Recycled Fashion

(Anna Fixsen)

Adaeze Okorafor graduated from UIC with a degree in Bio-Engineering and a specialization in Prosthetics in 2010. She is now the founder of Dash Me–a Chicago-based company that hosts regular clothing swaps in the city. She explains that “after a few years of soul-searching, my interests shifted.” Her interest stems from her own excursions across the city: “I would go to Plato’s Closet and various consignment shops to drop off unwanted clothing and the idea came to me to develop a process where individuals could swap their items with each other–right then and there.”

Consignment shops like Plato’s Closet offer store credit and sometimes cash for unwanted clothing, accessories, shoes, and the like. However, customers often forget about store credit or can’t find the time to go back to redeem it. Okorafor notes that the immediacy of the exchange is lost.

Her company, Dash Me, takes its name from a West-African slang term meaning “give me” that is used to express one’s desire to receive an object. It is often used as a term of endearment between people when exchanging attractive or fanciful objects. Through Dash Me’s clothing swaps, she hopes to create a more immediate, gratifying, and social shopping experience.  This process of exchanging unwanted items is part of a growing interest in recycled fashion. Shoppers are becoming more aware of the unique path each garment follows–from maker to producer to buyer to supplier to consumer. Okorafor says, “while there are a few other local businesses in Chicago selling recycled fashion, it’s definitely a new trend.”

Dash Me held its first clothing swap at the University of Chicago this past winter, offering university and community members a chance to try out this alternative transaction. Okorafor partnered with Alexandria Batdorf, a fourth-year at the university involved with UChicago Hype, to organize the event in Ida Noyes Hall on a Saturday afternoon. While a Facebook invite detailed how the swap would work, most first-timers appeared somewhat confused though eager to learn as they arrived at the event.

Shoppers brought items from their closet (most of which they hadn’t worn in months), lugging them through the door in shopping bags. A guest handed her bag to a volunteer who checked her in, but told her she was to wait on the side until her ticket was ready. Five minutes later, her ticket was delivered, revealing how much her contribution was worth–she could swap her unwanted clothes for up to nine items. While one could certainly imagine attendees strategizing and calculating, the ferocity with which guests were rushing around the room to make their way to the hanging racks was surprising. The fervor was accompanied by Okorafor’s personal playlist of only the best Rihanna and Beyonce tracks, pumping up the fashionistas with fast-paced beats.

Another girl sorted through a stack of shirts trying to find something that she loved and that fit her well–a challenge, since the clothes were piled by styles and not size.  Shoppers seemed to look immediately for correct sizing over anything else. This strategy worked for two girls in the back who were laughing about how they were jealous of each other for “stealing” one another’s unwanted clothes. Of course, this wasn’t stealing–they had just exchanged their items. But it was still easy to feel a sensation of jealousy, when one watched another try on their unwanted items.

A few shoppers questioned the cleanliness of items at the swap, but as Okorafor says, “you never really know the path an item takes to get to you.” It’s easy to say something in a department store is cleaner than an item picked up at a swap, but this is not always the case: “it could very well be that an item in a department store never went through a sanitary inspection before being placed on a rack in a store.”

Racks filled with sheer blouses, nylon shirts, corduroy blazers, and denim jackets were slowly picked away. The tabletops in the center, which were once covered with pants, belts, and purses, were now visible, their barrenness indicating the many satiated swappers milling about.

This past weekend, Okorafor and Hype teamed up again to host a swap, but this time in the UofC’s McCormick Lounge. At this second event, there were more tables and racks set up for clothes, a wider variety of items (including jewelry), a longer swapping period, more shoppers from the community, a bigger team of volunteers , a photographer, and even some surprise wine.

The event garnered enough attention that there were, in fact,  too many items for the hanging racks, so volunteers filled several suitcases with clothes and placed them around the room. The overall mood was upbeat, but even more friendly this time around. Shoppers exchanged stories, tried on clothes for each other, and shared style advice. A girl from the North Side mentioned that she and a friend came down to Hyde Park for the swap just to have a “girls day.” Okorafor kept on her feet during the entire event, helping shoppers with any style or swap questions they had and directing her volunteers. “I’m lucky that some of my volunteers are my best friends,” she said. “They’ve been really supportive of these swaps.”

Every clothing swap is a learning experience for Okorafor. “I continually refine the process so that it’s more enjoyable and structured for shoppers.” The success of her swaps lies in their ability to get people moving, talking with each other, and having a good time. Okorafor hopes to also hold a mens-only swap in the near future. While there’s a tendency to associate an interest in clothing with women, Okorafor says this is definitely not the case: “Men–just like women–have plenty of unwanted items lying around in their closets.”

Okorafor certainly knows how to dress the part–at one event she donned a fedora-like hat with gold medallion earrings, while at another she wore a vintage floral top with a ballerina bun. But it’s important to recognize Dash Me did not emerge out of her interest in fashion; the company is much more about the practice of conscious consumerism. As Dash Me’s website notes, “Americans throw away 68lbs of clothing and textiles per person every year. With over 300 million people in the US, that adds up to over 10 million tons of waste.”

Okorafor also hosts an online vintage site in addition to her regular clothing swaps. “I go to stores and pick up pieces that I think are unique and sell them online.” Her mission is to promote recycled fashion through classic vintage styles. While she’s not really sure what the future holds for Dash Me, she says, “I’m definitely enjoying the process of figuring things out.”