HONG KONG — In China, the most coveted fashion has almost always equated to accessing the priciest or latest goods off the runway. But vintage, once looked down upon as second-rate, is gaining popularity among the nation’s shoppers, who are beginning to eschew pieces straight out of the plastic wrap in favor of fashion house archives.

Between the brand fatigue stemming from the saturation of luxury stores reaching into every tier 3 and 4 Chinese city and vintage’s discreet qualities — helping it weather the unabating antiextravagance campaign — pre-owned items are seeing an inflection point.

Alex Rolfe, who comanages Hong Kong’s Select 18 boutique, noted a growing interest in vintage from the Mainland. She opened her first store in Shanghai two years ago and hopes to open more outlets in China in coming years. She is in the process of launching an online store.

“We could see a lot of potential in Shanghai. A lot of our customers in Hong Kong were young Mainland girls who were visiting and who were really interested in vintage,” Rolfe said.

“With Asia’s thirst for luxury items and closet space at a premium in cities such as Hong Kong, it’s no surprise that there would be a lot of second hand items available,” said Yen Kuok, daughter of Malaysian billionaire Robert Kuok. She is starting up a second-hand luxury website Guiltstore in September.

“Guiltstore hasn’t launched officially but already we have accepted more than 2,000 items for consignment, many of which are brand new with tags thanks in part to the increase of impulse purchases from online shopping,” she added. “As for buying second hand in Asia, there is undoubtedly some hesitation especially for clothing, however we project that this will change with time as long as the condition and quality of items are high and potential savings are attractive.”

Brian Buchwald, chief executive officer of research consultancy Bomoda, described vintage in China as a market that was essentially nonexistent just a few years ago but one that is growing fast. “I’d say it’s really been in the last 18 months,” Buchwald said of the country’s vintage craze. “The Chinese are making their way into NoLIta or SoHo and they’re buying in vintage shops. That’s been guided by the travel market and Chinese consumers using the Internet to really understand what’s out there, the merchandise and what the price points are.

“Speaking to daigou, or resellers, who we touch base with — about a hundred of them every few months — there has definitely been a pickup in vintage purchasing,” Buchwald said.

French second-hand luxury platform InstantLuxe launched in China last October, while China’s own Secoo raised $100 million in funding last July. China-specific statistics on the size of the vintage market were unavailable, but Bain & Co. estimated last year that the worldwide second-hand market is worth $19 billion.

Last month, Lane Crawford hosted vintage experts Seth Weisser and John Oot from What Goes Around Comes Around at a cocktail event featuring a vintage collection of Chanel bags and accessories.

“Three years ago, we did our first event [with Lane Crawford]. I came and I looked all around Hong Kong and there was no vintage anywhere,” Weisser said. “Now we just went around and there are little bits starting to pop up.”

With millionaires being minted in China every week, steep price tags are no longer a good guarantee of exclusivity. Chinese consumers are also searching for a stronger emotional connection, whether that’s through a famous former owner or a runway-only piece.

Last November, auction house Christie’s decided to get in on the action, hosting its first dedicated handbags and accessories auction in Hong Kong, which fetched 13.8 million Hong Kong dollars, or $1.78 million.

Christie’s vice president of handbags and accessories Matthew Rubinger said Chinese consumers are increasingly viewing vintage items as collectibles. 
“It’s a shift from being a shopper to collector. That transition is something I focus on a lot with top clients to get them to think in that way. A lot of people have already made that shift, they really understand that they are collecting and have valuable collections in this area,” Rubinger said.

In its nascent stages, tastes skew heavily toward the biggest of the big brands and there is still a significant education process with a consumer that is wary of counterfeits.

“We had a couple people yesterday and it was my first encounter with customers with that mentality,” Oot said at the Lane Crawford event. But he added, “Having a presence in Lane Crawford dictates that this is a cool thing to do and they can trust the authenticity.”

Tony Wong, the owner of OnceStyle, a Hong Kong consignment shop that focuses on Eighties and Nineties designer women’s wear, said most shoppers perk up when they spot those interlocking C’s. “Usually people see Chanel and that name attracts them immediately,” Wong said.

He’s had a number of online orders come from outside the major cities from provinces like Hunan and the outskirts of Sichuan. “I post pictures on WeChat and I’ll ship it over,” he said. Wong has plans to launch an online platform in the next two months to grow the business.

Hong Kong is only a testing ground for the much larger mainland Chinese market. What Goes Around Comes Around will turn their attentions to Shanghai next. “We just sent a very small test of six handbags to see if we can even get through customs,” Weisser said.

As for which mainland Chinese city is poised to become the nation’s vintage shopping hub, signs so far point to Shanghai or Chengdu.

“Shanghai is more established and they are looking for something exciting. They are also well-traveled. They know what’s in Japan or in Paris,” said Kelly Leung, a senior accessories buyer at Lane Crawford. “The Beijing customer is very well-educated, but I think there is too much of that big brother watchful eye. Chengdu, because they are a younger customer, they are much more receptive to new ideas.”

Lolo, a Chinese stylist and founder of Shanghai-based Lolo Love Vintage, agreed that vintage is starting to take off in China, even if the scale of the vintage industry is still small compared with other countries.

“When I set up my shop in 2009, ‘vintage’ was still a little-known word. Now it’s become a popular word, indicating that vintage has become more widespread. But the number of people who truly know and accept the culture is still limited. My customers tend to have traveled or had a lot of contact with foreign cultures,” she said. “We have lots of customers coming from outside of Shanghai, too. Most of them are from Chengdu, Beijing, Guangzhou and Hangzhou.”

Select 18’s Rolfe said best-selling products include accessories and earrings as well as clothing.  “The average spend per product is about 900 renminbi, or $145. Our most expensive sale was a Céline handbag from the Eighties for 15,000 renminbi, or $2,420,”Rolfe said.

“The roots of vintage in China come from Beijing, where there is strong music culture and more of an indie, rocker’s scene, which has trickled down to Shanghai. In Beijing, there’s a big market in military and old Chinese memorabilia,” she said.

“In China, vintage is seen as dress up gear rather than day-to-day wear; when people wear vintage, they will also do full hair and full makeup,” Rolfe said. “There’s a lot of interest from men, too; the ratio of our male to female customers is 30:70. Our customers are drawn in by a desire to look unique and original, and are influenced by Western culture, such as ‘Mad Men’, or even ‘Downton Abbey.’”