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Wearing History: Meet Isabel Chan, A Vintage Fashion Content Creator

Meet Isabel Chan, a vintage fashion content creator.

If you like to watch GRWM reels on Instagram, you definitely have come across Isabel’s videos! 

Malaysian-born Isabel Chan (Instagram/ TikTok: @isabelchan) has gained huge traction on social media with her content on vintage fashion, makeup, and styles. With more than 127,000 followers on TikTok to date, Isabel is currently based in London and actively posts content about styling with vintage pieces that she bought from charity shops or online shopping platforms. On top of that, she is soon to complete her undergraduate studies in Dentistry at King’s College London. Her interest in vintage fashion and her craft of creating content have piqued our curiosity. This then led to this interview with Isabel about how she kickstarted her content creation journey, her insights into London's local vintage fashion community, and how she normally picks her vintage clothes.

Ronin: Hi Isabel. Thanks for taking the time to have a conversation with me. Let’s dive right in. Can you please introduce the content that you do, and why did you decide to do it?

Isabel: I have started posting content about vintage fashion since January 2022. As I started doing well on TikTok, I also started posting them on Instagram.

I didn’t find myself confident back in the first year that I started uni. I wasn’t sure about my sense of identity and was not confident in myself too, so I tend to compare myself with other people who own expensive and branded items. But during the pandemic with more spare time on hand, I thought if I don’t like something about myself, I should probably try changing it. I’ve always been following vintage fashion-related content on YouTube and have been reading some classic literature that made me obsess with different fashion aesthetics such as Dark Academia and Cottagecore. I then started off doing some thrifting because I realised I could find many clothing options in these styles of vintage fashion. That was how I got interested in vintage fashion.

Ronin: I am particularly interested in how your interest in vintage fashion has helped you discover your sense of self. Do you want to elaborate more on that?

Isabel: I feel like everyone has a different definition when it comes to perceiving ourselves. Despite being a student now, I think my sense of self is rather fluid and flexible. As time passes, I will certainly perceive myself in a different light. But, that would be fine as long as I am doing something that makes me happy. At the end of the day, knowing simple things like what I prefer to wear or what I like in general helps me to find my sense of self. 

Ronin: Let’s move on to questions about your journey as a content creator. What was the process like when you started putting out content publicly on social media?

Isabel: First of all, I am chronically online, and you have no idea how much I am addicted to social media, but it helps me to understand how I can keep myself on top of trends and use them to catch my audiences’ attention. I first started posting pictures of my outfit on IG Stories because I like to show off myself (laughing). All I did was simply propping my phone on a bench to take my OOTD, and I have been doing the same thing I did 3 years ago. Then there was a pivotal moment when one of my acquaintances left me a message of encouragement on my IG Story, saying I should definitely post it on my TikTok account. And so I thought, why not? TikTok is also more comfortable to post content on because an Instagram account tends to be more personal with your circle of friends following you. TikTok is less daunting in that aspect because the algorithm can push your content out to a wider group of audience. I remember my second video got 3000 likes when I literally had zero followers. 

Ronin: Since you have been making content for two years now, how is the reception of your content so far? Has it been positive throughout?

Isabel: Yes, it has been largely positive. Maybe because I don’t talk in almost all of my videos, which creates a blank slate for people to imagine my personality. It’s the style of my content that doesn’t create a parasocial relationship with my viewers, which is normally prevalent between a famous artist and their fans. Anyway, I didn’t receive much backlash from my own community as I edit each of my content personally before releasing it out to the public.

Ronin: I was surprised to see that you collaborated with Penhaligon’s. Do you mind sharing with me your experience working with them?

Isabel: Can you imagine that Penhaligon’s was the first brand I worked with? Other people normally have to work for some time to have their first paid project, but I was quite lucky to get this opportunity when I only had 4000 followers on TikTok. A paid opportunity as such gave me more motivation and called for a stronger, more cohesive creative rhythm. More effort must be put in as I was entrusted for the job, and it was a great learning experience overall.

Ronin: This leads me to another question of mine. What is your favourite content that you have created so far?

Isabel: My favourite content has to be the one that I have recently worked with the National Gallery to celebrate their 200th anniversary this July. It’s actually coming out soon! So, please stay tuned to my social media page. 

Ronin: That sounds very exciting! I can’t wait to see what you have in store for us. The next question is about your philosophy of content creation. How do you normally prepare your upcoming content?

