Mohinga Talks: Making Old Clothes Great Again with Isca of Swap Up Yangon

We all have worn hand-me-downs at least once in our lives, haven’t we? Growing up, our parents let us wear hand-me-downs from our elder siblings and we had no problem with it (or maybe we didn’t have a chance to complain). 

During the socialist party regime, commodities and clothing were not plenty due to the closed door policy so it was pretty common to share clothes and wear hand-me-downs within families. As the country has opened bit by bit, marketers import goods that include cheap clothing from China and Thailand. Now that online shops are abundant, we purchase clothes even from the US and UK. Since then, wearing hand-me-downs is less popular and repeating outfits is something to avoid for social occasions.

One might wonder why wear old clothes when one can buy new ones with affordable price at our convenience. It is a fair point but we should acknowledge some impacts that new clothes and frequent purchase of clothes have on societies and environment. 

According to a research from McKinsey & Company, average consumer bought 60% more clothing in 2014 than in 2000 but kept each garment half as long. This is what fast fashion is about: retail companies launch new collections up to 20 times a year which consequently resulted in shortening the garments lifecycle. In other words, people purchase new clothes frequently because they are affordable but remove them for their closets after wearing only three to four times or when garments are no longer trendy. To produce 20 collections a year, one can imagine the amount of resources used for the mass production. National Geographic stated in a study that it takes 2,700 liters of water to make one cotton shirt, but the same amount of water is sufficient for one person to drink for two and a half year. So imagine all the t-shirts in stores and the amount of water being used to produce them. 

Worldwide, fashion enthusiasts are aware of these impacts so they either buy fewer or only buy sustainable clothing lines such as Reformation. For people like us in Yangon, what options do we have apart from not buying new clothes? 

Isca (L) with her team

Lucky for you, Mohinga Matters sat down with Isca, who has reinvented the idea of hand-me-down into a new concept called “Swap Up Yangon,” to learn about how we can be both trendy and responsible in the game of fashion.

MM: What is Swap Up about?

Isca: Myanmar is at a critical point; it can either do the same mistakes that western countries did or it can learn and avoid those mistakes. It’s up to Myanmar people. So Swap Up Yangon promotes fashion reuse and up cycling by helping people swap the pieces from the back corner of their closets for new and exciting finds. We really hope Myanmar people understand and appreciate slow fashion by swapping with us. 

MM: When and how did you start “Swap Up Yangon”? 

Isca: I have always been interested in conscious living, and since coming to Yangon I have worked in responsible product design. I am one of three founders of a new brand that sells sustainable options for conscious consumers – reusable and biodegradable living products, made to last products, low impact items.

Swap Up itself is born from the need to raise awareness of the impact of fast fashion in a tangible way. The founders of Makers Markets wanted to make it a good market (plastic free and promoting a lighter footprint), so just selling products wasn’t enough. They approached me to develop a solution so that people could reuse, recycle and re-love their clothes and that’s when Swap Up born. The recycling center where people can swap before they buy. 

MM: How does the swap system work?

Isca: First, we only accept garments that are decent (smell good, not worn out, good shape and condition). Then we grade them according to style, material, quality and brand. So when a swapper gives his/her piece of clothes, we check the quality first, and grade items with the number of stars. Gold stars are our measure of value. You take any item from Swap Up as long as you have enough stars. The more clothes you give to Swap Up, the more items from other people that you can take home. In order to pay our local staff, and cover some logistics fees, we charge a flat fee of 4,000 kyats per item. We want Swap Up to be self-sustaining and the swapping fee, we believe, is also affordable.

MM: So how do you manage clothes that were not swapped in past events?

Isca: (laughing) They are currently sitting in my living room, carefully packed in boxes! But these items will be brought to another swap up events to serve as more options for new swappers. 

MM: Were people interested in Swap Up? 

Isca: During our two times at Makers Market, we have swapped about 50 pieces of clothes and have collected more than 300 pieces of clothing, stored for next swap up. At the first swap up, we had lots of expats, but the number of Myanmar locals is now increasing, which is really exciting!

MM: Why do you think not many Myanmar people join the swap up?

Isca: In the West, many people are familiar with the concept of swapping clothes and thrifting but here, people mightstill think used items are “not good” so they are a bit hesitant to wear someone else’s clothes. 

Expat communities in Yangon already host swap-up parties when someone leaves the country and share clothes with their friends. I’ve seen some repats at those parties, swapping up garments. Nowadays, it is very fashionable to be minimalist so the idea of decluttering closets has become trendy.

Courtesy of Swap Up Yangon

MM: Traditionally, Myanmar people wear tailor-made garments. So are those garments counted as fast fashion?

Isca: Technically, no. But more crucial point here is the frequency. We should ask ourselves whether we actually need to tailor outfits three times a month. If we make new outfits very frequently, it is no different from H&M launching 36 collections a year. 

MM: So what is the next step for Swap Up Yangon?

Isca: We definitely want to grow. We have a lot of things we want to do such as swapping kids clothes which is on demand, as well as having our own space where people can come and swap up clothes whenever they want to. We would also like to approach businesses and host swapping parties to promote the fashion movement.  

For now, we will continue swapping at Makers Market once a month. The upcoming swap will be on February 17. 

MM: What else would you like to say to our readers?

Isca: First, declutter your closets and drop the items you no longer love. Second, do not be ashamed of wearing pre-loved garments. And finally, think twice before you buy something. 

Currently in Myanmar, while there are various organizations, both local and international, campaigning to promote reuse and recycle, as well as, reduction of plastic use, many of us sometimes forget about unnecessary garments we buy in the name of fashion. Starting from buying fewer clothes and swapping with others, we believe that everyone can be stylish and sustainable at the same time. 


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