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.