At first impression, Richie Lee does not come across as your average entrepreneur.
The 27-year-old with floppy hair and a seemingly happy-go-lucky personality proudly told Youth.SG barely two minutes into the interview: "When I was young, I wanted to be a pirate, man."
How he eventually ended up running a vintage t-shirt business is an interesting tale that he enjoys telling.
"I was initially doing parkour, and started teaching parkour, but broke my leg in a freak accident. I moved on to the aircraft industry, which was what I studied while in Polytechnic actually, but quit the job because I was unhappy as it was stressful and I felt I didn't have enough time for myself.
"I moved to Phuket, Thailand, and that's where I started learning about vintage T-shirts. I started collecting and selling, and made some money. Easy job," said the owner of 55 Vintage, a business that curates and sells vintage clothing, and upcycles unwanted t-shirts.
He named his business 55 Vintage, because 55 in the Thai language is 'ha ha' - the nickname given to him by his friends in Thailand for his jovial personality.
It may seem like he's the type of person who lives on day at a time. That, however, couldn't be more wrong. He's actually a hardworking person who has a plan for the future, and the things he does for work certainly doesn't come across as "easy".
Finding a quality vintage t-shirt that has value can be like finding a needle in a haystack. He gets his supply of t-shirts from places in Malaysia and Thailand like Johor Bahru, Kuala Lumpur, Malacca and Phuket, and has to travel for at least two weeks (pre-COVID-19) each time.
"We (together with other vintage sellers that he knows) actually go down to the locations, flipping the t-shirts one-by-one. We find a good one only after flipping maybe more than 100 t-shirts," he explained, adding that he regularly uploads videos of the process on Instagram to show his customers just how much effort is required.
Richie, who describes his fashion sense as "loud", holding up one of his favourite T-shirts - manufactured in 1993 - in his shop.
It also took him a while before he found a physical space at a Geylang warehouse to set up shop. He had started selling out of his own bedroom, initially, before joining events such as the Geylang Bazaar after a customer suggested it.
It was at one of the events held in the same warehouse at 50 Geylang Lorong 17 that the idea of renting a space to set up a permanent store came to mind.
"When I came here, I saw the store was empty. I thought to myself, 'there's a real vintage vibe with the nice light'. So I started hanging out here a bit more, rented from the landlord for six months, and ended up staying here for way longer than that," said Richie.
Running the business alone means work hours are quite erratic too. Richie starts working from the time he wakes up until he goes to bed, even on weekends. The only exception is on Mondays, when he gives himself time off to "forget about his t-shirts" and do other stuff.
A little ironic then, considering that Richie had complained about the long, unforgiving hours in the aircraft industry. Yet, that proves how having passion for what you do can change one's perspective.
He considers himself lucky to have stumbled onto his passion for vintage clothes.
While he has been into "older stuff" since young, it was only at Phuket where he learnt about the vintage clothes scene. He realised then that it was something that he wanted to do for his career.
Richie has a collection of Digimon devices from the late 90s to 2000s at his shop.
"They willingly passed their knowledge on to me. They made me want to start 55 Vintage in the first place - not just to sell, not just because there's an opportunity to do so, but also because there is a lot of information that I can teach to others, whether it is my customer or fellow vintage sellers, in Singapore," explained Richie.
"Everything was learnt by luck, to be honest."
Richie also got into tie-dying and bleach-dying by chance. He had plenty of shirts that he couldn't sell because his customers weren't interested in it - something he said was a result of "wrong decisions" he made - and decided to upcycle it instead.
"Now it's become a thing where people come to my shop to ask me to teach them, so they can buy a new shirt and do it after that. And I teach them for free," said Richie.
But if he's doing that for free, how does he earn enough to keep his business going, let alone profit from it?
"Most of the money comes from doing events. I can't really tell you how much I make in a month, but the last event I was at [in March], I made around $2,200 in three days. Even then, that came with a week's worth of work to curate the t-shirts I'm selling at the event too," shared Richie, who typically did about two events every month before the pandemic struck.
"I'm not too good at retail, like managing the store. I'm not the most keen on selling via Instagram only. My main interests is to meet my customers, pass them the t-shirts, and see their happy faces as they receive it. That makes me the happiest."
It is little wonder then that he doesn't actually keep track of how many clothes he sells in a month either.
"I'm not aiming to show people I sold this many tees, and hence I'm successful. This business is more of a passion, rather than to make a sizeable profit. I feel that once you treat it like a business, you lose the passion for it."
Richie's main aim for the future is to set up a community of fellow vintage sellers who are willing to collaborate and share knowledge. He explained that the vintage scene is quite competitive currently, with plenty unwilling to share their sources.
Racks of T-shirts at 55 Vintage.
He's more than willing to teach the inner workings of the trade and share the locations where he gets his stocks with those interested to get into the scene.
"There's no need for it to be a competition. My idea is to grow the scene to be more like a community. There's no need for us to compete in terms of pricing, because we all put in the effort and hunt for tees, it's all going to be at a low price," he explained.
"Only those who pay others to hunt for the tees have to mark up the price to make a profit. The real joy, however, is when you find your stuff on your own."
Big dreams indeed, and one thing's for sure: Richie's has found a career he is passionate about, and he truly loves the work that he does.
This story is part of the Alternative Career series. Read the first story of the series about a 26-year-old who runs his sneakers business out of his HDB flat home here.
PHOTO CREDITS: YOUTH.SG