When I began thrifting and scrounging my way to some semblance of personal style, there was still something shameful about admitting that your clothes had a past, unknowable-to-you life. I’ve spent a decade and a half covering fashion (I’m Elle’s fashion features director now), and over that time I’ve seen the industry awakening to sustainability and reuse. Luxury brands that once destroyed and even burned unsold merchandise are now thinking of ways to reinvent it. Salvage and resale have become antidotes to the conveyor belt of fast fashion, wherein clothing behemoths like Shein offer thousands of new styles every week, social media users display their latest avalanche of purchases in “haul videos” and Instagram influencers post themselves in new outfits multiple times a day. When some have so little and others are drowning in a surfeit of options, the flaunting of abundance — so long the central driver of our screen-based existence — starts to feel like bad manners.
Making new things out of others’ castoffs is something small-town America has done for decades, in a sort of municipal precursor to Freecycle or Buy Nothing groups. The importance of sharing resources became increasingly clear as the Covid-19 pandemic raged. For more and more people, getting free stuff from neighbors went from being a quirk, or a fun excuse for a day’s outing, to being a necessary form of mutual aid.
Covid taught its lessons about mutual aid, but of course it also challenged every community that tried to live by them, and it’s not yet clear what any of us are taking away from the last two years. During the pandemic, the Swap Shop closed, leaving the area without its social escape valve. When it reopened last summer, it might as well have been a hot new downtown club. Indeed, my first trip back felt like somewhat of a velvet-rope experience — the town had begun more vigorously enforcing its $100 access permit. I went with a friend, and to my relief, the place was still a dump — full of water-damaged paperbacks on past-life regression, back issues of defunct magazines, baby shoes often worn. We helped a family lug several boxes marked “garage” into the Swap Shop, and our reward was taking the first run at their contents. I walked away with a bracelet and necklace that must have belonged to a kooky aunt. The bracelet had split in two, but I figured that with a little superglue it could be restored to its midcentury splendor.
The social slippage that has led the world to become a macrocosm of the Swap Shop — so many of us free-diving for usable ephemera, pooling our limited resources with one another — is not something to celebrate. The division between the haves and the have-nots seems more sharply drawn every day, and the fact that the former can bestow a designer item on the latter when they tire of it is hardly a balm, especially when even that slight gesture is available only to those have-nots who have enough to pay the price of admission. But still, there are small joys to be snatched in those moments of coming together, a vision of something better amid the refuse.
Véronique Hyland is the fashion features director of Elle. Her debut essay collection is “Dress Code: Unlocking Fashion From the New Look to Millennial Pink” (HarperCollins, 2022).