After quietly opening in May, the Sustainable Fashion Community Center at 1795 Lexington Avenue in Harlem has branched out into a second floor and welcomed shoppers and curious passersby.
The East Harlem location has “The Swap Shop” downstairs and “The Fair Trade Gift Shop” upstairs. Visitors will find a clothing recycling center, a member-led pop-up and a safe space for gathering, sharing and educating. There is also the exhibit “UnFair: The Story of Consumption, Production and Unsustainable Thinking” that is tucked away. One fact from the exhibit that rattles people is that when Reyes’ parents were born, there were 2.3 billion people and now there are 7.8 billion yet each year about 150 billion garments are made.
Founder Andrea Reyes crafted the concept that she hopes to extend to other places. The nonprofit Chashama teamed with New York City’s Department of Small Business Services through its Enliven NYC Startup program, which connects small businesses with temporary vacant storefronts for free. During the pandemic, many small businesses have struggled to raise or access capital for commercial leases. Storefront Startup is geared for business owners who live in low to moderate income neighborhoods throughout the city’s five boroughs.
After moving in on May 8, which happened to be “Fair Trade Day,” Reyes took part in the Summer Youth Employment program enlisting 15 interns ranging from 16 to 21 year olds for six weeks. In November, she started having planning meetings about opening a space, so she jumped at the opportunity sight unseen when it was offered last spring. When the upstairs space opened up two months later, she took that, too. The layout of the second floor, which used to be a doctor’s office with multiple rooms, is well-suited for SFCC. Workshops can be held in them and a “sustainable fashion book nook” is being set up, Reyes said.
Downstairs there is the clothing swap where people bring in donations and then can select up to 10 pieces for $15. In the Fair Trade Gift Shop, there is fair trade coffee from Colombia and Nicaragua, artisan goods from Guatemala and other items. Having taught at the Fashion Institute of Technology and LIM, among other schools, Reyes has researched retail and experiential retail for years. “I believe that swapping is a way to get people in the door and to maybe start them in their education of sustainability. Through that, I can have that conversation of overproduction, over consumption, sales formats and small businesses,” Reyes said.
Hopeful that this fall will be a busy season and open to the possibility of expanding the format to other areas, she said, “We think every neighborhood should have a space like this. It’s not just about buying things. It’s about coming in after cleaning out your closet, and talking about the mental and physical aspects that come into consumption. We hope to pop up in different neighborhoods. We want to start with the ones that need something like this.”
Speaking with other like-minded organizations that have opportunities to take spaces, Reyes said she is also encouraged by how the reuse sector is exploding. She is part of New York City Department of Sanitation’s “DonateNYC” program. Focused on the Lexington Avenue, Reyes jokes around that she wants to work herself out of a job. Once SFCC can continue without her having to oversee the day-to-day operations, she expects that “by that time other opportunities will come about to take up space in other places.”
The SFCC also has a back garden with vegetables that have been donated by McEnroe Farms. Visitors are often offered a homegrown tomato or two. The exhibit was also a localized project that the center’s interns created. They highlighted the exploitation of women in apparel production, industrialization, the evolution of factories, the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire that resulted in 134 deaths and the 2013 Rana Plaza garment factory collapse that left 1,134 people dead. Given the interest in the exhibit, it could become a permanent one, Reyes said.