Swap Meet

Clothing trades: How to make friends and shop without money

Anyone who got a little nervous a few months ago when Oprah did an episode all about "hoarding," a disorder linked to OCD, should think about having a clothes-swapping party—STAT. The subjects of Oprah's alarming study had houses filled with bags of clothes, garages filled with miscellaneous, useless items they just couldn't part with. They had moved into larger homes, thinking the ratio of stuff to space would decrease, but the stuff kept multiplying, covering dining room tables, living room floors, couches, beds!

While most people's hoarding habits aren't advanced enough to freak out Oprah and her team of experts, many of us can relate to the problem of getting rid of old things, especially the wearable sort. In your heart of hearts, you know there's no chance you're ever going to fit into those 28-inch jeans again, but they've been neatly folded, taking up space in your closet, contributing nothing in return, for years. If you can't get it together to bring a load to the Salvation Army, or you think you have valuable vintage, but that trip to the consignment shop keeps getting pushed off the to-do list, a clothing swap with a few friends—preferably those whose closets you'd like to rummage through—could be the perfect solution. When giving up your old stuff means getting better stuff, you'll suddenly feel a lot less sentimental about those culottes from high school.

While the idea may seem pretty simple, clothing trades are approached in many ways, from the not-so-thought-out "dump and grab" approach to sophisticated auction-style gatherings, complete with finger food. Whether the labels read H&M or Gucci, these events are often masterminded at transitional moments, like now, for example, because summer is ending and tired closets are ready for editing.

"Your butt's too big for that necklace."
photo: Nina Lalli
"Your butt's too big for that necklace."

Of course, people are not always on their best behavior when it comes to trying to score clothes. A friend—let’s call her Rebecca—recently told me about an open-call clothing swap she attended upon graduating from college."Everyone fought over the clothes," she admitted, and worse, women told each other things like "your butt would look better in something bigger" just to get coveted items out of the hands of a rival. "It was a total body competition," was Rebecca's remorseful summary.

With a little planning, however, clothes swapping can be your wardrobe's new best friend—not to mention your wallet's. Here are some tips from pros.

The Theme

Narrowing down the items on the trading floor is a good way to avoid a massive purging of junk in your living room. The constraints can be anything from sizes to articles of clothing or accessories, seasons, and so on. Andra Olenik, an editor at Algonquin Books, who is five-foot-eight, organized her first trading party after "boycotting" one thrown by a very short girl. "I just had a feeling it would be depressing to be trying on all these tiny clothes," she explained. That's when her Tall Girl's Clothing Swap was born, which consisted of friends and co-workers at least as tall as she is.

Mia Juhng, an events producer with her own company, Mia Marketing, has always had a passion for purses and a knack for organizing events, so when she realized she owned too many purses that never made it "into rotation," she came up with the idea for her bi-annual Purse Swaps. She makes no stipulations in terms of designers or anything else, but she does consider her invitation list carefully.

The Invite

Because of the highly sensitive nature of trying on clothes in front of an audience, and presenting your own items to a discerning crowd, experienced swappers recommend keeping the group small. "It only works if you have not that many people," Juhng said, recommending a total of about 12, "kind of like a dinner party." She also switches up the members of the group each time. "It's important to really consider the mix," Juhng said. "You want people with harmonious but different types of taste."

Olenik recommends inviting a mix of good friends and more casual acquaintances. People tend to remain more pleasant in the company of strangers, but for good measure, she has a more straightforward policy: "You can only invite nice people."

The Ritual

Lauren Katzman, a law student, recently attended a clothes swap in which she scored some great items, but found herself fighting for them in a chaotic set-up. She said, "People brought tons of stuff, and everything was basically dumped out on a table, kind of organized in piles of skirts, pants, whatever, but really just a big grab-fest."

However, with some hostess-enforced order, a clothing swap can be impressively civilized. Juhng, an events producer, has her guests place their offerings (one or two bags usually) on a long table "like a buffet." Then they draw numbers to see who will choose first. Appetizers and drinks are served, and attendees peruse the goods. A friend and repeat-invite, Gigi Guerra, Editor at Large at Lucky magazine, likens this part to viewing an auction. She said, "Everyone has their eye on the one they're going to go for."

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