Isabel: I would say that most of my content was done quite spontaneously. Before I head out to meet my friends, I would normally do my hair, put on my nice outfits, and capture my look on my phone camera right away. My philosophy of content creation is to be genuine. Apart from that, being interested in fashion fuels my drive to make content. I noticed some influencers would constantly get new clothes for themselves to put out more content. But, I have always been looking forward to re-wearing the same outfits I have bought. I would wear them to the point where they are worn and torn before sending them to be mended. Essentially, it’s about doing what you enjoy the most and having fun with it, rather than trying too hard.

Ronin: Have you ever thought of making content creation a full-time career?

Isabel: I think that making it a full-time career might lose the charm of content creation. Most of my videos were made spontaneously, and if I were to do it full-time, I would have to post content more often. Sometimes, I might have to stage things and do things differently. I don't think my viewers prefer it that way.

Ronin: Well, since we are talking about vintage fashion, how do you normally source your clothes for your content?

Isabel: eBay! I got most of my clothes from eBay! I know I should probably gatekeep this, otherwise, I wouldn’t find any more clothes on the website (laughing). But honestly, eBay has a lot more options for vintage clothes than websites like Vinted or charity shops.

Isabel taught us on how to identify clothes from different periods of time in the 20th century.

Ronin: Do you see any difference between the vintage fashion community here in the UK compared to Malaysia?

Isabel: I can go into full details for this one. In Malaysia, I can count the people who do similar things as me with my two hands. Vintage fashion in Malaysia is very inaccessible because throwaway culture is more prevalent. For example, when I asked my grandma about where her old clothes were, she told me that she had donated them in the 70s. I remember telling her, “Do you know that people in the UK would pay more than 100 pounds for clothes like that?”, and she was amazed to hear that. I think the weather is also a big problem because it is more humid back in Malaysia, which makes it harder to retain the quality. 

The other vintage girl I know is Suzanne, who wears vintage kebaya dresses and she buys them from a local clothes boutique. However, the owner of the only vintage dealer I know had closed down his shop, and this is what I meant when I said vintage clothes options are more inaccessible in Malaysia. 

Meanwhile, there is this guy named Calum, who is even more dedicated to vintage than I am. He lives in a 1940s shophouse, which he decorated in a Malayan colonial style. All of his furniture was sourced from recycling centers because there is no market for antique furniture in Malaysia. I also know that he has an extensive collection of menswear from the 1910s through the 1960s’ which he collected from recycling centres. Honestly speaking, this man’s dedication is on a whole new level. It's like he is living his life virtually back in half a century ago!

Ronin: I want to add a point on my observation while living here in the UK. A lot of my British friends around me would gladly show off accessories like watches or rings that were passed down by their late family members. This is something unusual among Malaysians because we would all prefer wearing new clothes, or some would be chasing after branded goods. I think it is also stereotypical of us to think that vintage clothes are perceived to be dirty and poor because they might have been worn many times by someone else before we own them. But, vintage clothes have charms that could never be acquired by new clothes. I wonder if your parents are supportive of you thrifting vintage clothes?

Isabel: My parents hated it a lot. They said I dress too sophisticatedly, and no man would ever want me! At first, they were fine with me wearing vintage clothes, but they were very against me putting on red lipstick. However, they have a bigger fish to fry now because I have shaved off my eyebrows (laughing)! Anyway, I think the makeup and outfits help me to be read as vintage, so they are equally important. 

Ronin: It is interesting to hear from you about how your family reacts to your interest in vintage fashion. Since you have tried out vintage clothes from many different periods in the 20th century, are there any particular periods of clothing that you wish to try out soon?

Isabel: I am shifting a little bit to the ‘60s. But, to be fair, it’s a bit hard to try out clothes from so many periods because you need to match your wardrobe to each style. I have worn styles from the 1930s the most, so I have collected most clothes from that period. From the ‘60s onwards, it’s a complete ball game, but I have mixed and matched styles that dated from the ‘20s to the ‘50s. Even though some people would be quite particular about whether it’s historically accurate, I genuinely think they should loosen up a bit and not be too fixated on whether clothes are paired up correctly or not. If I could, I would honestly want to wear everything from the ‘30s, but that’s simply not possible because we are not living in the 1930s, so just make do with whatever we have. Anyway, I like clothes from the ‘60s, but I still gravitate the most towards the ‘30s style, even though many of my friends think that I look more conventionally attractive wearing clothes dated from the '60s. 

Ronin: Can you share with us what the vintage fashion scene looks like here in London?

Isabel: I have many hot takes on this one. I think the vintage community here is much older as most people’s average age is above 30 years old. I am one of the youngest ones in the community, so it could feel a little isolating at times. I have a lot of acquaintances, but we only meet at events. However, I have one close friend and a couple of friends that I often go out with. Apart from that, it still boils down to whether our personalities are compatible with each other. It can be quite tricky. Besides, I feel that sometimes people could be judgemental of me because I am young, or I don’t necessarily style clothes accurately, or I have acquired a certain level of fame. I am not sure about that. 

