Donating clothes to the less fortunate is definitely more about the altruistic end goal (getting goods to those who truly need them), not the presentation (thoughtful shelf-scapes and pretty packaging). But First Corinthian Baptist Church (FCBC), located in Harlem, achieves both one day each year at its annual Clothing Mall event. The church gets transformed into a mall for a day, merchandized by item type, complete with volunteer “personal shoppers” and nice packaging (shopping bags, tissue paper, and such) for shoppers to cart home their finds. The cost of a trip to FCBC’s Clothing Mall for the local community members and residents of nearby homeless shelters? Nothing, of course. The personal shoppers came about last year, “to give the experience a special touch,” says senior pastor Mike Walrond, who’s been at FCBC for 11 years. Prior to the Clothing Mall’s inception in 2012, there was a woman who received all of the church’s clothing donations and would set up a table outside of the church almost daily. The donation table tradition discontinued after she passed away a few years ago. “It always bothered me to just have the clothing out on the street for people to rummage through; there was no dignity in that,” Pastor Walrond recalls. And so, the "Mall" was born: “We wanted to really honor those in need of help, so they don’t feel like people are throwing hand-me-downs or old rags at them,” Walrond says. “There’s no reason they shouldn’t be treated with the same dignity as someone else who can go shopping at a high-end store.” Donations start pouring in roughly six weeks before the event, and last year, there were over 5,000 pieces to “shop.”
This was personal shopper Hannah Hunt’s third year being involved. “We’ve always tried to make the mall a really, really nice experience. It feels like they’re actually going to a high-end department store; we use pretty shopping bags with ribbons and stickers,” Hunt told Refinery29. “It’s supposed to feel like they’re at Saks, or Bloomingdales. They might not have had a shopping experience in a long time.” Hunt works in the fashion industry — she’s about to launch her own line — and has worked in sales, in addition to being a supplier to designers. The personal shopper role at her church’s big annual outpouring came about organically: “Someone needed a pair of shoes, she couldn’t find any, and I was like, ‘I’m gonna find you some shoes, girl!’ and I searched around until I found the right pair. I get a thrill out of putting looks together.” Through Hunt’s contacts in the garment industry, the church was lent tons of clothing racks to use for the sale, which included many never-worn pieces still bearing their tags. While sifting through this year’s deluge of donations, Hunt says she saw brand-new winter jackets — a direct response to a recent sermon given by Pastor Walrond, encouraging congregants to buy a coat for someone less fortunate. “I want people to get in the habit of making a sacrifice — of actually purchasing clothes they’ll be giving away, versus just donating used stuff,” Pastor Walrond explains. One person even donated six or seven heavy-duty coats in a men’s size XXL, Hunt says.
The Clothing Mall’s haul this year spanned the gamut from those outerwear essentials to “sparkly designer heels with rhinestones” to Michael Kors bags. “We’ve got quite a few pieces of high-end clothing — folks did not let us down at all,” Hunt says. “Even though [the shoppers are] in need of help, it’s good to see these people feel proud as they’re coming in to get clothing,” Pastor Walrond says. A particularly memorable moment for him was the sight of an entire family — four kids along with their parents — looking “so happy and so touched” while shopping. “People are just so completely gracious and thankful; you can see it on their faces. They start lining up early in the morning to come in,” Hunt says. “You absolutely see people crying; I cry! I try not to, but I do.”