Growing kids, shrinking footprints: The Shwap Club trades in clothes for outgrown kids

Members of the Shwap Club like that the thrift store reduces their ecological footprint and say the trade gives “two chances at a garment”.

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Until she became a mother herself, Annette Nguyen didn’t realize how quickly children shed their clothes – or how pointless it is to throw away barely worn clothes.

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The Montreal entrepreneur had wanted for some time to open a thrift store for children, to bet on the shwap club business model it launched in 2018 in St-Henri, then complemented by a Mile Ex location. $18, bring up-to-date, undamaged clothing to redeem: they receive credits for items accepted by the Shwap Club team and, in turn, use those credits as currency for other items.

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When Nguyen’s daughter was born, that sealed the deal.

When Marine Justice Carella was three months old, Nguyen, 35, signed a lease on a former chocolate factory on the events Wellington Street in Verdun. She furnished the space inexpensively — she stenciled the floor herself and her husband installed a conveyor of dry-cleaning clothes she found for $250 on Facebook Marketplace — and opened Le Small Shwap Club at the end of September. It went really well, she said.

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Because Le Petit Shwap Club is a showcase, it works a little differently from the St-Henri and Mile Ex exchanges. It is open to everyone, for one person, with no entry fees or membership requirements. Members of the public pay $8 per article. Shwap Club members pay $3 per item – as long as they bring an item of clothing to redeem for that item. And they can trade items and accumulate credits, which they can use at any of the three locations. Non-members cannot.

Shwap club member Julie Hébert shopped at the Wellington Street boutique the other day with her five-month-old son, Gabriel Hébert, loves how shwap reduces her ecological footprint. Knowing that your clothes are being repurposed is like “giving a piece of clothing two chances,” she said.

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“With children, I think it’s even more appropriate, because they outgrow their clothes so quickly,” she said. Hébert also likes that the Shwap Club is “a conversation starter,” as she puts it – a way to meet people and make friends.

Catherine Menard visited the Petit Shwap Club twice last week with her son Alessandro Chiaravalloti.
Catherine Menard visited the Petit Shwap Club twice last week with her son Alessandro Chiaravalloti. Photo by Pierre Obendrauf /Montreal Gazette

Catherine Menard, grazing with her six-month-old son, Alessandro Chiaravalloti, is not a member of the Shwap Club but is a regular at the Petit Shwap Club. It was his second visit of the week.

“I always find something here. I like the price – $8 for anything – and I like the variety,” said Menard, who found brands such as Petit Bateau, Souris mini and Verbaudet.

Nguyen, a law graduate from the University of Montreal, has spent nearly a decade in the business world and was working as a lawyer when she started the Shwap Club. But with the birth of her daughter, she was ready for more challenges. Quitting corporate life was “the best thing that ever happened to me,” she said.

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Researching the market before launching the Shwap Club, Nguyen found only one location with the type of operation she envisioned – in Madison, Wis. Today, she knows models like hers on the South Shore of Montreal and in Sherbrooke, and during a recent trip to France, she found several clothing purses, including one held by a former employee.

To get started, “you need a lease, time, and a few items,” Nguyen said. To be successful, “you really need momentum; you have to recruit members all the time. You work on volume: it’s not that easy.

His Shwap club had over 1,000 members before the COVID-19[feminine] the pandemic was declared in early 2020; with the pandemic, that number has dropped to 700.

Customers are mostly between the ages of 25 and 35, mostly young professionals and new moms or moms-to-be who love brands like Aritzia, Banana Republic, Gap and Zara.

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“We don’t want to do strictly high end,” Nguyen said.

Turnover is also key: items are labeled with a bar of a certain color as they arrive; after five weeks, items with bars of that color are removed and donated to organizations helping women in need.

To be successful, “you really need momentum;  you have to recruit members all the time.  You work on volume,” says Annette Nguyen, owner of the Petit Shwap Club in Verdun.
To be successful, “you really need momentum; you have to recruit members all the time. You work on volume,” says Annette Nguyen, owner of the Petit Shwap Club in Verdun. Photo by Pierre Obendrauf /Montreal Gazette

All types of clothing are accepted at Shwap Club, although Nguyen said she would like to wear more larger sizes and more flats than she currently does. The St-Henri and Mile Ex stores primarily accept women’s clothing, but also accept items like Levi’s jeans and Converse sneakers, which can be worn by either women or men. Home decor items including mirrors and vases are also accepted, although they are only stocked at the Mile Ex location.

Nguyen advises customers to bring the contents of a reusable shopping bag and be prepared to accept no more than seven or eight items. When an item is refused, it’s mainly because of its condition – it may be stained with deodorant or food, for example, or out of date – or because it does not fit.

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“Pencil skirts and office blazers are just not relevant to our community,” she said. “We have nothing against them: it’s just that there is no demand for them at the moment.”

Nguyen or a member of his team of eight employees explains why an item is rejected. “It’s tricky: women have this relationship with their clothes” and diplomacy is important, she says.

“I hire based on the level of kindness.”

After all, his business “is driven by a sense of community and belonging. It’s very friendly and inclusive. I know the first name of two-thirds of the members, I know where they go on vacation and I know the name of their dog.

IN ONE LOOK

The Little Shwap Club, 5025, rue Wellington in Verdun, is open from Thursday to Saturday. 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Sun.-Tuesday noon to 5 p.m. Closed on Wednesdays. Find the addresses and opening hours of the St-Henri and Mile Ex branches on shwapclub.com.

[email protected]

  1. Wellington Street in Verdun was named the coolest street in the world by Time Out magazine.  He is seen on Thursday, August 25, 2022.

    Wellington St. is the coolest street in the world, according to Time Out

  2. Angus Tasker, left, and Beau Kavanagh of Kavanagh Auctions call themselves

    Secondhand Affection: How to Give the Best Gifts While Saving the Earth

  3. Strange lamp, vintage shopping bag and kitsch kitchen utensils are the spoils of an addictive thrift shop.

    Are you ready for a state-of-the-art treasure hunt?

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