LONDON — While Britain's fashion retailers scramble to respond to consumers' growing demand for eco-conscious and ethically produced clothing, a small band of Londoners is taking matters into its own hands. Instead of spending on the high street, these shoppers are holding clothes-swapping parties where women can exchange their superfluous bargains for someone else's cast-offs.
Lori Wiechec and Rachel Stewart co-founded the clothes-swapping event, Feather Duster, which are held in locations such as upscale London pubs. "[We've] been through the late Nineties, when floods and floods of cheap and trashy clothes that you'd wear once came out, and then they'd just fall out of shape," Wiechec said. "When you stop and think about one item of clothing, its history goes back a long, long way. And for my generation, the environment is a major concern."
At Feather Duster events, which have attracted plenty of media coverage in the U.K., visitors enjoy cupcakes and cocktails as they check out one another's duds. Last week, Wiechec set up a swapping and customizing event during the London College of Fashion's Green Week. Those taking part pay a small charge at the door, and can take away whatever they like for free. If there's a dispute over a piece, which Wiechec said might as easily happen over a Marc Jacobs item as something from the Gap, the organizers ask the crowd to decide who should have the item.
Eloise Markwell-Butler organizes a Swaparama club night with three friends every month at Favela Chic, an East London bar. There, clubgoers swap clothes and then hit the dance floor.
"Fashion always recycles itself — we're already looking at the Nineties now," said Markwell-Butler. "And I think [the club] opens your mind a bit, so you don't get stuck wearing the same things."
Rita Clifton, chief executive officer of branding consultant Interbrand, said the social aspect of these events was a large part of their attraction. "It's [about] new communities and affinity groups, and there's some of the same excitement as with vintage [shopping]," she said.
Feather Duster's Wiechec agreed. "Half of the appeal is the experience," she said. "One visitor said it was the best Saturday afternoon she'd ever had."However, noting the crowds that stormed the Oxford Street opening of Primark, the discount clothing brand, Clifton said ethical shopping wasn't the top priority for all consumers. She said most consumers won't shift from conventional purchases to just swapping.
"It's a tiny, tiny minority doing this," said Clifton. "And [while they] may drive a wider trend…the vast majority want to buy new things and get excitement from that."
Clifton added that most consumers look for more convenient ways to be environmentally conscious. "People will buy differently rather than buy less," said Clifton. "[They'll go] to retailers who have a strong social and environmental policy."
Stylist Bay Garnett, who championed the vintage trend with her magazine, Cheap Date, and in March released the book "The Cheap Date Guide to Style" with Kira Jolliffe, agreed. "When it comes to clothes, people aren't thinking about the environment," said Garnett. "I think people are [instead] tapping into different ways of getting stuff. Now everyone wearing high street clothes looks like they want to be wearing vintage, and people want more individual things."
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