Prague’s Žižkov district is where you’ll find Bohemia Retro, a vintage clothing store packed with hard-to-find items mainly from pre-1989 Czechoslovakia. The cosy, colourful shop is run by Rebecca Eastwood, an expat Brit and part-time singer who has been resident here since the early 1990s. When I stopped by at Bohemia Retro the other day, I began by asking Eastwood what had brought her to this part of the world in the first place.
“I studied in Huddersfield, in England, and I did textile design and technology. My university was twinned with Liberec, so I came here for a year to be a teacher of textiles and of English, but for students who were studying textiles and technology as well.
“So, yeah, I was working at the university in Liberec. And they couldn’t get rid of me I guess, because 20 years later I’m still here [laughs]!”
Was it a culture shock moving from the north of England to the north of Bohemia?
“Of course. It was 1993 – everything was different. I can’t even start. There’s such a long list. You couldn’t phone home – you had to go either to the local post office or to the hotel Zlatý Lev, and it was this whole weird process.
“Finding toilet paper… discovering that they sold toilet paper in a paper shop, not a drogerie. And all these weird things.
“I think I was a lot of a culture shock for the people in Liberec as well. I was a Northern English art student who landed with a pierced nose and pink hair and a lot of them had never even seen a foreigner.
“You’d get lots of stares and people just like, oh my God, it’s a foreigner!”
Also I guess you were coming from a culture where there was a big emphasis on appearance and looking good and having style to not only the Czech Republic in 1993 but outside Prague in 1993?
“Yeah. Even if I sort of dressed down or tried to fit down I absolutely didn’t. I mean I didn’t try that hard. I didn’t try in England either.
“As I say, I’m a textile designer into fashion, so clothing and being a bit different was always something I liked to do.
“But yeah, some of the fashion was quite shocking. It was like stepping back in a time warp to sort of 1982.”
“[Laughs] Yeah, the purple suits with the mustard shirt and the brown tie. Everybody had a purple pram as well – I don’t know if you remember that. That was quite a shocker [laughs].”
Was it then also that you started performing in bands here?
“Yes. In Liberec there was lots to do if you wanted to go to the pub or go skiing or things like that. But there wasn’t the internet, we didn’t have television.
“I met this American guy called Mike Bowling from Tennessee, and he kind of talked me into being a singer in his band. I wasn’t a singer before but he was like, you can dance, you look good, you can be a singer. [laughs].”
Did you find yourself playing in some strange venues?
“Oh God, yeah. We’ve played in every weird and wonderful place. I’ve played on a boat in Northern Germany, little basements, huge venues. I’ve played at Trutnov and all these festivals. But pretty much at that time you’d take anything you could get.
“We would sometimes have no idea where we were going. Sometimes at festivals we’d have to get out of the car and listen for the music because there was nothing around except cows. Actually, there weren’t even cows, just fields. So yeah, we’ve played in some bizarre places.”
You’ve had two groups here, I understand, Freak Parade and B Movie Heroes. Are either or both still on the go?
“I have a nine-year-old son and it seems like all the members of B Movie Heroes reproduced at the same time, so that led to a big pause in it.
“At the moment we’re not looking to reform or anything like that. They all have jobs and lives.
“With Freak Parade we’ve been going for 20 years. Mike’s always writing songs, we can always get back and play. But at the moment I’m kind of busy.
“We did just shoot a video for this song called Holky z naší školky …”
“Yeah, it’s a very cheesy song. It was kind of a little bit of a joke because we saw so many bands doing covers of English songs. And this song was so sweet, and almost sickly sweet, that we thought making a punk rock song of it, in English, would be fun. So we did.”
How has it gone down when people recognise it live?
“Czechs absolutely love it. They’re a bit confused at first and then they suddenly realise what it is. It’s their favourite, of course. They love it.”
How did you get into the vintage clothing business?
