Breathing new life into vintage outfits

  • Seniors
  • Friday, 07 Jun 2019

Seamstress Jackie Heng is living proof that it is never too late to venture into business. Photos: The Star/Low Lay Phon

Jackie Heng, 66, has always been a seamstress and brought up two children with her earnings. She planned her retirement when her children were all grown up.

But the cancer survivor found that sitting idle wasn’t how she wanted to spend her golden years. And she wasn’t just about ready to part with her trusty sewing machine.

When her daughter Wendy Neoh suggested a home business that upcycles vintage outfits, Heng jumped at the opportunity.

“I’ve been a seamstress for over four decades. I wasn’t prepared to give up sewing, a skill that keeps my mind active and creative. I was excited to venture into business in my 60s,” says Heng, 66, during an interview in KL recently.

The mother and daughter team operate Heritasia Crafts, which offers upcycled vintage clothing sourced from Japan, Cambodia, Vietnam and the Philippines. Neoh takes charge of sourcing the outfits and marketing, while Heng handles repair work.

It all started in 2016 when Neoh was in Tokyo for work, and stumbled upon a thrift shop selling vintage clothing. She came home with a bagful of dresses, blouses and skirts, made between the 1960s and 1980s.

The items brought back fond memories of dresses Heng once wore during her heyday in the 1970s and 1980s. According to her, there is something special about vintage prints and colours, especially its unique novelty prints, sweet florals and bold geometric patterns.

“Details such as smocking, pin-tucking, delicate embroideries, intricate pleating, and patterns like Peter-Pan collar and Dolman sleeves are just details that are not commonly found in modern clothes,” says Heng.

Patterns galore. The seamstress pulls out one of her revived dresses from the 80s where the style is bold with colours.

Though undeniably beautiful, majority of clothing which Neoh brought back needed minor repair work. And Heng was more than happy to put her sewing skills to use. Eventually it struck their minds there could be others who appreciate and love vintage clothing. One thing led to another which led to the birth of their humble business.

Heng spends between five or six hours each day to rework on the vintage outfits. It includes replacing elastic waist bands and buckles, making new belts, shortening or lengthening hemlines, and re-stitching buttons, press studs and hooks.

“The repair process requires a high level of focus and attention, and some level of care is needed as these pieces are at least 30 to 40 years old. It can also be quite costly since vintage accessories are hard to come by these days,” says Heng, who sources for vintage buckles and buttons from around the Klang Valley and smaller towns.

Not only does she repair and restore vintage dresses and skirts, Jackie also makes and revives old retro belts that match some dresses.

On average, the mother-and-daughter business team participate in 10 pop-up bazaars a year. They sell anything between 25 and 40 pieces at each bazaar. Their items are sold between RM29 and RM129, which is about the price range for new clothes from fast fashion brands.

But there is growing appreciation for upcycled vintage clothes. Heng says customers are willing to fork out extra money for these one-of-a-kind outfits that are made out of good fabric with quality workmanship.

Vintage buttons and buckles are hard to come by these days.

“There’s a growing number of younger women who like the look and feel of vintage outfits. Vintage clothing, especially Japanese vintage, are modest and feminine but could also be bold and make a statement, depending on which decade. Plus they are different from the run-of-the mill outfits from other apparel brands.”

In the past, Neoh worked as a tailor within the confines of home. Now, the senior citizen is taking a step forward to sell pre-loved clothing to customers. Marketing is a new ball game but this seamstress seems to enjoy her new profession.

“I love to meet people from all walks of life . My biggest satisfaction is being able to convert vintage skeptics to fans. It is truly versatile and depends on how you style these pieces – it can remain looking authentic to a specific decade, or you could also mix and match to bring it up to date,” says Neoh, who is paid a certain percentage of profits by her daughter.

She encourages senior citizens to pick up a new skills or dive into a business venture.

“Find something that catches your fancy. It can range from sewing, reading to cooking. Just look how it turned out for me. I would never have expected sewing to have brought me on this journey with my family, on this little vintage adventure. I will continue to run this vintage business as long as I can. Don’t be surprised to see me at a pop-up stall at 80 years old,” says Heng, adding her husband Peter Neoh also helps to man their stall.

Jackie and her husband, Peter keep busy by running a home business specializing in vintage clothing.

The mother-of-two says running a business helps keep her mind active to avoid problems like memory loss and dementia.

"As a cancer survivor, I have to be in good spirits always. An idle mind can lead to stress which can cause to a host of other health problems.

"Our Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad says it is vital to use the brain to solve problems. If the brain is inactive, the brain regresses and we can become senile,” says Lee, who keeps active by practising qigong, brisk walking and reading.

Going green

Heng’s upcycling ways go hand-in-hand with the 3R (reuse, recycle and reduce) trend.

“My daughter and I love to give new life to these forgotten pieces of clothes, which otherwise would have ended in the landfill. We are also doing our small but meaningful part in consuming fashion in a more sustainable manner.”

These days more and more fashion labels are doing their bit to save the environment. Fashion brand Patagonia's uses recycled plastic bottles to make garments for its Recollection range. New York designer Daniel Silverstein’s unisex apparel Zero Waste Daniel is made from 100% scrap material.

Seamstress Jackie Heng is living proof that it is never too late to venture into business.

Locally, more Malaysians are adopting a sustainable and ethical lifestyle to save Mother Earth. Many consumers have changed their mind set towards and have started to buy second hand, as they understand the severity of issues like global warming and pollution. Customers can log on to Carousell, Lelong and also social media channels like Instagram and facebook to search for groups and businesses selling pre-loved clothing.

Heng says the greatest satisfaction is re-homing these dresses to be appreciated once more. The biggest happiness is to see more people doing their bit for the environment.

“We are happy to see more young women understanding and appreciating the value of vintage and enjoying the vintage aesthetic. Every little 3R deed helps to save our planet," says Heng on a concluding note.

For more information, follow @heritasiacrafts on Instagram.

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