Seven questions for Clothes Exchange founder Leslie Halperin
A little retail therapy can go a long way at the Burlington Clothes Exchange . The event, now in its 10th year, offers one-stop shopping for great garments and good karma. Every penny earned from the sale of clothing — gathered from individuals’ closets as well as area retailers — benefits a local nonprofit. Last year’s CE pulled in $70,000 for the King Street Center.
This year, in honor of its 10th anniversary, half the funds raised will go to Spectrum Youth & Family Services; the other half will be divided equally among previous recipients (see time line below). Since the first event — which took place in 42-year-old founder Leslie Halperin’s Burlington living room — the Clothes Exchange has raised nearly a quarter-million dollars for local organizations. This year’s event takes place over two nights, May 18 and 19, at the Sheraton Hotel & Conference Center.
Seven Days talked shop with Halperin in advance of the fashion frenzy.
SEVEN DAYS: How does the original vision compare with this week’s 10th-anniversary event?
LESLIE HALPERIN: I never imagined that a gathering of a few friends would turn into what the Clothes Exchange is today, but it happened. The scale has changed, absolutely, but the core is the same. It’s not really about the clothes. We had the first gathering in my living room right after 9/11. My friends and I wanted to do something to improve the lives of others who are suffering. Yes, we’ve gotten bigger. Yes, the clothes are better. And, yes, we raise more money than ever. But the essence is the same.
The Clothes Exchange is a fundraiser that doesn’t feel like one. I really feel that being able to use your power as a consumer to support causes you care about really resonates with people in this community. It is the concept of reusing your waste and leveraging the value of our excess to help improve life for all. And that will never change.
SD: What happens when the doors open and the fun starts?
LH: The fun actually starts before the doors open. Some women tailgate with picnics. We serve King Street Lemonade and cookies for people waiting in line. This year, Stephen & Burns will be doing “instant makeovers” in the queue. We try to make being in line part of the experience.
Inside, the CE has a vibe, energy and excitement. You will be greeted by the team and get your cute complimentary tote bag. The CE is not a rummage sale. We make the shopping experience pleasurable. Everything is hung, folded, and sorted by type and size. The quality of clothes is exceptional. We have a dressing tent, courtesy of Vermont Tent Company, which serves as one huge dressing room. That’s where the party really happens.
There will be a lounge outside the dressing room, too. Café Barista Prima is setting up an Italian-style coffee bar — offering samples of coffee and chocolates. Barista Prima is doing Facebook promo, too. So, for every “like” they get, they are donating $1 to the Clothes Exchange, up to $2500. There’s also a cash bar. Folks from Seventh Generation are going to DJ the event and host a game in which the winner gets a year of cleaning supplies.
SD: How do you decide which clothing donations make the cut and how to price the ones that do?
LH: We don’t choose anything that has a stain — or any flaws, for that matter. Every find at the CE has to be something special. We price based on brand, desirability and condition. It’s an art, not a science. Say we get a pair of 7 for All Mankind jeans; they sell for over $100, but we’ll mark them for around $60. We need to price items to generate revenue, but keep them at a certain price to wind up in people’s bags.
SD: What are some of the brands and treasures you might find while shopping?
LH: Stuff for all sizes, from XS to XXL and maternity; formal wear; outerwear; and even a few wedding dresses this year. You can get socks, accessories, purses, men’s clothing, children’s clothing, too. The brands available include Burberry, Armani, Eileen Fisher, Cynthia Rowley, Zutano, Michael Kehoe, and on and on. Bertha Church has given us pajamas and undergarments. We always get an Isis donation, too, as well as stuff from Horny Toad. Sweet Lady Jane will have its own section. And this year, we have more than $64,000 worth of Marc Jacobs — donated right from the retailer. If you need help, we have a team of personal shoppers: a dozen über-fashionable women to assist in the hunt.
SD: How do you decide which nonprofit gets the profits?
LH: I’ve heard beneficiaries say that being selected for the Clothes Exchange is like having your city selected for the Olympics. We try to keep the application process simple. We don’t want to create additional hurdles and work for these nonprofits. We received nearly 20 applications this year, and our advisory-board members participate in the selection process. We were drawn to Spectrum. The population they serve is really hard. They need to be successful, and they are. They get results. The part of my job that is so humbling is that I get to affiliate myself with people doing really important work.
SD: Where is this event going? Do you teach other folks how to create and host a Clothes Exchange?
LH: I started to create an operations manual, business plans and licensing agreements, but my energy got pulled away and focused on sustaining the Burlington CE. We have real costs: insurance, rent, etc. As soon as this year’s event is over, I will go back to figuring out how it will work. My hope is that our “pop-up shops,” like the one we set up last year during the Art Hop that garnered $6000 in one weekend, will go toward sustaining the idea. Then all profits from the annual event will go to support our venture.
SD: What’s the secret to the success of the Burlington Clothes Exchange, other than you, of course?
LH: Generosity. I’m just the “asker.” I ask people for their time and money. Sometimes it’s hard to do, but what keeps me going and passionate is that, time after time, I am met with incredible generosity. Three years ago, I reached out for corporate partnerships, and we more than doubled what we made. Now we have more than 60 businesses that contribute everything from cash to cupcakes, public relations to printing.
The CE is an effective fundraising vehicle, and they want to be a part of it. The event offers so many ways for people to connect. This year we have 166 volunteers signed up, and recruiting them was almost effortless.
Three years ago I quit my job at Ben & Jerry’s to spend more time with my kids. And then I realized that running the Clothes Exchange almost became too much work for volunteers, so I made a decision and said I would find a way to move the CE from a grassroots effort to sustainable social enterprise. I love it. And I don’t regret for a minute the choice that I made.