Old is gold for young Singaporeans. And "vintage" to millennials means stuff from the 90s.
"I once found a Prince T-shirt from a local store for S$30 and sold it to Round Two Hollywood for US$250,” said the owners of Death Threads, adding:
“I traded two T-shirts I found at a thrift store for a Supreme Box Logo tee from 1999. I sold the tee locally for S$800.”
“We came upon a pair of 1985 Vandal Supreme (sneakers) and flipped it for 10 times its value a couple of months after.”
These young Singaporeans trawl resale sites like Amazon and eBay for a piece of the past, spending hours queuing in dilapidated industrial buildings and bidding in live auctions against thousands of others through encrypted chat platforms like Telegram.
The product? Vintage wear, sometimes frayed and yellowed at the collar, but worth many times its initial value in the 90s. While the vintage wave has not entered the mainstream like it has in Japan, handsome profits have kept popular vintage stores in the black, with some stores even choosing to open for less than a week each month.
CNA Lifestyle visited three of the hottest vintage shops run by millennials in Singapore to learn more about the dollars and sense behind the vintage clothing community.
OPEN FOR BUSINESS LESS THAN A WEEK PER MONTH
Inside Kapo Factory, a quiet compound that has seen better days, Death Threads is a cosy, air-conditioned space with an abundance of natural light, courtesy of large windows. Racks of tees, jackets and sweaters line the walls, fighting with caps and toys for real estate. According to the store’s young owners, space constraints have been a constant issue since its debut as a pop-up in mid 2017.
It all began in founding member Deon Phua’s Tanjong Katong studio. “About eight to nine months later, it was apparent to us that Death Threads’ popularity was getting too big for the studio and we weren’t comfortable with that many people being around all the studio equipment,” said the 27-year-old creative at an illustration and design house.
Even after moving to its current location in April 2018, space was still an issue; the rugged vintage store drew queues that snaked one floor down on opening day.
Unlike other retailers, Death Threads is only open for business less than a week each month, with each period known as an edition (the brand’s 19th edition wrapped on Mar 22).
Deon revealed that the unusual hours stemmed from scheduling difficulties faced at the beginning. He had a full-time job at the design house, while co-founder Edmund Tan was still serving National Service (NS); the latter has since moved to Australia to pursue a medical degree.
But the unusual hours have worked in their favour, said team member Jonathan Tan, who joined the team at the start of the year, along with Justin Siow. The duo, both 21, was formerly of the vintage clothing resale brand Robin Hood Goodz on Instagram.
“[Death Threads has] a ‘here today, gone tomorrow’ atmosphere at every edition. I still remember the excitement I felt the first time I went to a Death Threads pop-up. People come every edition wanting to be surprised and delighted,” said Jonathan.
As for the business side of things, rent isn't prohibitive. Although the team declined to reveal their overheads, an online listing places a 36sqm unit at Kapo Factory for rent from S$900 a month. “We treated Death Threads more as a hobby than a business," said Deon. Of the four full-time team members, he is the only one juggling his full-time job at the design house.
To ensure the continued success of Death Threads, the brand is looking to work on new collaborations, original items and even overseas pop-ups this year. The team also allocates more time between editions to ensure quality finds. "We want customers to expect something new every time they come into the shop, and create more hype and excitement for each new edition,” said Deon.
He added: “Authenticity is key for any brand and we’ve always made it a point to engage our customers through social media. We share our different personalities, our beliefs, our stories, knowledge and product curation on Instagram, and I think our customers really appreciate that".
RIGHT PLACE, RIGHT TIME
The road to creating vintage store Loop Garms took its owners eight years of planning and collecting, one of which was even spent learning the ropes at a shoe store.
Co-founders Sai Fengjia (FJ) and Isaac Ang, both 26, first considered the venture during a "thrifting trip" to Japan. “That trip changed everything. We went to this particular store called Kinji in Harajuku. It was an emporium of clothes and we spent about three or four hours filling baskets. I had offhandedly told FJ that we should come back and start a store,” said Isaac.
But when they returned, FJ went on to pursue a degree in communications at Nanyang Technological University, and Isaac graduated from communication design at Laselle College Of The Arts after completing NS. However, the idea of starting a vintage store in Singapore remained on Isaac’s mind.
“After graduation, I told my mum that I was going to work in a sneaker store as a retail assistant. It was a curveball for my parents, but I learnt everything: Cashiering, cleaning the store, stock-taking,” he said.
