Fair Trade

Braving the bargain-hunting melee at a local clothing exchange.

Illustration by Kirsten Ulve

Illustration by Kirsten Ulve

It was a little overwhelming,” Frances Smith, 23, says about the swap we’ve just experienced at the Fourth Wall Project near Fenway Park. She came with her sister, 25-year-old Hannah Zinn, and when I ask about their finds, Hannah proudly holds up some dark jeans. “They’re Madewell,” she says. I take a closer look, and realize the pair came from my closet.

This is a fairly common experience at the clothing exchanges organized by Amy Lynn Chase and Melissa Massello, who work for the online sharing community Swap.com. Bring a bag of clothing, shoes, and accessories that no longer fit your style (or body), and for a small admission fee — $10, in this case — you get an empty tote to stuff with whatever castoffs you manage to get your hands on (more challenging than it sounds, as it turns out). Chase and Massello have hosted dozens of swaps around the state, attracting budget-conscious fashionistas eager to revamp their wardrobes.

Chase emphasizes that pieces should be gently used and “something you’d give to a friend” (read: not utterly hideous). The offerings are heavy on middle-of-the-road brands — Express, Banana Republic — with a few designer white whales mixed in, such as Chanel pumps and a black Botkier hobo bag. A helpful “Seven Secrets to Swap Success” flyer in my tote suggests using the buddy system and discourages hoarding. Chase tells me to grab whatever catches my eye, because the best stuff “goes kind of fast.”

Talk about an understatement. As soon as the swap opens, 200 deal seekers of all stripes stampede toward the goods. The pros, hauling huge bags, head straight for the jewelry and dresses, while newbies like me timidly attempt to squeeze up to the front lines. The first sweep lasts all of 15 minutes. Some people leave immediately; others carefully review their loot and put back what doesn’t fit. Any leftovers are donated to Goodwill.

My takeaways? A cute beaded necklace, and the knowledge that though I’m happy to purge my closet and give to charity, I much prefer my retail therapy sans unruly crowds — and with the benefit of a full-length mirror.