Benefits abound at clothes swap parties

Shop your friends' used clothes and accessories, then donate what's left

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Swap shop

Glenview resident Sue Schwartz looks for approval from a friend while at a clothes swap on Friday January 27 in Glenview. Swaps are used perk up a wardrobe in these hard economic times, basically shopping for free in other peoples' closets. More than two dozen women gathered at Joy Cmeil's Glenview home to take part in the event. (Shaun Sartin, Chicago Tribune / January 27, 2012)

It was a Friday night and the party was just getting under way. Women were streaming in every few minutes loaded down with clothes, shoes, jewelry and purses that they'd tired of and wanted to swap for new stuff.

"You never know what's going to come through the door," said one of the partygoers, who'd arrived early to perch on a stool and eagle-eye the new arrivals and the clothes they brought to the wardrobe exchange.

I had heard about these parties and wanted to see for myself whether this would be a way to clean out my closet, get some new things and have a fun time in the process.

Yes. Yes. And oh, yes!

One more thing: You can feel good about it since cash and check donations are encouraged for the hostess's designated charity and the leftover clothes go to charity as well.

Everybody wins. And here's a nice bonus: cocktails, wine, cheese, M&Ms, very tasty pigs in blankets and homemade cookies. What's not to love?

Joy Cmiel attended a party like this years ago and decided to try it at her house. "I remember the very, very first one. It was a free-for-all. Women would walk out with bags of clothes — just giddy," says Cmiel's friend Carrie Okuno.

Now Okuno volunteers to help set up so she gets first dibs. "I got two pairs of shoes," she boasted. Turns out both of them belonged to hostess Cmiel.

While it's great to go home with a new coat or dress, "it's more fun when someone takes a piece of clothing you brought," says Cmiel.

I agree. I donated a flower print skirt because it never looked right on me. I felt short and stumpy the one time I wore it. But it was barely recognizable on Beth Kirk Malecki. At 5 feet 9 inches, she could totally carry it off. She took it home and I was thrilled.

Similarly, Kirk Malecki brought a dress to the party with the tags still on it. "It looks terrible on me," she said, but she was able to tell its new owner, "It looks adorable on you!"

Cmiel says there have never been any fights over especially great items although I sure was disappointed when I spotted Susan Loeb in a red Etcetera jacket she'd just acquired.

In this rotten economy, what a great way to save money. It was an especially fruitful stop for Kathleen Lynch Quillin, who had lost 90 pounds (diet and exercise, the old standby) and needed a complete new wardrobe and to unload her old one.

Quillin left the party with seven new-to-her sweaters, two tops, two skirts, a pair of jeans, a pair of slacks, a pair of shoes and a necklace.

To give you an idea of the mayhem and fun of the event, Kathy Irwin sat on the floor and took off her black leather boots so she could try on some donated black sandals. While she was examining the sandals in the mirror, two women wanted to try on her boots. Sorry, Irwin was not ready to part with them — yet.

Cmiel says she'll see clothing taken home at one party, come back as a donation the next.

"People who do the best in this are people who don't like to shop," says Cmiel. "They can ask questions. Other people can help them. Usually they have a hard time making decisions. … This is a great place for nonshoppers."

When she started hosting these parties, Cmiel says women felt guilty about taking home too many things, which is how she came up with the concept of accepting money for a charity. At first there was a suggested donation of $25 but she dropped that idea. "Now we get a lot bigger donations."

This year's party grossed $1,650 to help cover medical bills for Lauren Pokuta, her cousin's daughter gravely hurt in a car accident (http://www.staystrong4lauren.com). There were more than 250 items of clothing that nobody wanted (including quite a few losers from my own closet). The leftover clothes and accessories will go to a charity that sells them to support abused and homeless women.

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