Shwop till you drop

Shwopping  is based around socialist ideals of thrift, social awareness and environmental consciousness.
Shwopping is based around socialist ideals of thrift, social awareness and environmental consciousness.

THIS AGE of recession can make a girl feel guilty even thinking about frittering her money away on such frivolities as new clothes.

Every second friend seems to be learning how to knit, bottle fruit and can tomatoes. Even television shows have gone strangely parsimonious. TVNZ 6 has a segment on its new series Use As Directed called The Cheap Life, about a family of hippies living in West Auckland who wash their dishes in an inch of tepid water, turn off the oven halfway through cooking and keep their own bees.

This era of austerity does not bode well for a fashionista in search of a new summer wardrobe. There is the option of learning to make your own, but as a friend reminds: "It'll take years before they lose that `home-made' look."

Big shwoppers Sarah Hopkins, Chrissy McGonigal and Inga Boyd.
Big shwoppers Sarah Hopkins, Chrissy McGonigal and Inga Boyd.

Fortunately, it seems I'm not the only woman in the country who's torn between her fashion addiction and the penny-pinching angel on her shoulder.

My saviours are three friends from Wellington – Inga Boyd, 29, Chrissy McGonigal, 32 and Sarah Hopkins, 30. Last year the trio started a company called The Big Shwop and run clothes swapping parties around the country.

The idea of clothes swapping has gained momentum in recent years. It's essentially getting together with a group of friends to exchange unwanted clothes. One woman's trash, another's treasure. Shwopping, or swishing as it's known overseas, is based around socialist ideals of thrift (no money changes hands), social awareness (thinking about where your clothes come from) and environmental consciousness (recycling).

The cons are, of course, that people might be inclined to only part with their daggier clothes, and unless all your friends are the same size, you might have difficulty finding anything to swap. But the Big Shwop solves those problems by the sheer number of participants and putting a commercial spin on the project with stringent standards on acceptable clothes.

Prospective shwoppers pre-register on a website, which also has a list of rules – nothing from a cheap chain store and clothes must not be dirty, stained, or have missing buttons or unravelling hems.

My mission for my first shwop – at the Langham Hotel in Auckland – is to rejuvenate my summer wardrobe.

I've got a better chance than most at success, as my personal shopper for the day is the fashion buyer at Farmers, Gabi Fredericks.

I pay the $10 entry free, get a glass of wine and some free beauty products. My clothes are then assessed by a team of volunteers, who check for sweat stains, ripped lining and so on. A voucher is given for each accepted item, which is then redeemable for someone else's clothes. Any clothes that have been rejected or left over at the end of the event are donated to charity. Glassons and Supre items are a judgement call by the volunteers – clearly, someone who brought in a Karen Walker dress isn't going to be happy to see too many chain store items on the racks.

"The problem with cheap clothing," says Boyd, "is that if they're cheap to buy, then it was even cheaper to make. The way in which they were made has been done with very little respect to the environment or the community of people that have made that piece of clothing. If we want to combat this, then we have to buy quality when we buy new, and ethically made or New Zealand-made fashion. When we can't afford to do that, we should look at re-using what we already have. We have a little saying for the Big Shwop, it's a fashion store without the money."

My two bags of clothes, which have mostly come from local (Ricochet, Moochi) and international (Topshop, Zara) high street stores, are deemed acceptable and I receive 20 vouchers, with only one slightly stained cardigan and a plain brown leather belt condemned to the charity pile.

The shop floor at The Langham has separate racks for tops, skirts, pants, jeans, dresses, jackets and accessories, divided by size. There are makeshift changing rooms decorated with flowers and long mirrors for preening.

This is the girls' fourth event – their first in Auckland – and they've become masters at cost cutting. The venue was donated by The Langham, door prizes and giveaways are sponsored and live music provided courtesy of Boyd's cousin, an amateur DJ.

Fredericks, a seasoned buyer who used to work for retailer David Jones in Australia, starts going through the racks with an eagle eye. She snaps up a colourful Hermes scarf, telling me I'd be a fool not to take it.

Also getting her big tick of approval is a red Huffer dress, a blue, organic cotton check dress and black vertical stripe top of unknown heritage, a Zara jacket ("it's a transitional piece for spring"), a World vest and a black sparkly Esprit singlet which I think of as a throwback to the disco era, but looks surprisingly trendy when on.

A pair of teeny white lace shorts and a little blue tank top goes back on the shelf. I'm dubious about the scarf, but Fredericks shows me a range of ways to tie it and I'm sold. Meanwhile, I've also scored a pair of Marilyn Sainty shorts from one of the girls as a bonus because it has a loose hem.

Within 20 minutes, the racks are three-quarters empty. Many of the punters have not even bothered with changing rooms, electing to just grab whatever might fit.

At the end of the day, out of 170 pre-registered shwoppers, 130 have turned up, which means the girls have made $1300 from the cover charge. They put the cost of holding the shwop, including driving up in a hired van filled with equipment, at just under $2000.

"On average, each person swapped about 10 items," says Boyd, who claims her wardrobe is about 70% swapped items.

"We used between 1300-1500 hangers, so that's how many clothes got shwopped. No one left empty-handed and there was probably only about 30 items left over."

To buy my new summer wardrobe from retailers would have cost about $1000, so I'm bouncing around the office with my shwop jacket and Huffer dress.

How to shwop like a pro

- Gabi Fredericks of Farmers shares her tips:

Go for natural rather than synthetic fabric. All clothing fabric in New Zealand and Australia legally needs to have fibre content labelling and country of origin. Everyone has different fashion tastes, but make sure that you pick something you love when you're shwopping, so you can keep it for a long time.

Accessories are always classic. Even when scarves go out of fashion, you'll find they come back into fashion again a couple of seasons later.

Designer labels are always best, but make sure it fits. There's no point going home with a designer label if you have to lose two sizes to fit into it – that's probably not going to happen. Have a good understanding of your current wardrobe and make a list of pieces that you're missing before the shwop. Make sure you focus on what you're after when you're there, so you don't waste time. Dresses, florals and shorts are huge for summer. Distressed and ripped denim is the new trend, so look out for destroyed jeans or find a pair you can distress yourself.

Look at details such as how securely seams are sewn, jacket linings, and hold garments up to the light to check if they're see-through.

Most importantly, have fun – remember that even if you don't absolutely love something when you get home, you can always take it to the next shwop.

The next Big Shwop is being held at the St James Theatre in Wellington on October 31.

Sunday Star Times