Old is the new trend sweeping across the capital. Marissa Carruthers takes a look at the stores leading the vintage movement. Photography by Conor Wall.

A mountain of crumpled dresses, skirts, shirts, shorts and coats are piled high in a back room. It may look like a mound of discarded rags to the untrained eye, but for Neou Sothearith they’re jewels that will make it onto the shelves of her vintage store, Lost ‘N’ Found.

Like a magician, Sothearith will spend the next few days with her small team, wading through the prize-catches landed during trips to a secret warehouse on the outskirts of Phnom Penh – a treasure chest bursting to the seams with second-hand clothes waiting to be given a new lease of life.

Then comes the arduous task of washing all the items so they are as near to new as possible and carefully inspecting for any alterations or sewing work needed to drag them into the modern world.

“We also have to make sure they can be washed by the laundry or us,” says Sothearith, perfectly dressed in a fitted 1960s-style patterned dress. “So many clothes have been ruined because the laundry doesn’t know the difference between washing silk and cotton, so we always wash delicate items ourselves.”

Following in the footsteps of the Western world, the vintage movement is a trend that has swept across Phnom Penh in the last few years. Retro clothes, posters and music memorabilia harking back to bygone times are among items helping to spur the capital’s blast to the past, and it’s not just barangs bagging themselves a bargain. The fashion is catching on at a rapid rate in a country where the wearing of old clothes can be frowned upon.

“A lot of Cambodians still don’t understand exactly what vintage is. In Khmer culture, people don’t have so much respect for old clothes and second-hand items, but with more shops in Phnom Penh, they are definitely starting to see the value,” says Chum Dalis, who launched the movement when she opened the capital’s debut vintage clothes store, Color, in July 2011.

Sothearith has also noticed more locals shopping in her Street 63 shop, which opened last May. “Cambodians still like new clothes,” she says. “But they are discovering the benefits of used clothing and what they can actually buy, and that is changing their attitude.”

Take the stunning turquoise silk dress that hangs as good as new on the rail. The price tag sits at $15 – a fraction of its original cost. “With vintage, it’s all about being able to buy quality clothes at reasonable prices and that’s what we provide,” the retailer says, showcasing endless rails of original items.

“You can’t beat classic clothes and items,” adds Dalis, who sources a lot of her stock from a warehouse in Australia. “A lot of these things you can’t buy in Cambodia, so it’s great to be able to wear something totally different from everyone else.”

And it’s not only clothes stores that are taking a step back in time. Retro Indochina is top of the bill at new venue Estampe on Street 174, which specialises in selling vintage maps, movie posters, magazines and photographs.

The Vintage Shop in Russian Market opened its doors four years ago as a tribute to Cambodia’s great artists of the 1960s and 1970s. Reacting to the rising demand in retro memorabilia, the shop boasts an enviable collection of exclusive film release posters and album prints, and also showcases merchandise from modern-day artists with a retro flair.

“The ’60s and ’70s were such a great era for Cambodia and something we should be proud of,” says owner Teng Samphors.

Since opening, the tiny store has proved popular with both expats and tourists. “There’s something charming and authentic about retro items,” she adds. “People like being reminded of those times gone by, and that’s what we’re here to do.”

Color, 168 Street 13, Phnom Penh. Tel: 092 738 678; Lost ‘N’ Found, 321 Street 63, Phnom Penh. Tel: 017 236 002; Vintage Shop, Stall 807 Russian Market, Phnom Penh: Tel: 017 795 159; Estampe, 72C Street 174, Phnom Penh. Tel: 012 826 186.