Modern retro

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It's not just Aubrey Hepburn's face and those widely spaced eyes that enchant viewers of "Breakfast at Tiffany's" and "Roman Holiday;" the fabulous outfits she wore in those cinematic classics are still adored by today's fashionistas.

Vietnam's Cosmo girls are right in there with the rest when it comes to emulating the British actress and her ilk, as can be seen in the spread of retro boutiques around Saigon.

This vintage attire might come from another era but it can feature prominently in the modern chic wardrobe.

Since before the advent of urban shopping malls and their big sale promotions, the flea markets in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City have been known as the places to buy foreign hand-me-downs, known as "SIDA clothes" in Vietnamese slang due to the charitable work of Swedish International Development Agency. The awareness, demand and acceptance of this have increased dramatically since the early 1990s.

Being unique, available in small quantities, well cut and made, cheap and of historical value are typical reasons for purchasing "SIDA clothes" in markets such as Ba Chieu, Tan Dinh and Tran Huu Trang.

"In addition to clothes, you can find some really interesting stuff like ornaments or kitchen utensils from previous decades in the urban junk shops or backpacking trips through Cambodia, Thailand and Japan," said Ngoc Quynh, a vintage fancier.

But a new revolution started when people found out that it was better to own a new blouse or dress tailored from vintage inspiration. That's where it comes from, this Retro. And retro attire is what HCMC's small and modest stores like Shin Boutique, Lam Boutique, Pensee and Littlest have to offer.

Huynh Tram, one of two owners of Littlest Boutique on Pham Ngoc Thach Street, said that she and her business partner Hoang Minh turned to retro since the real vintage stuff might be exquisite but it was sometimes fastidious.

"Vintage garments are usually foreign, second-hand clothes, so some customers worry that the clothes might not be clean, or won't fit them. So Minh and I agreed that we would bring our customers a vintage-inspired boutique where they can find items that are new, have the soul of vintage yet be modern and trendy in the look. With our reasonable prices for designer clothes and selected fabrics, chances are you won't find yourself matching the girl next door."

Tram said that the retro garments also had an advantage in that, unlike old clothes, they come in different sizes, colors and fabric.

Tuy Truc, one of three owners of the five-month-old Pensee shop on Tran Hung Dao Street, said that the vintage trend was definitely not for the fashion chameleon. Besides retro garments, Pensee also provides a range of authentic, handpicked vintage accessories.

"Vintage has made a strong comeback and is favored by lots of young people, including Vietnamese. However, this style is hard to wear and you might need some experience to know and love it. It is more than fashion, it is a lifestyle. It will last for a lifetime if you truly love it," Truc said.

Like at Littlest, each design at Pensee is a limited edition, in fact fewer than five items.

As a boon for the vintage clothing fancier, the two-year-old Lam Boutique of designer Li Lam is a familiar address for many Vietnamese celebrities.

Located in a cul-de-sac off Dong Khoi Street, Lam Boutique makes an impact straight away with its artistic vintage décor highlighted with old wooden tables, photo frames and a big flat mirror.

Faithful to the historical design and serving as a convenient alternative for those who admire an old style but prefer a modern interpretation, Lam's vintage reproductions are influenced by the owner's experience in design and travel.

According to Li Lam's sister Thu, the foreign journeys and movies are her sister's inspiration. Many of Lam's accessories and clothes are collected on her trips abroad.

"My sister usually does not sell the vintage accessories that she finds on her travels. She uses them to match and mix her outfits and decorate the shop. But sometimes there is an exception if a customer is desperately interested," Thu said.

Lam said she focused on personal styling for her patrons based on their personality and taste.

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