Vintage forever

For four fashionistas, their prized pieces come from the past:

Ms Phoebe Leong, The Eclectic Fashionista

Fashion lover Phoebe Leong has lived and learnt. As the founder of the now-defunct shop, The Vintage Place, she sold her old designer pieces in the late 1990s at a deep discount.

In particular, Ms Leong remembers two now-gone cropped Chanel jackets - in yellow and lime green - that appeared in the famous 1994 advertisement shot by photographer Steven Meisel, featuring supermodels such as Naomi Campbell. She also sold a pair of pale pink leather pants by Tom Ford during his time at Gucci.

"That was probably my biggest fashion regret," notes the 42-year-old mother of three with a wistful smile.

But Ms Leong, who launched multi-label boutique Tribeca in 2002, has since rebuilt her designerwear collection. She now has around 200 pieces lovingly worn, archived and kept for future use in nine special trunks.

"I think vintage designer clothing started to really have a moment, 12 or 13 years ago, like when Julia Roberts wore vintage Valentino the night she won the Oscar for Best Actress in 2001," she says, referring to the memorable black and white gown.

Some of her favourite design houses include Tom Ford, Chanel, Balmain and Yves Saint Laurent. The boutique owner also likes buying items from first and last collections by a designer for a fashion label. She has spent anywhere from a few hundred dollars to up to five figures per piece.

"I just buy things that pop or catch my eye," she says.

Her first designer purchase was a black, off-the-shoulder Jean Paul Gaultier dress when she was 15 years old. She saved up all her money to buy the dress, which cost $500 at the time, she recalls.

"Jean Paul Gaultier was such an enfant terrible at the time, and so cool. I had to have it."

She describes her own style as eclectic, tempered in part by the birth of her three children, aged two, six and 11 years old. "I dress in extremes sometimes - either in T-shirts and shorts or runway pieces.

"Sometimes, I like to leave items in storage for a few years," adds Ms Leong, revealing her long-term fashion vision. "If you wear it too soon, it might look off-season, but wait a bit and people will forget. Then there's a whole freshness to it."

Christian Dior T-Shirt

This is a John Galliano for Christian Dior design.

I loved everything he did at the house back then.

It's abit too small for me now, but my 11-year-old daughter wore it recently.

Balmain Jacket (in main photo)

This embellished Balmain jacket is made from leather and pony hair. It was from one of the early collections of designer Christophe Decarnin. The design was worn by Michael Jackson on a promotional tour. I just thought it was to die for.

Chloe Blouse

I picked this up in the early 2000s - it's Chloe by Stella McCartney.

The embellishment catches the eye and it's nice to pair it with a more casual denim piece.

Dolce & Gabbana Bustier

This is a toned-down version of Madonna's conical bustier.

I bought it in the late 1990s, but I pulled itout again recently to wear to a burlesque-themed birthday party.

Yves Saint Laurent Blouse

This blouse is from Tom Ford's last collection for Yves Saint Laurent in 2004. I like the influence of chinoiserie.

There was also a long skirt or dress version but I thought the top was more wearable.

Ms Jeanette Ejlersen, The Early Adopter

Coco Chanel may have introduced the little black dress into the sartorial vocabulary but Ms Jeanette Ejlersen is doing the LBD plenty of justice too.

The creative editor of Female magazine has amassed quite a collection of black designer dresses that, she says, works as well for post-work parties as for events during the day.

"I ask myself, can I still wear this when I'm 60?" she says, of how she seeks non-trendy dresses that suit her simple style aesthetic.

From gauzy sleeveless numbers by Austrian minimalist Helmut Lang, before he retired in 2005, to deconstructed dresses from quirky Japanese label Comme des Garcons' Rei Kawakubo, Ms Ejlersen picked up the majority of her dresses from the 1990s onwards.

The 47-year-old Singaporean has a penchant for early pieces by designers, whether it is Alber Elbaz's early years at Lanvin or Nicolas Ghesquiere's first designs for Balenciaga.

"Designers have a clearer, purer vision, without having as many commercial concerns in mind," Ms Ejlersen says of their early designs. "It comes from the heart."

The editor has spent years honing her critical fashion eye, working at magazines such as Female and Her World. As a result, the curation she employs at work spills over into her personal life with a clear sense of likes and dislikes.

"I do like 'ugly' clothes," she notes, calling to mind one of her earliest pieces - a black Dries van Noten dress that looks like a black, monastic lab coat.

