Islington’s O2 Academy is usually packed with concertgoers but today it’s filled with clothing racks weighed down by colourful, eye-catching outfits. On the stage are two squishy, oversized sofas on which sit fashion insiders chatting about everything from sustainability to size inclusivity. As they talk, a small but lively crowd rifles through the racks. No money changes hands; instead, everyone has arrived with something from their own wardrobe to give away.
This is The Big Swish, the latest in a series of clothes swap events organised by Betsey’s Closet Swap Shop. It’s a small but impactful initiative dedicated to fighting fast fashion, encouraging sustainable consumption and – most importantly – bringing a sense of community to secondhand clothes shopping. Part of a wider global influx of 'swishing' initiatives, it offers a more personal take on sustainability.
Clodagh Kelly hosted her first swishing event in Dublin, back in 2012. What started as a low-key house party between friends soon snowballed into Swapsies, a fully fledged social movement which now hosts regular events and promotes waste reduction in the fashion industry.
Naturally, Kelly has racked up some handy tips over the years. "If you’re doing a public swap, you will always need more help to set up than you think," she advises. "It’s important that these are clothes you would feel comfortable lending your friend, so make sure there’s a good standard and that everything is clean. How many clothes is always a question, too. I would recommend that if you bring five items, you take five items. We had a check-in desk for clothes as well, so that we could quality-check everything." This might sound daunting but local waste authorities are often happy to help.
As for swap shops between friends? "There tends to be more clothes than people can handle, so we bring 'grab bags' to put new outfits into!" Kelly also suggests theming events and bringing snacks and refreshments to get guests in the mood to laugh and experiment with their styling choices. "It really is lots of fun but the main takeaway is ultimately that we should be diverting clothes away from landfill – so be sure that anything leftover goes to charity shops."
Beyond the obvious sustainability bonus, swaps like these can be vital for trans and non-binary people. "Especially if you’re working class and poor, we often don’t have easy access to gender-affirming clothing," says Luna Morgana, a coordinator of social support group, Non-Binary Leeds. "Swapping isn’t limited to clothes in the trans community, either – it extends to the swapping and lending of binders, packers and other transition-related items. This is even more important in the north, as we have far fewer resources and funding." Morgana points to other inclusive events like the Leeds Community Clothes Exchange, and advises potential attendees to contact hosts about any accessibility needs. "Many will be more than happy to facilitate access to sustainable clothing for those who need it."
These events also offer respite from the occasionally hostile world of retail. "Clothing swaps provide an inclusive haven, free from gendered clothing sections, pushy sales assistants and awkward changing room stories," says Santi, founder of London-based G(end)er Swap. Horror stories of shop-floor transphobia aren’t exactly rare, and these events are a much-needed alternative. "You can find new clothes, new friends, more resources and leave feeling really affirmed," continues Santi. "That’s something that retail spaces rarely offer to our community."
However, there are limitations. Swishing events often aren’t wheelchair accessible and, as tends to be the case across 'sustainable fashion' more generally, size inclusivity is frequently lacking.
Freelance writer Bethany Fulton remembers feeling embarrassed at the first clothing swap she attended. "As a UK size 16, I’m on the border of being considered plus size," she tells me, "but I don’t usually have any issues finding clothes that fit me while shopping." This wasn’t the case at the invitation-only event, where she was the only person larger than a size 12. "The clothes I brought lingered unchosen on their designated rail, meanwhile I was left to explain to my innocently clueless friends why I hadn’t found anything new to take home. I felt ashamed of my body, and it was a long time before I plucked up the courage to attend another."
Fulton had a more positive experience at her second swap – but she took a few precautions. "It was open invitation but with a few people invited, and I knew that at least one size 16/18 person was attending," she explains. This time, she stumbled upon the coat of her dreams and a dress she plans to wear soon. "I didn’t stick out like a sore thumb, and I was actually able to participate!"
Another perk of clothes swapping is getting to see your old outfits through a new lens. Blogger Jo Threlfall has been inspired by her friends’ takes on her wardrobe staples. "It’s made me see how even basic items can look amazing with the right accessories, jacket or bag," she says. She also swaps regularly with her boyfriend, styling up his vintage jumpers, flannel shirts and denim jackets. It’s an approach she encourages, exploring it frequently on her blog.
Even the fashion industry more generally is warming up to secondhand clothing, once denigrated and looked down on. "Personal stylists have an important role to play in helping people shift those attitudes," explains Roberta Lee, better known as the Sustainable Stylist.
She reiterates that these swaps shouldn’t just be seen as a last resort for cash-strapped shoppers – although they’re invaluable in that respect, too. "There’s a shift in consumer consciousness, and we’re waking up to the fact that we have enough clothes already, so swapping isn’t so taboo anymore." In fact, she cites industry reports which indicate that the "preloved market has grown, and is set to overtake the fast fashion market by 2029."
None of this should come as a surprise. Economic hardship and the climate crisis have compounded to make endless consumption feel not only unethical but impossible; research repeatedly shows that consumers gravitate towards experiences rather than straightforward transactions. This is where the community element of swishing comes in: you’re buying something with a story behind it and meeting like-minded thrifters along the way. Of course, there’s work to be done to ensure size inclusivity and accessibility across the board. But considering you can save some cash, try on clothes in a welcoming environment and refresh your wardrobe, it’s not hard to understand the soaring popularity of swishing.