As I rummaged through piles of clothes on tables with fellow swappers, wine in hand and my New Seasons reusable shopping bag over my arm full to the brim of amazing finds, I saw a glimpse of red on the one table labeled “Coats”. I pulled at the vibrant color to discover it was a heavy, almost woolen material, revealing black buttons and accents. I attempted to contain my excitement as I realized it was a beautiful winter coat. Too many times I’ve caught glimpses of clothing that have disappointed my expectations, whether it’s been the result of not being my size, a horrendous stain, or some other non-repairable or ill-fitting, heart-breaking reality. My first instinct was to check the inner tag to see if it was my size. Thank heavens, it was. Before trying it on, I carefully examined it to ensure that this beautiful garment had not befallen to any of my previous concerns. Satisfied with the results, I slung the heavy, crimson coat over my arm, trying desperately to contain my continually rising excitement. I walked at a wrenchingly too slow pace to one of the few mirrors set up around the venue to see if the coat fit me properly. As I slipped the heavy coat over my arms and onto my shoulders and carefully fastened the buttons and sash, I knew it was the one. This was the find of all finds. This cemented my already clear understanding of the joy, fulfillment, and satisfaction of thrifting. This was the way thrifting and swapping were telling me,
“Here. Here’s a delightful reward for all of your diligence. Thank you for believing in us.”
I grew up thrifting. However, it was not by choice. Food stamps and second-hand clothing were staples of my family for years. Clothes that had been donated by local non-profits, or by family and friends were the only reality I had, and simple things like shopping at Goodwill was fairly rare, while shopping at Ross was a sparse luxury. It wasn’t until I had my first job that I was able to save up my own money to buy my own clothes. I started small by shopping often at Ross, craving to build up my wardrobe with new items I had picked out myself, happy to be rid of second-hand and hand-me-down clothes. When I wanted shoes or purses, I was obsessed with Payless. I did this for years, with graduating to Marshalls and different stores at the mall for low-priced shoes, purses, dresses, jewelry, skirts, and anything I could justify purchasing. Over the years, as my love for fashion deepened, I put my mind to getting a job in that beautifully enticing industry and was delighted to be hired at Nordstrom. Feeling the need of having to look the part, I did another rehaul in my wardrobe. Sophistication and higher-end brands than what I was used to purchasing became habits that I was all too proud of. I would never wear second-hand clothes again.
Fast-forward to just two short years ago. Now as an aspiring fashion designer eager to learn and find my passion and calling, I heard about a fashion show open to designers of all skill levels. Despite never having taken a sewing class in my life, I had created a handful of pieces, one of which walked the runway during my internship with Portland Fashion Week four years prior. So, I was eager to have another chance to explore the creativity brimming within me and to discover this new world of which I was becoming increasingly passionate about.
This particular fashion show was hosted by none other than Modify Style (then known as Modified Style Portland), and it was unlike any that I had heard of. The most intriguing aspect to me was learning that all of the designers had to work with donated fabric, regardless of skill level. In my process of signing up for the event, I discovered the day all the designers were to arrive together to pick through all of the donated fabric, there was to be another event co-hosted alongside it called The Sustainable Fashion Forum. I didn’t think much of it, but was fascinated enough to stay to listen to the panel of speakers at the event after I gathered my desired fabric for my creation. I had never heard of sustainable fashion before and wasn’t sure what to expect.
After all of the designers settled on our inspiring finds of donated fabric, buzzing with excitement of the creative ways we were to interpret them, we all sat down to listen to the panel of speakers discussing what it means to be a sustainable fashion designer.
The concepts and facts presented were so unlike any that I had heard of. When Kelly Raynor of Modify Style stood up to speak about the detrimental environmental and sociological impacts of the fashion industry, my world was changed. My eyes were completely opened and I couldn’t unlearn what I had just learned. She gave examples of how many gallons of water it takes to produce just one cotton t-shirt or one pair of jeans, and the gallons of pesticides used to grow cotton. She spoke of how textiles like polyester, which is petroleum-based, will take years and years, if ever, to break down when thrown away and dumped in a landfill. How piles of clothes beyond comprehension litter places of the world like Haiti, where the Western side of the planet discard our unwanted, last season’s clothes.
As I wrapped my mind around how not only my shopping habits, but my everyday living habits have an impact that is so incredibly larger than myself, and prompted by Kelly’s presentation, which you can watch for yourself below, I decided to make little changes to my habits in every area of my life. It started with fashion, obviously. I began making much more conscious decisions on what I was buying. In the other areas of my life, I began reducing my use of plastic, single-use items such as grocery bags and straws. I was aware of the plastic that was and is littering our planet, and I felt better knowing that I was doing something to help, how little or not my impact might be.
As a couple months passed, I decided that my biggest impact would be to give up buying new clothes, shoes, and other fashion items completely. The question had been haunting me: Why would I need to buy anything new when there are already so many clothes on the planet already? Rips can be mended, pants can be hemmed, shoes can be repaired. Also, as a designer, anything that I couldn’t find second-hand, I could make myself, which prompted my intense passion to become a designer who specializes in reinventing and repurposing textiles, and it’s a decision I don’t regret for a second.
Excited for my new-found passion and change of lifestyle, I started to go to every event that Modify Style put together, including all of their clothing swaps. I attended other clothing swaps as well, each time excited for my finds and ecstatic for the low-cost of a door fee and a bag of my own old clothes to donate for the cause. Typically, I’d follow up a successful venture at a clothing swap with a trip to a second-hand store like Goodwill, Crossroads, Buffalo Exchange, or Red Light. I couldn’t get enough. Not only was I making choices that I felt made even a small difference on something bigger than myself, I was getting great deals on amazing finds and connecting with like-minded people.
After swearing that I would never again wear second-hand or hand-me-down clothes, I’m more excited than ever to enjoy a roundup at a clothing swap or a trip to a thrift store to find other people’s discarded items and make them my treasures. Knowing with every single item I have decided to reclaim, that I am making a difference, no matter how small.
I hope my story has inspired you to either start or continue your thrifting journey, or prompted questions about how you can make a difference from your daily habits on the environment. One person might not be enough to spark a change, but with enough like-minded people implementing small changes, we can change the world.
Elizabeth Doran is a fashion student, freelancer, and entrepreneur obsessed with sharing her passion for fashion and sustainability in every area of her life.