She shops less these days, revisiting the minimalist classics in her wardrobe that are inspiring collections by designers today, such as Phoebe Philo of Celine, of whom she is a fan.

Ms Ejlersen, who is divorced with no children, is loathe to call herself a "collector" though, explaining that she does not source specific items or buy for investment.

The clothes - on which she has spent anywhere from a few hundred dollars to $6,000 a piece - are bought because she likes them, wears them and finds them aesthetically creative.

Her no-nonsense approach, which comes across in her direct manner of speech, extends to the lifespan of her collection. She dry cleans and wraps certain items in tissue paper, but is ready to let them go if need be.

"I do take care of things, but I'm not 'precious' about them. Sh** happens, you know?" she says, adding that she has also given away pieces that she no longer fits into. Pieces that veer from her usual style - such as a floral chiffon dress by Paul & Joe she bought, swept up with enthusiasm for the French fashion brand - have also been kindly gifted to friends and family.

The memories associated with each purchase live on, though. In regards to a slinky black dress by Lanvin, she vividly conjures up the first time she saw it come down the runway in Paris in 2003 during a memorable show closed by supermodel Linda Evangelista.

"I remember the model came out wearing it with a string of pearls," she says, admitting with a smile that she took a cue from the model and wore the dress styled in a similar way.

Jil Sander Dress (above, left)

This dress was Jil Sander from the days when Jil Sander was still designing the label. I like the monastic look of it.

Helmut Lang Dress (above, second from left)

This dress, with its mesh overlay, is feminine and utilitarian.

Balenciaga Dress (above, middle)

Nicolas Ghesquiere's designs got a little too trendy for me later on, but I liked this dress from the Edition collection, which was inspired by archived designs.

Lanvin Dress (above, first and second from right)

I've followed Alber Elbaz's work since his days at Yves Saint Laurent. I remember sitting in the front row and seeing this dress come down the runway on Linda Evangelista. I can't wear underwear with it though, because of the plunging back.

Peter Kor, The Japanese Design Aficionado

Home-grown designer Peter Kor is a fan of his Japanese brethren - namely Issey Miyake, Yohji Yamamoto and Mitsuhiro Matsuda. The slim, bespectacled 63-year-old has been collecting pieces from those eponymous labels since he first encountered them in the 1980s.

"I'm attracted to Asian designers and the Eastern aesthetic," he says, highlighting their proclivity for subtle but thoughtful design and detail.

Mr Kor was first exposed to the brands almost 30 years ago when he was working at Japanese department store Isetan, designing and helping to manufacture its in-house labels. It was an eye-opener back then for a young designer like him, he says.

"Japan was at its peak, fashion-wise, and I felt that looking at good work made my own work better," says the Singaporean bachelor.

"Being a designer, I would look at the construction of the garment as well, and admire how even the inside seams were perfectly hidden."

Mr Kor's name was a prominent one in the local design scene in the late 1980s and early 1990s, alongside other designers such as Thomas Wee and Sylvia Lian. He is still designing under his own name and his clothes are sold at his own store in Purvis Street.

The soft-spoken man explains that the three Japanese brands each held a different appeal for him. For instance, he found the innovative fabrics of Issey Miyake and the design details of Matsuda a source of inspiration.

There may also be a special sense of understanding between designers, it seems, when it comes to knowing what the clothes were intended to convey.

Mr Kor notes that he felt a certain mood, a melancholy sadness, from Yamamoto's clothes. This feeling was, surprisingly enough, validated when the two met at a fashion forum put on by the Tokyo Design Council in the early 1990s in Tokyo, and Yamamoto confirmed he had that in mind.

Says Mr Kor, with a satisfied smile: "I think it proved that my wearing the clothes wasn't frivolous."

Emotions run high too when it comes to the now-defunct brand Matsuda. Its designer Mitsuhiro Matsuda has since died and it makes the pieces even more precious, Mr Kor says.

Matsuda's pieces, which look simple at first glance but include lots of intricate details, struck a chord with him. Take a dark green shirt picked up in the 1990s; the tunic-like top features an attached layered vest with subtle pockets and a small belt in the back to cinch the silhouette.

Over the years, some pieces have been lost or destroyed. Mr Kor nostalgically remembers a linen and silk vest from Matsuda that featured a row of buttons with corresponding loop closures.

"I didn't separate it from my other clothes and my maid washed it. It became super shrunken," he says with an easy laugh.

