When my mother started her now-famous clothing swap about 11 years ago, we weren’t thinking, “Let’s bring the generations together.” We were thinking, “Let’s figure out how to indulge our constant itch for fresh styles without spending any money, and how to rid our closets of bad shopping decisions without any guilt.”
It all began in 2008. We dubbed it the “recession swap” because it seemed like the perfect event for lean times. The name stuck, and though some indicators say that the recession has ended, Mom refuses to change the name.
In the early days, attendance was driven by my mom’s friends — a group of mostly-retired New York City-area women in their 60s to 80s, along with me (early 50s) and a few of my style-loving pals. Little by little, I recruited more of my peers, all of us regularly refreshing our wardrobes, yet always itching for something new.
I urged my younger cousins to come and bring their pals. My mom invited neighbors from her apartment building, her Mah-jongg group, her dog walker, pretty much anyone she ran into. I invited friends, writer pals, poker-playing buddies, colleagues, mentors and mentees. I intentionally thought about women who tended to accumulate clothing and those who would appreciate some free shopping with a team of advisers in the room.
Satisfying on Many Levels
Over time, we realized that the secret sauce was bringing together older and younger women for something we could all enjoy.
The first few swaps were held in my mother’s small one-bedroom apartment in New York City. We had one rack divided into sections for sizes, a full buffet on the dining table and jewelry and other accessories on a dresser. Shoes were scattered along the windowsill. The bedroom and bathroom became dressing rooms, though many of us changed out in the open, evoking scenes of the communal dressing room we New Yorkers associate with the now-defunct discount chain Loehmann’s.
Friendships are born. Job leads and fashion advice flow freely.
As our guest list expanded, we no longer had room for a bunch of ladies, our table of snacks and all the booty we had to offer. So we moved the venue from my mother’s apartment to the party room of her building. With some sweet-talking to the management, the next year we took over half the gym as well (floor-to-ceiling mirrors are perfect for a swap!).
The event is satisfying on so many levels. Our racks are often filled with tag-on, designer items purchased on impulse. It’s an incredible joy when those clothing mistakes find new homes rather than calling out shamefully from their hangers year after year.
A Few Traditions
The intergenerational love has a particular quality. I’ve seen women in their 80s give heirloom-style items (fur coats, real jewelry, vintage handbags) to younger women they met only moments before.
And when women bring children, that’s where the real magic happens. At our last swap, a four-year-old girl in a tutu (acquired at the swap) kept us entertained, and a bevy of aunties allowed her mom to focus on browsing.
Over the years, we’ve developed a few traditions. Whenever someone takes an item, we snap a photo of the giver and receiver with the latter showing off her new treasure. Friendships are born. Job leads and fashion advice flow freely.
On the day of our last swap, I invited the barista who made my morning coffee. Because it was last-minute, she wasn’t able to bring any items to swap. But she showed up with a plate of pastries that easily made her a popular party guest. The day after the event, when I popped in for my morning espresso, she was sporting a dress from the swap — and a casual relationship now feels like a budding friendship.
An event born out of a financial downturn has ended up making us all feel connected and cared for. So we are now determined to spread the word.
10 Tips for the Perfect Swap
The following are my 10 tips for a perfect clothing swap:
1. Scout the ideal space. Find one big enough for clothing racks and several tables (a table for snacks and drinks, several for clothing, accessories and household items). Set up a private area as a dressing room for trying on clothes (bathrooms and adjacent rooms work well). Bring some full-length mirrors.
2. Don’t feel a need to limit the swap to clothing. Everyone has household items that are no longer in use. Encourage people to bring electronics, kitchen items, decorative items and gifts still in their packages.
3. Be creative about your invitation list. Create a committee of people from different generations to serve as co-hosts; this will allow you to tap everyone’s networks. Consider partnering with a community that is naturally intergenerational — a place of worship, an apartment complex, a school. Doing so will also help you find a venue.
4. Encourage children. Make the swap kid-friendly. Lots of women in attendance means plenty of watchful eyes, and if there’s a group of kids, they have natural playmates. Little ones adore playing dress-up.
5. Clothing racks make it look more professional. If you can’t get your hands on any, lay out the clothing on different tables. Create signs to identify small, medium and large sizes. If someone in your midst has an eye for design, put her in charge of display.
6. Donate everything left to a shelter or thrift store. Try to find one that picks up. If you can’t, get a few people to volunteer as part of the clean-up crew to bag things up and deliver.
7. Have lots of bags handy for people to take their finds home and for the donation run.
8. Take photographs, especially when someone finds something she adores. If you’re going to post on social media (good for promoting your next swap) or share in any other way, make sure to ask permission first.
9. Make the swap pot luck with everyone contributing to bringing snacks and drinks. It’s a great opportunity to share recipes, in addition to hand-me-downs.
10. Follow the seasons. People like to clean out closets as a new season approaches, so choose your date with that in mind.
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