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Budget-conscious fashionistas talk swap online

The beginning of a new year was to mark the end of closet clutter for Marci O'Connor.

The beginning of a new year was to mark the end of closet clutter for Marci O'Connor.

The Quebec-based mother of two made a resolution to declutter. Having gone through a range of sizes due to weight fluctuations, O'Connor decided to finally get rid of all the garments that no longer fit and were taking up precious real estate in her closet.

But she didn't toss her unwanted items — she took them to her Facebook page.

O'Connor posted photos and descriptions of various items including dresses worn to weddings, unworn shoes as well as pants, shirts and sweaters, offering friends a chance to take their pick and encouraging others seeking to clear out their unwanted pieces to follow suit.

"The first item was a black leather bag from Rudsak. I think that lasted 20 minutes," she recalled in an interview from Otterburn Park, Que., east of Montreal.

It wasn't long before word of the swap spread among other online users.

"I created a Facebook page just so we could contain it and set up a couple of guidelines and rules and then it exploded," said O'Connor. "I had people from many places throughout North America and even some Europeans who asked if they could join in."

As founder of Suzieswapper, O'Connor, 40, has established a dedicated space for women seeking to talk swap and exchange clothing for free. She estimates some 1,500 swaps have taken place since its launch last year.

Clothing swaps have long appealed to budget-conscious fashionistas seeking stylish new finds for little to no money. But online sites devoted to such trades are helping widen the availability and inventory of preloved goods.

O'Connor said there are currently more than 1,200 photos of clothing available through Suzieswapper.

Individuals can join the group and browse through the photos, leaving a comment under items of interest. After that, it's up to members to sort out the logistics concerning how the exchange will take place.

Outside of Montreal and Toronto, O'Connor said some of the biggest users of Suzieswapper are based south of the border in places like New York, Florida, Alabama and San Francisco.

"If you're going to send something out, chances are you're going to be receiving something too, so the shipping just cancels itself out."

O'Connor has received her fair share of goods as part of the swap, including a pair of Steve Madden boots and a dress she wore to a wedding. An A-line, camel-coloured corduroy skirt with embroidered flowers from Anthropologie is one of her favourites.

If swappers are in the same city, they typically opt to meet in person to exchange goods and save on shipping costs, O'Connor said. The connections established through the virtual swaps have helped foster and build an "unexpected community" with friendships formed offline, she said.

"You don't go into a consignment store and typically walk out having coffee with one of the girls you've met," said O'Connor, who writes a personal blog, Spaghetti and Spanx, and is a community manager for Wall Street Survivor, an online stock market simulation tool.

"I think that you get to hear the story about the clothing sometimes if you're interested, and again, that's just an added element that unexpectedly people seem to like to know about."

Once an item has been claimed it doesn't necessarily mean it's out of the exchange chain for good.

O'Connor recalled a friend who was going on a cruise and wanted a formal dress.Once she'd worn it, it was put back into the swap and snapped up by someone else.

"It just became this revolving holiday dress," O'Connor said. "It's fun to see things getting worn and then making their way back into the swap."

Sydney, Australia-based Emily Chesher is founder of Swapstyle.com, which allows members to exchange designer clothes.

Chesher wrote in an email to The Canadian Press they are starting to see an increase in members from Canada, and are set to promote the site to the country over the next 12 months. Canada accounts for 20 per cent of Styleswap.com's members, which number more than 50,000, with 60 per cent in the U.S. and the rest covering Australasia and Europe.

"I created the site to provide a global solution to the environmental waste created by the fashion industry and to help curb the huge amounts of money that is spent unnecessarily by women adding to credit card debt," Chesher wrote.

"I believe swapping via Swapstyle.com creates an environmentally and financially sound alternative that creates a win-win for the members and the planet."

Clothing exchange sites are also expanding into children's wear.

San Francisco-based thredUP, co-founded by Canadian Chris Homer, launched a kids' site in 2010. Arizona-based Baby Clothing Network, an online trading service for children's clothing, launched in January. At present, both thredUP and Baby Clothing Network are only available in the U.S.

Steve Tissenbaum, adjunct professor with the Ted Rogers School of Retail Management at Ryerson University in Toronto, said the emerging popularity of online clothing swaps is a reflection of how everything old is new again with the modern-day embrace of bartering. The economic downturn has also led to what he calls "consumerism by necessity."

Tissenbaum points to U.S. data from 2009 that found at the height of the recession, 90 per cent of U.S. households had reduced their spending. Among them, 45 per cent had done so out of necessity and 55 per cent of them were out of choice.

"What's happened through the recession is primarily mothers and dads have taken their children to the malls and gone shopping, and what they're seeing is that the parents are spending less and they're being more careful about what they're buying," Tissenbaum said.

"The children begin to develop these kinds of habits but at the same time they still want to get those things that are brand-recognized, but they have to be smarter about how they do it."

Tissenbaum said it's teens learning through their parents who are driving the new online market of consumerism.

"They still want to buy the brands, but now they're online and they get to control what they're looking for, and ultimately it brings them to these sites where they can exchange."

He points to his own 17-year-old daughter whom he describes as a "very smart shopper," perusing clearance racks and scouting finds at stores like Value Village while also buying and selling online.

While there will always be a group who will gravitate toward online swaps, Tissenbaum said from his perspective, the current phenomenon is a function of the recession. He said where online classified site Craigslist has been successful — and a method already adopted by several swap sites — is to localize them within communities when it comes to exchanges.

While she was able to declutter her closet and pick up some new finds in the process, O'Connor said she's been happy to help others looking to shake up their wardrobes without having to stress about finances.

"When I started the swap and people started using it, the feedback I got was they found a way to feel pretty or to go outside of their comfort level or to go outside of their budget and still do something for themselves," she said.

"For me, personally, that was as gratifying as the Anthropologie skirt."

Baby Clothing Network: www.babyclothing.net

Suzieswapper: http://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=231728652987&v=wall

Swapstyle: www.swapstyle.com

thredUP: www.thredup.com

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