We found a pair of tweed breeks in the Portobello Road Market!

Ronin: This leads me to another question. Do you find it hard to blend into the fashion community here as an Asian woman?

Isabel: I think there are some pros and cons to this. The upside is it helps me to stand out among other creators. I could also draw other cultural elements into my style like my own traditional costumes to make a distinct look. Based on my experience in London’s vintage fashion community, I think it’s important for a person of colour to stand up and educate people around here. Many people may have the misconception that vintage fashion is only exclusive to white girls and boys. But if you think carefully, fashion has existed for centuries, and everyone wears clothes in their daily life. It only makes sense that the vintage fashion community is inclusive of everyone regardless of their skin colour and social background.

Ronin: From what you have said, it is quite important to have a diverse representation within the vintage fashion community and not make it exclusive to only a certain group of people in society. I believe this is the message you want to deliver. 

Isabel: That’s very well said! I totally agree with what you are saying. I think the community could be more welcoming if people don’t gatekeep any information they have and are more willing to share their knowledge and be less judgemental.

A shop owner gladly introduced to us some of the vintage clothing he has in store.

Ronin: What’s your biggest takeaway from these two years of content creation?

Isabel: I feel like if you are genuine, people would like whatever you do. People can tell if you are enthusiastic about something because the energy can be transferable.

Ronin: I can feel it from you when you are explaining the fashion from different periods in the 20th century earlier today. Then, how do you balance your time between your interest in vintage fashion and your studies?

Isabel: I like to think that I am just sharing my life, so it’s quite integrated into my daily life. I think vintage fashion is a fun hobby that could help me push through the peaks and troughs of my career emotionally and mentally. However, I would still make Dentistry my profession, but I would invest my time into my interests if I can.

Ronin: It’s good that you have content creation as a creative outlet for you apart from Dentistry. At this moment, do you have any new ideas that you want to try out in your future reels?

Isabel: I definitely want to try to do more talking, but it can be quite daunting. The only talking video that I am working on, which will be put out in the future, took me so much time because it involves some research. Also, the editing part was very time-consuming too.

Ronin: Are there any content creators that you wish to collaborate with if you ever come across a chance?

Isabel: Lily Holiday, who is on Instagram (@itslilyholiday). She does vintage stuff as well, and she is very artistic. I can tell that she puts a lot of creativity into her reels, which I find quite inspiring.

Ronin: Hope to see this collaboration happen one day! To wrap up this interview, do you have any advice for people who would wanna try out vintage fashion for the first time?

Isabel: I know this is a lame answer, but just try it. I know people can be too self-conscious or anxious that they might get the side eye, but just don’t think so much about it. If you want more practical advice, I would suggest thrifting classic stuff from charity shops. It could be blouses, trousers, skirts, and cardigans. Also, to the girls out there, do your hair and make-up because that will help you to be more associated with vintage fashion. If you want to dive deeper, you can try owning some accessories because they are smaller and cheaper, and they can help you to be read as vintage more easily, even if you pair them up with modern clothes. For example, old hats and scarves are some of the ones that can set you apart from the modern look.

Ronin: What about any advice for men?

Isabel: For men, it’s really hard. I have no advice for men (laughing). Apparently, from talking to my friend, you have to get them all right or it won’t look good. I think it would be good to start with a preppy style like a sweater or vest. It requires a lot of time, skills, and money. So, it is easier for girls as there are a lot more cues to get off of.

Ronin: In the end, I think it’s the confidence that matters because, throughout today when we are out there, everyone who recognized you complimented your outfit. I didn’t see any negative feedback. So, wearing whatever makes you feel good is the way to go.

Ronin: That’s all the questions I have for you today. Thank you so much for taking the time to do this interview! Looking forward to seeing your next project! 

The thrifting culture here in London is widely accessible, and most thrift stores are concentrated in mainly a few areas. This time, I met up with Isabel at Ladbroke Grove, near Portobello Road Market which offers a huge array of vintage clothes selection. Many stalls there would be set up as early as 7 a.m. on Friday and Saturday to kickstart their business for the day. Upon arrival at the market, Isabel’s outfits garnered countless compliments from  store owners and passersby. Many would recognise her from the reels that she posted on TikTok or Instagram, which accentuate her rising popularity on social media.

We are genuinely excited about what the future awaits her, and we can’t wait to see her upcoming work. Once again, I would like to send my gratitude to Isabel for making this interview possible. 

To learn more about Isabel’s works, you can check out her TikTok profile here, or her Instagram page here.

Thank you to Isabel for spending time with us!

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