Recession-battered consumers swap swanky threads as each dollar becomes more precious.
The turtleneck from designer Marc Jacobs costs hundreds of dollars at Neiman Marcus or Saks Fifth Avenue. But at one Brooklyn bar, the charcoal-gray sweater was free for the taking — along with jeans, belts and shoes.
The neighborhood watering hole called Sycamore will never be mistaken for a department store, but for some recession-battered consumers, it's serving a similar purpose. It's a chance to update their wardrobes and capture the adventure of shopping without having to open their wallets.
"It's guilt-free shopping," said Shannon McDowell, a bartender and swapper.
Friends have been trading among themselves as long as parents have been handing down outgrown baby clothes. Now, with some help from the Internet, swaps among strangers are cropping up in bars, schools, garages and churches across the United States.
The rules are simple: you bring something before you take something, and money never changes hands.
Some swaps are formal affairs, where items are passed along and tried on. If more than one participant is interested, the group votes on whom it looks best. Others, like the one at the Sycamore, are more casual: Everyone just digs through piles for what they want. Leftovers are generally donated to charity.
The popularity comes as Americans from every tax bracket are cutting back how much they spend at stores. Apparel sales declined 10.1 percent in the first three months of the year. Impulse buying, which represents more than a quarter of the fashion business, "is just not there at all," said Marshal Cohen, chief industry analyst at market researcher NPD Group.
Swapping, it turns out, is one substitute for shopping. And it's not just clothes. People are trading DVDs books, toys and even house plants and garden seeds.
"People are naturally resourceful," said Anneli Rufus, co-author of the book "The Scavengers' Manifesto," a guide to acquiring things for less. "At first, they are scared and shocked. But then, thank gosh, people are getting less ashamed in doing this."
Put another way, the newly frugal are turning to a "basic, premoney way of commerce," she said.
At a swap organized by the Brooklyn Clothing Exchange, Frances Wood likened the experience to a treasure hunt as she sorted through a pile of folded clothes with about two dozen other swappers on a rainy Sunday afternoon. The nonprofit administrator found and took home items she'd never buy at a store.
"When you are not paying for something, you are a little more free," she said.