offer modern trappings, selling online and using SMS texting to reach customers. In fact, at Deja Vu Vintage (9 Raffles Boulevard, Millenia Walk, No. 01-70), which has a noteworthy collection of designer vintage pieces from Ossie Clark, Pucci, Commes des Garcons and more, the owner, Kelly Yeo, will cheerily call out to you through the fitting-room curtain saying, “Don’t worry about the fit — come, we’ll alter it for you.” When my dresses were done more than a week later, the store texted my phone saying, “Hi babe, your alterations are ready.”
For a finale, I headed to World Savage (70 Bussorah Street). Its owners, Bridget-Rose Lee and Hwee Yee Chua, used to own Stevie General Store, a much-beloved vintage shop that opened in 2009 and became known as much for its giant plaster penguin as for its well-curated racks of dresses. With a move to a new location last summer, a fresh name was unveiled, but the feel of the place is the same. Glass cases house items ranging from 1970s Hermes ties to an “evil eye” charm (essentially a miniature blue eyeball) from the 1900s and a rare set of earrings and a necklace featuring intricately carved lavender jade dating back to 1940s China.
Lee, whose frenetic energy fits her history as a poet turned retailer, threw open the door of a wardrobe to show off some of her favorites: a small collection of 1940s American wedding dresses, some punctuated with powder-blue lace or white rosettes. But the core of the store hung on the jammed racks of men’s shirts and women’s dresses in a wild variety of patterns and colors.
As I tried on a few, Lee, who buys her clothing mainly from Japan and the United States, explained why Japanese vintage dresses work particularly well no matter your figure. The waist is often just above the natural waistline, making women look a little taller. And the dresses often have beautifully stitched pleats emanating from that waist, creating a flattering silhouette that’s forgiving at the hip.
The standouts of Lee’s collection, however, were the handful of vintage Japanese dresses made of kimono silk. The colors and patterns were muted but breathtaking, featuring patterns of leaves or flowers that melt into the background, and the feel of the silk was sheer butter. Because they bore the cut of a day dress, however, the pieces were highly functional, excellent for work or a ladies’ lunch. And at just $130, they felt like a steal.
More than that, however, they were unlike any pieces I’d encountered in vintage stores on my many travels — a distinctive window into a slice of the world, notes from a bygone culture encapsulated in a frock.