On the other hand, FJ was preparing to leave her first job in advertising. The duo began discussing the venture, now as eager adults instead of eager teenagers.
Multiple lease deals fell through, including a landlord who reneged on a signed lease for a unit in Toa Payoh because his friend wanted the space instead. After weeks of searching, the duo settled on a void deck unit at Veerasamy Road last February.
Loop Garms’ neon sign shines in stark contrast to the hardware stores and barbershops in the area. They had also opened just as news broke that the Sungei Road Market, known for its pre-loved wares, was due to shut across the street.
Loop Garms closes for a week each month to do laundry (they hand-wash nearly every item) and stock up on the store’s offerings. “It’s a break that we don’t want to take because it doesn’t make any business sense,” said FJ. “We still pay rent and electricity.” And that cost can amount to about a “five-figure sum each month”, she said.
Sometimes, the store remains closed for more than a fortnight. During this time, the duo visits flea markets overseas in a bid to bring foreign items into the store.
“You meet other buyers and you speak to them and know that you’re not doing this alone. We met Jerry Lorenzo of (American streetwear brand) Fear Of God. We met Internet stars like Denzel Dion and Miniswoosh, this Internet personality who reworks Nike stuff, hence her name,” said FJ.
“They’re literally, like, two metres away and you’re, like, should I go get a picture? I’ve been following these people for seven years and they’re also picking stuff for their stores,” added Isaac.
When dealing with the world of vintage streetwear, Isaac seeks to dispel the intimidation and gatekeeping that comes with such a niche community. “A 14-year-old girl came in once and bought a Hotel California shirt. We took a picture, as we always do, for our Instagram stories and this guy replied, saying: 'This girl looks too young to even know who the Eagles are. I don’t think she should be buying this'. We disagreed, of course. If she likes it for what it is, why not?”
“We don’t want to make people feel that you have to be of a certain calibre to wear things," said FJ. "If it makes you comfortable, if makes you happy, just go for it.”
THE NEW-AGE AUCTIONEER
EXIT was born out of a dissatisfaction with buying hype and vintage items over Carousell, where buyers are unable to check the condition of the items in person.
“Sometimes, the items' conditions did not match what was shown in the pictures,” said co-founder Aloyston Eng. Along with Charmaine Lim and Darren Yang, the trio, all 25, are close friends who met in secondary school and are undergraduates at Singapore Management University.
When EXIT opened last June, the team sold their personal possessions. “Both Aloyston and I have always loved clothes,” said Darren. “Aloyston has been a vintage tee collector for a couple of years, while I have been buying and selling older Supreme items.”
“We were all new to running a business. It was just the love for clothes that fuelled us. We were clueless about the market and what people loved at that time. We even started off by selling our own personal collections,” said Aloyston. “Slowly, we traded with customers and started buying from them as well. This kept our business going for a while before suppliers started contacting us,” he said.
Located on the fifth floor of Orchard Plaza, EXIT stands among tuition centres, karaoke lounges and domestic helper agencies. While business has been healthy enough for the team to close one unit for minor renovations later this year, Darren revealed that the 38-year-old mall was not their initial choice.
“We were supposed to get a store space at Beauty World Plaza,” he said. “We signed the lease and placed a deposit, but our landlord cancelled on us a week later. We even had our plastic bags printed with our Bukit Timah address, so we were slightly lost and disappointed.”
The brand is known for its weekly auctions, held in a Telegram supergroup with more than 2,600 members. For more than two hours every Friday evening, vintage wear collectors gather on the chat platform and place their bids on everything from tees to branded padlocks.
“We started the group because we wanted a space to have fun and chat with our customers,” said Darren. “Sometimes, they use the group to share about the latest drops or simply to chat with like-minded people.”
As for the auction, the challenge is accountability. "Some of them may bid for the fun of it and disappear after bidding for the item,” said Darren, who shared that the “flake rate” is about one in every 15 items, or less than 10 per cent of the lots.
At last Friday’s auction (Mar 22), noteworthy items that went under the virtual hammer included a Supreme black padlock, which was sold for S$80. A mere shower cap from the same streetwear brand was picked up by one buyer for S$20, while a white tee by Supreme featuring American rapper Nas was sold for S$300.
“We’re always looking to have fun,” said Darren. “We would like to focus on sourcing for better offerings for our customers, but we’re definitely looking for opportunities to do something engaging and interactive with them.”