Welcome to this monthly column within our broader sustainability section which focuses on what fashion retail is doing to address the issues in its industry.
Location: Hornsey High Street, London N8
Clothes swapping could, in theory, be the answer to people’s desire for a constantly changing wardrobe. A desire which is currently filled by the unsustainable fast fashion industry. But the big roving clothes swapping events can be chaotic affairs. A new shop in North London aims to make the whole process a more much pleasurable one.
“I was doing sustainable way before it was called that. We did what we did because we didn’t have any money” recalls Georgia Robinson in her small unit on Hornsey High Street near Crouch End. Robinson is something of a fashion veteran having manufactured clothes for her business running in Camden Market in the 1980s.
“We made stuff from scraps, cut up jeans, leggings with the legs cut off turned the other way to become tops. We used to do fashion shows in the nightclubs – it was crazy,” she says.
After Robinson went to university in London to complete a Fine Art degree she stayed on as a student officer and it was there that she first tried to launch a swap shop for the students. But the idea did not catch on.
“It didn’t work in an institution like that where people personally knew the swappers whose clothes they were wearing” she explains, “but I come from a family of 10 and we had always swapped clothes between us. And what’s old to me is new to my sister so I just knew it could work in the right space”.
After participating in a council-run entrepreneur’s scheme she involved a local church and persuaded them to let her hold a clothes swapping event for three months over the summer of 2019 paying £80 a month for the venue.
After that successful but non-profitable trial she realised that the swapping structure if tweaked could form the basis of a viable business and took a three-year lease on the London unit. Handily placed for several very large-scale residential developments currently under construction in Haringey, Robinson will be hoping that the young professionals who will be moving into the neighbourhood over the next few years will be exactly the kind of eco-conscious consumers she needs.
So how does it work? ComeSwapAndShop runs on two separate levels. The first is a subscription model whereby users can pay £9.99 for a monthly VIP package, which allows them to swap all clothes, shoes and bags or a standard package that excludes the shoes and bags. Once membership is taken out people can start swapping immediately and will receive colour coded tokens for each item that Robinson takes on. They can then look for any items that same colour code and take it. Five items per day can be brought in.
According to Robinson a lot of people come in to see what the concept is: “They have a look, I can see they are seeing things they like and then they realise that they can swap for it if they take out a membership and the penny drops. They come back a couple of days later with things to swap and take out a monthly membership”.
She was advised to lock people in to a three-month membership to guarantee income stream but decided against it ultimately. Users are reminded by text when renewal is due and most do renew every month.
She can drive demand through social media, especially Facebook, where she posts images of outfits put together from her current stock pushing new items with wearing suggestions which then alert members and prompt a visit. “I’ve got ladies who come in all the time” she says. “They are mostly from Crouch End, Muswell Hill, they are maybe 40-plus and they totally buy into the ethos”. She is adding around two members a day.
As part of her stance against fast fashion she does not accept clothes from certain labels such as Primark. “People try to cut off the labels but I always know” she claims. The most popular brands are Whistles, Reiss and Wallis but her main focus is that the clothes look well-made and have been looked after.
However, the shops also acts as a regular retailer – every item has a ‘buy it now’ price as well – and a number of items which Robinson has herself found are only buyable. “When I’ve been round a thrift shop or a house clearance, the person at the checkout will often tell me that they never noticed these pieces before” she explains, “but of course they were there all the time, it’s just that I can see clothes out of context. And I absolutely love a good rummage”. She also offers a free decluttering service with personal styling thrown in with the proviso that some of the decluttered items she takes for the shop.
Robinson however has yet more plans to tap into the sustainable market and lure shoppers back into the UK’s high street charity shops using ComeSwapAndShop as a community base. “I’m going to start Thrift Tours. We take a group of people out of town and they have a list of five charity shops they visit with a passport, which gets stamped to show they’ve been. And there is a theme – for example going to a funeral – and a budget and they have to find something in each thrift shop on that theme”. At the end of the day there is a show-and-tell and the winner of the best outfit receives a prize.
So a message for everyone who thinks that a high street full of charity shops is a dead retail space – Georgia Robinson is coming for you with a mission to change your mind. You have been warned!