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Published: Friday, 5/22/2009

Economy turns clothing shoppers into swappers


NEW YORK - The turtleneck from designer Marc Jacobs costs hundreds of dollars at Neiman Marcus or Saks Fifth Avenue. But at one Brooklyn bar, the charcoal-gray sweater was free for the taking - along with jeans, belts, and shoes.

The neighborhood watering hole called Sycamore never will be mistaken for a department store, but for some recession-battered consumers, it's serving a similar purpose. It's a chance to update their wardrobes and capture the adventure of shopping without having to open their wallets.

"It's guilt-free shopping," said Shannon McDowell, a bartender and swapper.

Friends have been trading among themselves as long as parents have been handing down outgrown baby clothes. Now, with some help from the Internet, swaps among strangers are cropping up in bars, schools, garages, and churches across the United States.

Frances Wood chooses new-to-her clothing without spending a dime in an era of new frugality spurred by the recession. Frances Wood chooses new-to-her clothing without spending a dime in an era of new frugality spurred by the recession.

The rules are simple: you bring something before you take something, and money never changes hands.

Some swaps are formal affairs, where items are passed along and tried on. If more than one participant is interested, the group votes on whom it looks best. Others, like the one at the Sycamore, are more casual: Everyone just digs through piles for what they want. Leftovers are generally donated to charity.

The popularity comes as Americans from every tax bracket are cutting back on how much they spend at stores. Apparel sales declined 10.1 percent in the first three months of the year.

Swapping, it turns out, is one substitute for shopping. And it's not just clothes. People are trading DVDs, books, toys, and even house plants and garden seeds.

At a swap organized by the Brooklyn Clothing Exchange, Frances Wood likened the experience to a treasure hunt. She found and took home items she'd never buy at a store.

"When you are not paying for something, you are a little more free," said Ms. Wood, the administrator of a nonprofit.

Bars can provide a practical and social setting for clothing swaps. As patrons sipped beer and Mint Juleps at Sycamore, the Brooklyn bar that also doubles as a flower shop during the day, some browsed clothes draped on seats and hung over walls. Lacking a fitting room, women pulled skirts over pants and cardigans over T-shirts in front of a full-length mirror.

Kym O'Neill, a mother of two who brought a few expensive items to the Brooklyn swap, said it was "time to get rid of old things." She is going through a divorce.

One particular dress, by Vena Cava that she wore only once, to a wedding, was one such item. She got it after having her second child, and has lost weight since.

The dress fit Ms. McDowell, the bartender, perfectly. In turn, Ms. O'Neill ended up with the turtleneck.

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