"My favourite thing about picking up these pieces over the years," he continues, "is how it taught me what an exquisite aesthetic a garment could have, and how much passion and commitment can go into a design."

Mr Kor, who prefers not to call himself a collector, has spent anywhere from a few hundred dollars to a few thousand dollars on his various pieces. He has kept around 20 pieces which he still pulls out to wear on occasion.

These days, though, you are more likely to catch him in jeans and a T-shirt than in his vintage pieces.

"Age changes a lot of things," he says wryly. "But I can still appreciate the designs."

Matsuda Colour-Blocked Jacket

I like the collarless neckline of this jacket. It's got almost a preppy or nautical feel to it too, with the colour-blocking.

Matsuda Shirt

This green shirt is rayon but feels like silk. It's got nice details with the layering, the belt on the back and the slanted pockets in front.

Matsuda Cream Jacket

This piece is almost like a baseball jacket, with the linen material and knitted sleeves.

Ms Brenda Kang, The Jewellery Collector

Sitting in her own office version of Aladdin's cave, 43-year-old Brenda Kang looks perfectly at home amid the glittering baubles.

That should come as no surprise. After all, the Singaporean spent 15 years acquiring and evaluating pieces for Christie's vintage jewellery department.

"My eyes were spoiled," the single Ms Kang says with an easy laugh, of her time with the auction house which she left in January last year because she needed a change.

She opened her own vintage jewellery business, Revival Jewels & Objects, late last year - buying, selling and sourcing pieces from the mid-1800s to the 1990s.

"I collect vintage jewellery with interesting workmanship, pieces that really speak to me," she says. "There's definitely a joy in discovering designs that were ahead of their time."

A former Singapore Airlines flight attendant, she delved into the rarefied world of high-end jewellery after getting her gemology degree from the Gemological Institute of America. She began collecting after she started working at Christie's.

She speaks fondly of her first personal vintage purchase, an antique brooch from the 1920s that she scooped up at a Paris auction about 10 years ago.

"I was drawn to it because it looked a bit like a Chinese ruyi (sceptre)," says the poised Ms Kang, as she easily references the Asian influences in the art deco period of that time.

"The other competing dealers made me sweat," she says. "It went a tad over budget, but I got it in the end." She paid in the low four figures for the brooch.

Her collection at Revival now numbers about 50 pieces, ranging from vintage charms worth about $900 to pearl earrings valued at around $200,000. About 10 per cent are pieces she would never consider selling.

For budding collectors, Ms Kang says that knowledge is key, adding that they should read as much as possible and expose themselves to many pieces to learn how to distinguish old-looking new pieces from actual vintage.

Among the favourites in her treasure trove is a pair of diamond Art Deco earrings picked up from a New York-based collector last year.

"It has an old-school character, refined and sexy, with a bit of scalloped detail," she says.

Another piece, a gold elephant watch pendant from the 1800s acquired in 2010, occupies a special place in her collection because of the sheer attention to detail.

"This ruby, sapphire and diamond-studded pendant opens up to reveal the winding device for the watch. It's even got textural detailing on the back and soles of the feet," she says, pointing to the meticulous handiwork.

And a coral and 18-karat gold ring - a 1967 piece from the influential 20th century French designer Suzanne Belperron - clearly tickles her fancy. "These pieces are really rare as they're no longer made. Fans of the avant-garde brand include the Duchess of Windsor.

"There is a feeling you get from seeing your collection - a sense of accomplishment, really," she says.

"It's not about big 10-carat diamonds but about appreciating the beauty and the process."

Diamond Earrings

A geometric 1920s Art Deco pair of earrings, bought last year, features scallop detailing and pear-shaped diamonds.

Elephant Watch Pendant

This 1800s gold elephant watch pendant features rubies, sapphires and diamonds on the front and a hidden clock and winding mechanism.

Cartier Brooch

This is a 1950s gold brooch in a whimsical bow and quiver design from Cartier. It features rubies, diamonds and white agate and showcases the brand's signature on the back.

Double-Clip Brooch

This 1920s Art Deco brooch, which can be worn as is, detaches into two clips. The diamond pieces can then be fastened onto a lapel, neckline or on spaghetti-type straps.

Diamond Brooch

My first vintage piece was this 1920s Art Deco brooch. I bought it in Paris at a public auction more than 10 years ago.

Coral Ring

This double coral ring from 1967 is from the now-defunct avant-garde brand Suzanne Belperron.

This article was first published on August 15, 2014.
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