In the UK alone, approximately 7,000 women swap 25,000 items a year.
Twenty-three-year-old Jessica Felstead has a new red woollen coat. Buttoning it in front of the mirror she spins round to show her friends. “I absolutely love it!” she grins.
Around her women are admiring handbags, riffling through a clothes rail and fishing out brightly coloured scarves from a pile on the table.
I’m in the middle of a clothes swapping party at the offices of sustainable PR agency Futerra, and this morning Jessica’s red coat was hanging unworn in the back of my wardrobe.
Clothes swapping parties have spread worldwide since they were first given “a glam facelift” and a brand six years ago by Lucy Shea, CEO of Futerra, who christened the swaps “swishing” – the noise of rustling clothes from your friends – and set up a website to help people put the parties on.
In the past few weeks she has had requests for swishing party advice packs from women in Buenos Aires, Mexico City, Sydney and Paris. The swishing website gets up to 10,000 visits a month from around the world, and in the UK she estimates that 7,000 women swap 25,000 items every year.
It is easy to see why it’s popular. As they sip champagne with their friends, guests are allowed to pick up any clothes or accessories they want for free. Everybody is told to bring some clothes they’d be “proud to pass on”, and swishing etiquette is to take away the same number of items as you bring to the party.
Although there were quite a few pairs of Primark pumps on the shoe table, I also saw a pair of Valentino heels, a Max Mara skirt, a pair of 7 For All Mankind jeans, and a Burberry necktie with the tag on still on. Unfortunately these were mostly already in other people’s hands by the time I got there – it’s a good idea to be punctual when swishing.
Every year in the UK we buy around 2 million tonnes of clothes, and throw away 1 million tonnes , all of which comes with a colossal footprint of embedded energy, water and toxins. According to the Observer journalist Lucy Siegle, author of To Die For: is Fashion Wearing Out the World?, the average woman owns 22 items she’s never worn.
Swishing is designed to cut this waste by giving women “the thrill of retail therapy without the environmental side effects,” says Shea, and by “making swapping clothes an aspiration, rather than a shabby secret”. According to Futerra, 0.4 kg of CO2 is saved for every item of clothing that is re-used rather than bought new.
Talking to Katherine Symonds, a 33 year-old swishing novice who works at Coca Cola, it seems the rebrand is working. “I used to go to thrift shops at a child but as an adult I never do. I don’t really like the atmosphere,” she says. “Charity shops don’t have champagne and nice women and, you know, canapes.” She’s now thinking about holding her own swishing session: “We all get rid of so many clothes but there’s a bit of awkwardness about offering somebody your leftovers,” she says. “It’s really nice to make a party of it.”
Although you can’t really go swishing if you’re after something specific like a smart black skirt, several women said they rated the experience more highly than a trip to the high street. “It makes you choose something you wouldn’t normally choose in a shop and branch out a bit,” says Felstead. “I prefer it to shopping because I don’t feel guilty at the end.”
Solitaire Townsend, co-founder of Futerra and longtime “swishette” says it’s a mixture of “the massive vicarious pleasure of free stuff”, the mystery and anticipation of what will be there, and the sociable nature of swishing, with women complimenting each other on their finds. “When was the last time you talked to a stranger in Topshop?” she asks.
The party was very friendly and good-mannered, and the “no scratching, spitting or biting” sign on the door seemed to be in jest. But I’m told that large public swishing parties can sometimes be less convivial, with women running to grab the best items or tussling over things they want. “It works best with friends” says Harriet Kingaby, a 28-year-old who works in PR. Fans of online shopping can also swap clothes at sites such as Big Wardrobe, Swop2Shop and Posh Swaps .
Last time she did the calculations, which was in 2009, Shea says swishing had prevented around 202,800 kg of clothes from going to landfill, and she estimates it will now be much more.
But with a fifth of the UK market made up of low-cost, short-lifetime garments, many clothes are thrown away because they’re bad quality, not because they’ve fallen out of fashion or favour. There’s a limit to how much can be swished.
By the end of the evening I’m pleased with my swapped swag – a pink high-waisted Jaques Vert skirt and a matching blouse, brought by Shea’s mum’s friend.
A look online when I get home shows lots more parties around the country, from a swap at the Good Fashion Show in London, to a debut swishing and swing dancing night, to a fundraising swish in a Baptist church in Bedford .
“We have so many resources in circulation which aren’t being used to the best of their ability, says Shea, “we need to move towards more collaborative forms of consumption. But what I love about swishing is women don’t do it for those reasons – they do it because of the parties and the clothes.”
• Global swishing week runs 15-21 February