On a recent Saturday in New York City’s Chelsea neighborhood, the gymnasium of a residential building was hopping with people — some local, some who had trekked in from other states — for a pop-up.
But they didn’t bring their wallets. At this event, which was filled with name-brand clothing, everything was free.
Movable racks displayed coats, suits, sweaters, shirts and skirts organized by size. Jewelry, watches and other accessories were arrayed on a long table; cowboy boots, high-heeled pumps and clogs sat neatly along a windowsill. Women added garments to the offerings and also riffled through, looking for treasures.
The Recession Swap is a regular event that Linda Alboher, 78, began holding in 2008. At that time, the country was reeling from the economic downturn and people were focused on saving money.
Alboher, a retired motelier, realized that she, and potentially some of her friends, could be sitting on a sartorial gold mine.
The swaps have continued as exposés have revealed the extreme waste in the fashion industry, and thrift stores have been swamped with donations because of the Marie Kondo effect.
“It just felt like, you look through your wardrobe, you have too many things, some have tags on them, they’re either too big or too small,” Alboher said. “Why not pass them along to friends, and see what those friends had in their closets?”
The first swap took place in Alboher’s apartment with 10 friends. The following year, her daughter Marci Alboher, a vice president at the nonprofit organization encore.org, brought along 10 of her friends. Over the years, it continued to grow, expanding into the event room and, last year, increasing to twice a year.
The Albohers have vast social networks that span generations. For the latest swap in late November, they e-mailed invitations to more than 100 people; 45 answered yes, and many brought friends, mentees, mothers, daughters and granddaughters, with newcomers encouraged to add their e-mail addresses to the list.
Some lived in the building; others schlepped in from Brooklyn, Harlem, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C. They ranged in age from 2 to 89. For many, the experience transcended mere acquisition.
“People are giving job advice and leads and relationship advice and setups,” said Marci Alboher, 53. “Women are passing along a treasured item to someone they just met 10 minutes ago — vintage bags, jewelry, fur coats — things that used to be passed on in a family. And they are feeling so overjoyed to see it on a woman they just met.”
There are a few swap traditions. “If someone brings a really special item, we encourage that person to go around the party and ‘shop it’ a bit, to suggest it to someone who looks around the right size,” Marci Alboher said.
“We try to get as many photos as possible of a giver and a taker together.”
Bringing clothes to swap is encouraged but not necessary. Some people bring a bottle of wine instead.
Feedback is key. Sitting around a table, tucking into Linda Alboher’s spread of deviled eggs, vegetarian chopped liver, chicken and citrus salads, and cakes and cookies, women critiqued the ensembles emerging from a makeshift shared dressing room. A common line: “Hey, that was mine! It looks so much better on you!”
Critiques also happened inside the dressing room, where instead of discarding items that didn’t fit, the women held them up to one another, playing matchmaker.
It was the fourth time for May Takahashi, 37, who designs costumes for music videos and short films. “I really look forward to bringing my clothes here,” she said. “I used to work in wardrobe, so I’ve picked up things through time.”
She said the swap is much better than dropping a bundle of clothes off at a thrift store.
“I like this better because you see the clothes make a connection with somebody, like it goes full circle,” she said.
Sometimes an item will reappear from one swap to the next, after the person who took it realizes later that it isn’t a good match.
It’s not unusual for someone to pounce on an item of clothing originally worn by someone a generation or two older or younger. Marci Alboher’s prize swap find, a short black dress from the 1950s with a white Peter Pan collar, came from a woman in her late 20s who had bought it at a vintage shop.
“One year, there were a few fur coats, and women in their 20s took these fur coats from women in their 70s,” she said.
Lindsey Pollak, 45, who lives on the Upper West Side and wrote “The Remix,” a book about the multigenerational workplace, said this was a perfect example of how different generations can collaborate.
“We’re all having fun, we all love the clothes. People always ask me about the differences between generations, and I always try to point out the similarities. And the problem is we never talk to each other, we never hang out together. And we all came together over a common interest and something we love, in this case, clothes. We transcended the generations, showing when you do something fun together, the differences get overlooked.”
Her daughter, Chloe Elizabeth Gotlib, 8, and two other girls, ages 7 and 5, pulled evening gowns over their heads, slid rhinestone bracelets past their elbows and hammed in front of the mirrors.
Jaclyn Bernstein, a building resident who declined to state her age (“I’m multigenerational”), picked up a silver mesh ring. “I think this is a Tiffany,” she said.
Yesenia Arias, 37, who lives in Manhattan and works as the building’s leasing manager, disagreed. “It looks like a knockoff,” she said, noting that Tiffany stamps its jewelry and this ring had no stamp.
By 3:30 p.m., the deviled eggs were almost gone and the crowd was thinning out. Marci Alboher strode by, holding up a bronze-colored sweater from the 1960s with a braided yarn neck.
“Everyone, I’m marketing this piece. Someone should take this sweater; this is a vintage sweater.”
Madeline Scrace, 24, an actress from Australia who lives in Brooklyn, called out: “Marci, we’re splitting the outfit.” She stood in a light olive suit jacket beside Elin Zurbrigg, 46, a nonprofit organization deputy director from Silver Spring, Md., who wore the matching pencil skirt.
Marci Alboher stopped short, the braided sweater still swinging on the hanger. “Someone needs to photograph that, please.”
Zurbrigg asked Scrace if she was sure she didn’t want the skirt, but Scrace shook her head. “It looks like sausage casing on me,” she said.
They posed for a photo. Bernstein, a corporate event producer, warned, “You can’t go out the same night together.”
At 4 p.m., the Albohers and several friends began carrying unclaimed hats, sweaters, bikinis, slacks, necklaces, boots, purses, and tank tops to a large donation bin destined for Housing Works, a local thrift shop that benefits people with AIDS and those who are homeless. A few building residents trickled in.
Carlo Gomez, 41, a theater usher in a jean jacket and a blue Mickey Mouse baseball cap, surveyed what remained. “I live up on the 16th floor; I didn’t know there was a swap thing going on. I wear women’s stuff, too, by the way.”
“Today he’s Carlo but tonight he’s Carla,” Bernstein said.
“It’s Layla, I go by Layla,” he said. He shook his head at the missed opportunity. “I have so much stuff. I work in a couple of sample sales in the city. I’ve got so many shoes, so many heels, so much sexy stuff.”
Marci Alboher quickly handed him her mother’s notebook. “Write your e-mail in here. You’ll get an invite next time.”