Fashion

For Vintage Americana Memorabilia, Turn to Sonnyboy Vintage

This online vintage store offers storied pieces like ashtrays from the iconic Stork Club in New York City and old Esquire calendars from Peruvian painter Alberto Vargas.
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In the earlier half of the 20th century, the Stork Club in New York City was one of the most prestigious clubs in the world—movie stars, mafia members, and presidents like John F. Kennedy frequented the haunt.

The Stork Club has been closed since 1965, but today you can own an artifact from that rarefied time—an ashtray—through Instagram shop Sonnyboy Vintage. Owner Raphael Lao’s penchant for the bygone era is palpable in his well-curated pieces. “Growing up, I frequented the West Coast of the U.S.A. and Canada and I think that pretty much set the tone for what kind of vintage I would be interested in,” says the vintage and menswear enthusiast. “Even my name was patterned after Ralph Lauren, one of the greatest collectors of vintage who I look at as someone who is living his dream while selling it to others as well, hoping that they could live it too. Seeing many of his well-curated boutiques around the world, especially the flagship stores, always made me feel like I wasn’t just somewhere else, but some time else.”

Sonnyboy Vintage sets itself apart from other vintage purveyors by carrying storied relics of Americana culture that not only captured the style and sensibilities of a certain period, but also encapsulated the cultural zeitgeist of the 20th century. Among his interesting memorabilia include a Snoopy Vietnam War-era lighter, as well as 1940s-era prints from the annual Esquire calendar depicting pin-up paintings from Alberto Vargas, a Peruvian painter known for his Varga Girls illustrations.

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Although not all purveyed pieces are second-hand, Raphael makes the case for items that have been passed down. “In the Philippines, the term second-hand usually comes with a negative connotation as being used, raggedy, and tattered. To me, however, real vintage pieces that were made for a certain purpose such as an old diver’s watch or a broken-in Horsehide motorcycle jacket are things that stood the test of time and wear,” Raphael explains. 

“I occasionally get the ‘The owner must be dead!’ or the concern for bad juju with old items especially those coming from events like WWII, but at the end of the day they’re just old things that were taken care of and kept for years. The value is in the story behind them and it doesn’t take a lot to appreciate that,” he continues.

Esquire Philippines speaks with Raphael Lao on his affinity for Americana and how a good eye keeps his wares a cut above the rest. 

Sonnyboy Vintage pieces belong to various eras of Americana culture.

“When I set out to buy new things, I usually think in themes. Maybe today it’s Old West or 1940s Hollywood going on in my head. The next day, I might be fixated on hand-made things—the selection usually reflects the process. Sourcing through a network of fellow collectors abroad, knowing where to look and what to look for is crucial for me and is something I constantly try to be better at.

“I catch myself looking inwards towards nostalgia when selecting pieces. Some items I’d think have no connection to anyone else but myself until someone is eager to purchase it from me such as vintage cast-iron coin banks or woolen Pendleton blankets and Navajo rugs and silver jewelry from the 1920s to 1930s. I find that well-documented history and a well-written story is enough to justify the value of an item and so I select accordingly.”

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The name is inspired by the mid-century era.

“The name 'Sonnyboy' is a tribute to my father, Sonny. I chose the name because it always reminded me of scenes in old movies, especially those set in the 1940s to 1950s, where little kids would be referred to as ‘Sonnyboy.’ 

“My fascination with vintage started very early. Whenever we’d travel abroad, I remember my dad would point out everything from old buildings, classic cars and motorcycles, and even pieces of Americana in a Ralph Lauren store window display. I’d say this set the foundation and later on, I did my own research and dove into the history of everything that caught my eye. Then I realized that everything vintage has its own story. Since then I’d always appreciate things that age—be it a brass Zippo covered in patina or an old faded pair of Levi’s from the 1950s.”

One of the hallmark qualities of vintage items is their quality.

“It’s almost cliche for someone to look at those 'golden years' or 'the good old days' as some might call it—but personally, what really stands out from that time is the fact that things made during that time were made to last simply because their form followed function. Take care of something well-made and it will last you a lifetime. 

