Chia's Cotton Chic
Retro dresses at Chia’s Cotton Chic.

Vintage clothing has had to fight hard for respectability, but it has acquitted itself reasonably well. These days you’ll find “vintage” shops in hip shopping enclaves like Bangsar and Publika, trading on the notion that old is gold. It’s increasingly common to find shoppers who delight in the pursuit of rare prints, iconic designers and, simply put, the unusual. While our parents may not approve of wearing “other people’s cast-offs”, vintage (or even “vintage-inspired”) clothes bear the stamp of originality for the younger generation, lending wearers a sense of credibility that a mass-produced Topshop T-shirt can’t.

So if vintage clothes can be cool, why can’t bundle shops? After all, if you’re buying vintage to introduce variety into your wardrobe, then bundle shops provide the same solution. “I don’t shop at bundles because it’s cheap,” says Rachel Lee, who started buying second-hand clothes when she was based in Canada for university, and continued when she returned to KL. “I mean, cheap is good of course but it’s not the be-all and end-all. I bundle shop because I don’t want to look like everyone else in KL. It’s very difficult, because of all the malls; I want to find specific things that other people can’t find. Or won’t find la I guess.”

Out on the fringes of respectability, bundle shops make no claim to “curating” the best clothes. As the word “bundle” suggests, sellers purchase second-hand clothes by the container load, hang them all up and hope for the best. And while bundle shops may feature on a few intrepid shoppers’ trails, they haven’t achieved anywhere near the same level of fashion credibility as vintage stores. To break it down to the simplest formula: sell old clothes and you’re a bundle shop; introduce a selection process and hike up the prices and you’re a vintage store.

Yet people like Rachel, who are willing to hunt for gems among the bundles, can be rewarded with much cheaper – and more unique – clothing. “It’s good that vintage is taking off,” says Rachel. “But I feel like people don’t realise how much of a ride they’re being taken on because you can find your own vintage in bundles, that way you don’t rely on other people to bring it to a mall for you. Seriously, malls are basically death traps for individual style.”

Sharin's Bundle Chow Kit
Sharin’s Bundle Chow Kit.

If you’re looking to catch a bundle shop in the wild, the Chow Kit district is your best bet. In the evenings there’s a long Bundle Market snaking along Lorong Haji Taib, selling everything from old biker jackets to straw sun hats. But for a real bricks-and-mortar experience, keep walking until you find Sharin’s Bundle Chow Kit. Sharin’s is a quiet store located off the main Chow Kit thoroughfare, which shares a shop lot with a Chinese tailoring business. It’s been a fixture since the ’80s, when the Chow Kit district really started getting serious about the business of bundles.

Walk down the centre of Sharin’s and you’ll see deadstock buttons, lace and a row of old sewing machines to your right, and racks of second-hand T-shirts, cowboy boots and factory uniforms to your left. On a Saturday morning the store is quiet, but not dead. Three tailors gossip quietly in Mandarin by the buttons, while a little girl darts in and out of the racks of old clothes.

“Oh, we get busy,” says the appointed manager of the store in Malay, a young, efficient woman. “Saturday is the busiest day for us, but other days of the week there are always people as well. Sometimes people buy just one thing, sometimes they buy so many that they have to make a deposit and come back and collect all the things another day.”

With T-shirts starting from RM5.90 and jeans from RM12.90, it’s easy to see why people would want to buy everything – though not everything is worth buying. Some clothes have definitely seen better days, though a few brand names do pop out among the polo shirts, from Fred Perry to Adidas and Ralph Lauren. All the clothes are brought over by the container from either Korea or America. The owner of the store buys them without even knowing what they contain, playing a Russian roulette of second-hand garments.

Mitsubishi mechanic uniform
A cheap mechanic’s uniform that doubles as a jumpsuit for the fashionably daring.

The shop also stocks windbreakers from the ’90s, with neon stripes and logo-emblazoned sleeves, leather racing suits and old handbags. You may not uncover a vintage gem here, but the clothes are so cheap, it doesn’t matter. “All kinds of people come here,” the manager tells me. “Most of them just want cheap clothes. That’s why people buy in bulk here, because it’s so cheap and prices can be negotiated if you buy more. People with big families like that.”

Across the city, another bundle shop is bustling. Chia’s Cotton Chic, in Amcorp Mall, is a small but popular second-hand shop that sells women’s clothes. Formerly, there were rows of bundle stalls lining the mall, but a seemingly arbitrary decision by the Amcorp mall management last year meant that they were forced to shut down – until a stall-holder known as Chia stepped forward and offered to host them all in her own shop. Clothes are sourced from Korea, Japan, Australia or America, and brought over in containers filled to the brim with dresses from decades past.

Chia’s racks are lined with dresses going for as little as RM5 each, while the most expensive are a ruinous RM25 each. There’s a slightly more streamlined selection process here, rather than the all-inclusive approach most bundle shops take. With a few exceptions, all the clothes are pretty stylish. On a weekend visit the shop was packed with women pulling out hangers, holding dresses (many with giant retro collars) up to the mirror and loudly exchanging opinions.

With dresses averaging RM15 each, Chia’s dresses may seem like a bargain, but not all bundle shops are cheap. Bundle King in Taman Setiawangsa calls itself a bundle shop, but prices here edge towards high street prices. Here you’ll find a selection of retro watches, old football and rugby jerseys, leather jackets, Lacoste varsity sweaters and limited edition Converse sneakers – all to the tune of at least RM100.

The Taman Setiawangsa store has been in operation for just over two years, turning an empty shop lot into a yellow-walled, jeans-lined shop run by Aznam Aman, streetwear enthusiast. The condition of the pieces at Bundle King is excellent, and the brands a notch up from your average bundle store. Customers hunt for winter wear, cool leather jackets and limited edition shoes, and they don’t mind paying a little extra for the privilege. Plus, prices are all negotiable.

Will bundle shopping take over vintage’s throne? Not yet. The locations are too remote, the stock too varied. But in the absence of a solid charity store network in Malaysia, bundle stores are the next best thing (although proceeds don’t go to charity). Bundle shops turn the problem of discarded clothes into a business model, and one that caters to bargain hunters as well as serious vintage collectors and of course, ardent recyclers. Bundle shopping isn’t going to be to everyone’s liking, but it definitely has its place in the fashion ecosystem.

Photos by Ling Low

Shopping list

Mitsubishi Motor factory overalls, RM49 – Sharin’s Bundle Chow Kit

Fred Perry polo shirt, RM12.90 – Sharin’s Bundle Chow Kit

Printed vintage shirt-dress, RM15 – Chia’s Cotton Chic

Japanese dragon bomber jacket, RM250 – Bundle King

Find It

Bundle King 23-1 Jalan Setiawangsa 8, Taman Setiawangsa, KL 54200 (013 303 0764).

Chia’s Cotton Chic Lot 209, 2nd Floor, Amcorp Mall, 18 Persiaran Barat, PJ 46050 (016 617 7999).

Sharin’s Bundle Chow Kit Jalan Raja Bot, Chow Kit, KL 50300.