If you think of clothes swapping as something more likely to take place in your living room than the high street, Marks & Spencer has news for you – it has brought the trend into its Marble Arch store in London for a pop-up taking place this Thursday and Friday. Or a version of it, at least. The Shwop Shop, as it is called, is a collaboration with Oxfam, and features clothes donated from celebrities ranging from Alexa Chung to Tinie Tempah. In a sort of temporary Oxfam store transported to the ground floor between the Limited and Autograph ranges, you can pick up Gary Barlow’s dinner jacket for £120, for example, or Pixie Geldof’s vintage frock for £60.
While not strictly swapping, you do have to bring an old item in for even a chance to buy these celebrity castoffs. All overseen by Joanna Lumley, who will be manning the tills, it’s a sign that the word-of-mouth trend has hit the mainstream. "We all have those pieces we don’t wear any more," she says in her dulcet tones. "This is a way to give them a new life."
For M&S, in the news for not such auspicious reasons recently, it’s part of a wider positive story – the store has long been progressive when it comes to ethical and environmental issues. Its Plan A initiative was launched in 2007 to increase sustainability and this is the latest add-on. "It’s trying to make it exciting but also something we do every day," says Steve Sharp, executive director of marketing.
In the background of the pop-up shop is work that has been going on for a while. Shwopping was originally started last year when the store announced customers could drop off donations for Oxfam in its branches. With 3m items donated so far, nearly £2m has been raised for Oxfam. Clothes donated either go on to be sold in the charity’s stores, are sent to projects in Senegal, or broken down into fibres – some of which even end up in new M&S sweaters and coats.
For Oxfam, it has been a lifeline. "In the recession, people aren’t having so many clear-outs," says Fee Gilfeather, the charity’s head of marketing for trading. "That has been felt across the charity retail sector, but this partnership with M&S has helped us buck the trend."
Of course, right now, clothes swapping works well for consumers, too. While Shwopping is perhaps the commercial conclusion of an idea, it’s part of a movement that has grown throughout the past decade – the Guardian first reported on it in 2007 – and it makes even more sense in a recession. Jo Walters, who started running the clothes swapping group Mrs Bears in 2010, makes a direct connection. "It began when my income dropped as a freelance designer," she says. "With everyone feeling the pinch, who wouldn’t love a good rummage?"
Indeed. Here’s a way to get something without shelling out, with the feelgood factor thrown in. "I think people are getting wary of fast fashion and questioning the act of constantly buying new things from stores such as Primark," says Susie Lau, the fashion blogger behind Stylebubble, and contributor of a vintage green frock to the Shwop Shop. "This is definitely an alternative and affordable way of pumping new life into your wardrobe."
The positive environmental impact is also part of swapping’s success. With around 350,000 tonnes of clothes going to landfill every year, reusing them in some way increasingly feels like the right thing to, especially to a new generation brought up in the shadow of climate change. "We dreamed it up to give the thrill of retail therapy without the environmental impact," says Lucy Shea, founder of Swishing – now the UK’s biggest clothes-swapping event. "We want to make green behaviour fun." Shwopping certainly has the fun factor – along with the celebrity factor. Lumley praises the "dressing-up box" way of shopping. "It throws clothes together in unexpected ways," she says.
Shea is pleased to see that her message is now going further into the mainstream. "M&S is putting behaviour at the heart of change," says Shea, "and, as it has demonstrated with Plan A, where it goes, others will follow." Shea already sees more initiatives that involve some element of recycling on the high street. She points to outdoor specialist Patagonia’s partnership with eBay, and there’s also H&M’s sustainable range, fronted by Vanessa Paradis and available in March. "We have to make sustainability fashionable through the fashion industry," Shea says. Sharp, for one, sees his instore campaign going further. "If I’m honest, I’m slightly disappointed by 3m donations," he says. "We sell 400m garments in a year. The dream is to get 400m back."
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010