VIN­TAGE VALUES

复古霓裳

The World of Chinese - - Contents - BY HATTY LIU

In a coun­try where buy­ing sec­ond-hand items has long been syn­ony­mous with poverty and “im­ported trash,” these young col­lec­tors and en­trepreneurs are de­ter­mined to raise the sta­tus—and price tag—of vin­tage fash­ion

Liu Ke’s looks of­ten al­lude to mil­i­tary themes. He owns US Navy jack­ets, and it’s not un­com­mon to see army in­signia sewn onto his pants. To­day, do­ing light phys­i­cal la­bor in 30-de­gree tem­per­a­tures, he is “dressed down”: green fa­tigues, a US Marines t-shirt, and leather shoes by a com­pany that out­fit­ted naval of­fi­cers dur­ing the Nor­mandy land­ings.

These items are pro­cured from cities like Seat­tle, Los An­ge­les, and New York, which Liu vis­its around three times a year. Aside from the clothes, these trips pro­duce a bo­nanza of envy-in­duc­ing pho­tos for his so­cial me­dia feed. A jaunt in April to Or­ange County boasted co­pi­ous shots of blue skies and Elvis mem­o­ra­bilia, earn­ing a re­spectable 101 Weibo “likes.”

But these posts aren’t made just to show off: As owner of Bei­jing’s Mega Vin­tage, Liu is a lead­ing mem­ber of China’s bud­ding com­mu­nity of sec­ond-hand ap­parel cloth­ing afi­ciona­dos. It’s a role that re­quires con­vert­ing wary con­sumers to a par­tic­u­lar col­lec­tors’ life­style, in ad­di­tion to mak­ing sales.

Though it only opened in 2009, Mega Vin­tage is one of the old­est shops of its kind in China. Liu spe­cial­izes in Amer­i­can ap­parel pri­mar­ily from the 1920s to the 1980s, which qual­i­fies as “vin­tage” in fash­ion cir­cles (any­thing older is “an­tique”). “When I first started, there was a com­plete gap in the Chi­nese mar­ket,” Liu says, “and what’s more, un­like West­ern coun­tries, we don’t have this con­ti­nu­ity in our fash­ion his­tory: No cul­tural ba­sis for ap­pre­ci­at­ing, re­viv­ing, or im­prov­ing old styles.”

Elvis snap­shots of­fer ways to partly fill this gap, ed­u­cat­ing fol­low­ers about the cul­ture his prod­ucts come from, as

lug­gage and Chanel suits, items can run into the high thou­sands or tens of thou­sands—but are none­the­less snapped up by reg­u­lar cus­tomers once they ap­pear on the ven­dor’s so­cial me­dia ac­count.

All this means there are now busi­nesses turn­ing to Ja­panese fu­rugi as a some­times-cheaper al­ter­na­tive to Euro-amer­i­can vin­tage. In lieu of a phys­i­cal shop, ven­dors who are just start­ing out, have a day job, or live out­side of ma­jor cities econ­o­mize by start­ing an e-busi­ness, some­times rent­ing stalls with sum­mer “vin­tage fairs,” which tour the coun­try and dou­ble as op­por­tu­ni­ties to hob­nob with re­lated in­ter­est groups, like in­die jew­elry-mak­ers or vin­tage mo­tor­cy­cle fans.

Though wel­com­ing of this di­ver­sity among his fel­low ven­dors, Liu is al­ready afraid of an over­com­mer­cial­ized fu­ture. “Those who sell vin­tage sim­ply be­cause they think it’s trendy, or do it for money, it’s ir­re­spon­si­ble,” he in­sists. Liu even re­fuses to sell his wares on­line, un­like most of his col­leagues, say­ing, “For this kind of prod­uct you need to come in and feel the am­bi­ence. Touch the clothes and try them on, talk to the owner, to feel its qual­ity and un­der­stand its his­tory, in­stead of just con­sum­ing a prod­uct or style.”

These con­cerns still feel like re­mote lux­u­ries for the grow­ing body of mer­chants based in sec­ond and thirdtier cities, though. Song Zi­hang, a shop-owner in Chengdu, ad­mits he “al­most never goes a day with­out ex­plain­ing to a cus­tomer what vin­tage is.” In Guang­dong, formerly a hot­bed for for­eign goods hus­tled in via Hong Kong, ven­dor A-mai says that her city is “al­ways about half a step be­hind Bei­jing and Shang­hai when it comes to fash­ion—we aren’t very open-minded.

“We’re still at the step of try­ing to get peo­ple to ac­cept, then fall in love with vin­tage. My idea is that ‘vin­tage’ means it was ‘loved’ and cared for, not just used, by past gen­er­a­tions,” A-mai says. “In that sense, to sell vin­tage is more like be­ing a cul­tural am­bas­sador than a mer­chant.”

For Liu, on the other hand, this role is al­ready filled by the clothes them­selves. “They’re ob­jects for con­nect­ing with cul­ture in the past, and Chi­nese his­tory doesn’t have them—well, all right,”— he cor­rects him­self—“we have things like Zhong­shan suits, but other than per­haps the qi­pao, clothes with Chi­nese char­ac­ter­is­tics aren’t part of fash­ion his­tory the same way West­ern cloth­ing is.”

“When you see Doc Martens be­ing re­vived in the streets, traces of mil­i­tary ‘Ringer tees’ on items at Zara or Uniqlo, in­stead of just buy­ing it be­cause you think it looks nice, you can find out how these styles were in­spired and how peo­ple used to wear them,” he adds. “That’s the ex­pe­ri­ence I want to pro­vide.”

Some ven­dors es­chew open­ing a phys­i­cal store, and in­stead travel with fairs all sum­mer long

Dress­ing the part is es­sen­tial for many at­ten­dees at vin­tage fairs

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