“Pretty much when I was a little girl digging in my grandma’s closet. That’s where I would first look at all this jewelry… the diamonds that weren’t really diamonds – well I hope they weren’t diamonds, because I was playing with them as a child.
“I would literally dress up in my grandmother’s clothes and my mum would say, ooh, I’ve got this stuff from the ‘60s.
“Then when I was an art student I would be looking for what we used to call original. We didn’t use to call it vintage, back in the day. I was always looking for original ‘50s, original ‘60s.
“When I came here in ’90 and clothing was so expensive. People were paying a month’s wages for a couple of shirts. It was shocking.
“So I started going to the secondhand shops and charity shops and I walked in and everything was from 1960, 1970. I was overwhelmed. I was like, yay! And the Czechs thought I was crazy. Crazier than they thought I was before.”
Is there a particular period of Czech clothing design or production that you think was of a high quality?
“I came here because the university was really specialised in textiles and technology. And they were still up to that point, even up to ’93, producing some lovely quality textiles.
“The issue was more in the design because they weren’t teaching modern design. That’s what happened. But anything sort of… you know, the older the better.
“If you look at the First Republic, these people dressed as nicely as they did their buildings. It was a whole culture: fashion, architecture, interior design. It all goes together.
Where do you find all this stuff? We’re in your shop and it’s a complete treasure trove of sunglasses and God knows what – belts, hats, dresses. Where do you find it all?
“Wherever I can. There’s really no one place that I can say. It takes hours of rummaging through hundreds of pieces of random stuff. You’ve got to know your stuff, you’ve got to know the good stuff from a fake.
“You’ve got to know what quality feels like, and a lot of it is as much touch as looking. I can tell good quality fabric from just touching it.
“And people come and offer me things. It’s always nice. I always want the older, the better. So really, anywhere I can.”
Typically, who are your customers?
“Obviously they’re younger people. Because older people sort of feel like they’ve already lived through this fashion and they feel a bit frumpy and old-fashioned in it.
“So they’re younger people. Although I do have older Czech people who come in because they realise that I pick things for quality and taste and cut. Once they’ve been in here they come back.”
Have you perceived any change in the level of interest in vintage clothing?
“Yes, because of course it’s now more and more fashionable. It’s more and more talked about now and Czech people are cottoning on to what it is.
“Before they’d say, vintage, vintáž, co to je? They had no idea really what it was and explaining to them that it’s secondhand, old stuff and the older the better, they kind of looked at me a bit puzzled.
“They didn’t get why people would want this. But now it’s been explained in the media, there’s all this hype around it. So yeah, the interest is increasing.”
Are there people who come here from particular subcultures? For example I know swing is quite big now.
“Yeah, absolutely. We’ve got the swing people and the Lindy Hop people, who are quite purist. They’re actually looking for a real ‘50s dress that they can show off – because a lot of it is to do with the fashion as well.
“It’s becoming more important here for swing dancers to look the part. That’s part of the fun as well, isn’t it? They all go and admire each other’s outfits. They come and we have a good time; I help people to put outfits together, which is nice.
“Then we’ll have the electro-swing people. They want a different thing. Then we’ll have Goths and you’ve got your sort of ‘80s, I guess hipsters, this sort of more modern vintage. So there’s a bit of everything for everyone.”
Does it take a certain confidence to wear vintage stuff that maybe a lot of Czech people wouldn’t have?
“It takes having a certain amount of style to pull off vintage. Because it’s a little different. It’s not fed to you on a plate, so you have to create the outfit. And some people are a little more skeptical about it. You know, do I look fashionable or not?
“Fashion is a lot about confidence, a lot of it. If you look good and feel confident in your clothes, you’re going to be more attractive to everybody, and to yourself. It’s a nice thing.
“People are developing confidence here. But they’re a little more conservative than, say, somebody from Berlin, from Kreuzberg, who’s an art student – that’s a different level.”
The episode featured today was first broadcast on May 5, 2014.