“I was able to fully appreciate this when I saw the market for it in Tokyo’s Harajuku and Shimokitazawa districts where ‘select shops’ lined the streets. It was the first time I got the chance to walk in, try on, and just observe all the vintage garments specifically from the 1930s to the 1960s. I sell old American goods, among other things, simply because they were made so well that decades later, one could still use them the way they were intended to be used."

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Lao sources each item himself, ensuring its authenticity and character.

“I try to keep my inventory very personal, so my buying process is pretty simple—if something catches my eye, I do some research and, if it’s interesting enough for me to want to own something like it and if it’s still available by the time, I do decide to pull the trigger, then it makes the cut.

“As for authenticity, the golden rule applies: ‘If it’s too good to be true, it probably is.’ So like any decision, acquisition has to be well thought out and researched. Provenance is always great too. A lot of the things I sell were owned by the first owners who kept them in their homes until parting with them. Part of my research is observing examples of things I get my hands on too. There is really no better teacher than your own eyes.”

Some of the most memorable pieces include items from prohibition night club Stork Club, as well as World War II-era items.

“The best items are the ones with provenance. I’ve sold a few items from the NYC prohibition-era nightclub, the Stork Club. Most of them came from guests of the club from back in the day, probably rubbing shoulders with the esteemed guest list, which included people like John F. Kennedy, Ernest Hemingway, and Frank Sinatra, to name a few. 

“Another example would be an Aviator’s Kit Bag from WWII that I have, acquired from the grandson of the original owner who was in the United States Army Air Forces (USAAF, Pre-USAF) stationed in Europe working as a mechanic for B-17 Flying Fortress bombers. That one is still with me.

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“These are special to me simply because they were special to their original owners as well. Memories live on through these mementos and the best part is that they can interweave some sort of connection creating memories for its new owner through the years. There are things that people say ‘you never truly own’ but I think that goes for everything material. What matters is that while they are in your possession, they help create good times and remind you of said good times when you see or use them.”

The shop’s current clientele varies in age.

“The range of clients is as wide as the list of reasons why people buy the vintage pieces. Younger clients see something they find nice and buy it if it fits their budget. Most of the older clients I have, if not enthusiasts like myself, have a certain connection to the pieces they select. One thing they do have in common is the appreciation for timeless, classic design and the stories behind their finds.

“Like myself, most of my loyal clients are drawn to timeless items. Maybe it’s a heavy Jade-ite diner mug from the 1940s that they remember from their grandma’s kitchen or a Mickey Mouse watch that reminds them of the one their parents gifted them decades before.

“For some, it’s the selection of vintage clothing that makes it easy for them to buy through my store without having to do the long hours of research to get the small details right. Personally, I think as long as the item has a good story behind it and it fits their own narrative, the connection is there.” 

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Clients can request specific pieces to be sourced. 

“Sourcing coveted items for my clients is where the real fun begins. The thrill of the hunt on their behalf is a challenge and an exercise for myself in seeing what I can do for them. I usually keep a mental note on things that people ask about and when I do find them, I make sure to let them know that I have it. Some might be surprised to receive a message from me weeks or months later informing them I’ve finally found what they were looking for. I source all kinds of things. I’m currently in the process of building a vintage clothing selection for one of my clients—vintage Levi’s, military field jackets and even vintage eye-wear.” 

He carries ‘new old stock’ and truly second-hand wares that were passed down.

“I learned the importance of condition early on when I thought I scored a ‘steal’ in a vintage store in Tokyo, then I realized the leather jacket I bought had some details I overlooked and didn’t get to ask about because of my lack of knowledge at that time. I learned that there is no such thing as a steal in the well-researched corners of the vintage market. There are only fair deals.      

“Part of the charm of vintage is the visible wear on them. Some clients prefer time-capsule condition items, which I’m lucky to come by at times and proud to sell, but some like the worn look showing the item’s age.                 

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“In terms of condition, vintage can range from ‘new old stock,’ basically unused condition to well-worn. Each category of course has their certain accepted conditions but to sum it up, I wouldn’t sell something that I myself wouldn’t use.

“In my opinion, the most important thing to look at when buying is not only the condition, but the originality of the item. But of course, I primarily sell to a market that wants to enjoy the things they buy, making it a part of their everyday rotation, so as long as the item is still able to be used without compromising function, I’d consider it normal wear for a decades-old item.” 

Sonnyboy Vintage on Instagram

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