“I don’t have time to shop.” This is what my mother used to say to me when as a kid I would beg for the Guess or Lee pin striped jeans. And since we become our mothers at some point, I’ve formed my own rendition of her statement. “I can’t afford to shop,” is what I like to tell people. But that’s a lie because I can, I just choose not to.
I decided this after a New York City shopping binge. I was there on a girlfriend get-together weekend. I landed a day early to meet with my literary agent and made the fortunate mistake of discovering Forever 21, all alone, with no hip clothes in my suitcase to speak of and an American Express card with a zero balance. After three hours, I renamed the store Forever 35, wondering how long I could shop here before I started to come off like a middle-aged cougar. When the total cost of my fifteen items was only cents over one hundred dollars, I cracked a joke to the twenty one year old smacking her gum behind the counter, “Well, then. I guess we won’t mention the slave labor that must have made these prices possible?” She smirked while demagnetizing the electronic article surveillance tag off my tweed gauchos.
After that trip, I made a pact with myself that I would no longer shop. It just wasn’t where I was going to put my money anymore. Plus, the clothing I could afford was keeping young girls at their sewing machines way past their bedtimes. I reasoned that I could have a nice coat here, a pair of boots there, and that specialty items were okay if they aligned with my new motto of quality, not quantity. But full-on shopping binges that had to be tamed like unhealthy habits from the past––those were off limits. I faltered later the following year on a trip to London to see my best friend. She introduced me to TopShop and how their seventy quid jeans never changed style. Since then I’ve grown proud of myself, because I’ve yet to cross the electronic alarm barrier in any H&M.
In an attempt to stay clean, I enrolled a few girlfriends in my shop-free effort. My friend/neighbor and I started an open-closet policy. What was mine was also hers. This required trust, similar styles, and an ethic on how to treat clothes. Luckily, I now have something new to show off every month. Another girlfriend who works nearby meets me for my invention of “The Poor Girls” Picnic. It usually happens toward the end of the month when we have at least eight dollars to our name (not because we shopped, but because we love calling this pricey city home). I clean out my fridge and cupboards of mid-week grocery purchases and bring us a picnic where I unpack my plates bought in Bangkok, our tasty snacks, and a few clothing items from my closet. She brings a couple of sweaters or pants to trade, and it feels just like a ladies shopping lunch date, minus a balance on our credit cards.
When I thought about sharing this clothing swap idea with other women in my life, I did a quick Google search to find that the idea had already been mastered in my own backyard. No surprise here, since nine times out of ten when I’m curious about an idea, there’s a clever woman around my San Francisco corner who has already thought of it. And for clothing swaps, that woman is Suzanne Agasi.
I walked into Suzanne’s Clothing Swap Inc., where she holds clothing swaps two nights a week at downtown venues. This swap took off at Sugar Café, a bar design I wish I had thought up, with twenty-foot ceilings and the warmth of a Hollywood Hills fireplace that welcomed me as I dragged in not one, but three, garbage bags full of clothes. I had been a good friend and brought my closet-sharing friend’s rejects with my own and pulled them down the hill, cussing and wishing I had thrown on my blinkers in the white zone out front. Once I paid my thirty dollars at the door (or twenty if you buy online beforehand), I schmoozed myself around the bar to get to know the ladies. And nice ladies they were, as Suzanne, the founder, walked around like a gracious Lucy Arnez as if we were in her home. The event was sponsored by Benefit cosmetics who lined one wall giving free makeovers, along with Suzanne’s own make-up artists who lined my eyes a smokey black for a concert I thought I might hit after the swap. I lay down for a free massage by the fireplace to make my computer screen stress melt away while I waited for my friend. Suzanne worked the room and came over every so often to put her hand on my arm and say, “Are we having fun?”
After the make-up, massage, and nibbling, it was time to put my swap shoes on. Volunteers helped Suzanne put all of the clothing on hangers in the back room, mimicking the shopping experience, which made me relieved that I wouldn’t have to fight one of the nice girls I had met over the Medjool dates and cheese for a skirt. Once my friend arrived, we nudged our way to the front while Suzanne went over the rules. If we thought something might look good on another, share that with your new girlfriend. Promise not to sell anything on eBay. Everything left over will be donated to a women’s charity. And take as much as you like. With the curtains drawn, we were off.
Due to many years of thrifting, my friend and I did the big sweep for those articles that initially caught our eyes and looked to be our size. Then we hit the makeshift dressing room to try it all on. When we finished, I had fifteen new items and my friend had ten, with half of our new piles inherited from each other. “That happens a lot,” one of the volunteers smiled while pointing out a pair of Kenneth Cole shoes that I had almost missed. I’d love to say that the scene got all Jerry Springer, with hair hitting the bamboo floors and blood staining some wrinkled blouses, but there was nothing left to pick up by the time we finished except for a few plastic hangers and closet remnants to donate. After forty minutes, I had the same rush that I loved from shopping, but I was all the richer. We were one of the last duos to walk out, my friend in a new hat and me with one of her shirts on my back. We laughed that we could have done this at home, but then we wouldn’t have had the experience of getting out of the house to meet new women, and get pampered, and donate what was frivolous in our own closets to women whose closets deserved it more. And I also wouldn’t have had the new sweater that I took home and cut off the collar to make it more me, or the cute Kenneth Coles that I wore on Friday––the outfit three separate co-workers admired and asked, “Where did you get that?” and I could smile, telling them about my evening’s scores, and how I have no time to shop, but all the time in the world to swap.
Photo of the author and her friend loaded up with their finds, courtesy of Gene Kosoy Photography.