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Clothing Auction Network: sustainable fashion with a fun twist

Where charity, sustainability and fashionably wonderful communities collide

Photo: Clothing Auction Network

Who could have known that wine, snacks and laughter could pair so well with secondhand clothing?

That's exactly what the Clothing Auction Network (CAN) is advocating. The vibrant community in Beijing encourages its participants to try on pre-loved clothes from their fellow auctioneers as they clink glasses, enjoy good food and, of course, battle it out when the auctions begin. And all this in the name of charity.

We spoke to CAN founder Rebecca Archer to learn more about the network and how we can get involved.

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What is the Clothing Auction Network and how did it begin?

The Clothing Auction Network is a large network of women across Beijing, and now the world, built on three foundational values: Sustainability, Charity and Community. We meet together regularly, between three to six events in Beijing each month in each other’s homes. There we share our unwanted but great quality clothes, with fabulous food, wine and company, and we auction them off and all proceeds go to charity.

Years ago, I went to a clothing auction put on by my cousins and their teenage friends. They all brought dessert, did this clothing auction and then they chose who they were going to give the money to. I was like...this is brilliant! What a simple concept and I saw how much the girls loved it. Even as teenagers, the girls had a lot of clothes, jewellery and so many things and the other girls were just so grateful. I loved it!

And it stuck in my head for a while, so I did the first one in Indonesia, where my family lived for a year. Then we went back to New Zealand for a year where I did two more clothing auctions.

Then five years ago here in Beijing, when I was new, some friends and I were discussing the concept of a ‘capsule wardrobe’. We decided we all needed a wardrobe clear out, and so I invited about 8 women to bring their clothes to my home along with a bunch of food and wine, and instead of swapping the clothes, we auctioned them off, starting from 10RMB, and gave all the money to a local charity. Honestly, it was so hilarious and everyone was so happy with their new clothes that people couldn’t wait for the next one and kept asking when we would do it again. Those people invited their friends, who invited their friends, and now we have over 500 women who have been a part of this ever-expanding network.

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That's amazing. Could you tell us more about how clothing auctions work?

People bring their good quality, unworn clothes for whatever reason – too small, too big, or don’t like it some food and wine. We spend the first hour or so trying on clothes, eating and drinking, then we gather together and a couple of women will begin to auction off each piece of clothing starting from 10RMB. They will often try on the piece of clothing so the guests can see what it looks like, and winning bids range from 10RMB upwards – our highest selling item was a dress which went for over 1,000RMB. Leather jackets and coats are also top-performing items. There is a lot of comedy and performance – it’s a very entertaining event!

Events are held as often as we have hosts willing to have people in their homes. There are usually between three to six events a month across Beijing. We have an annual celebration event in the city at East Hotel, and in Shunyi, where we can bring way more people together in one place and celebrate our successes over the year.

As for clothing items, nobody brings anything too old. If we see any in the pile then we chuck it out; it doesn't get into the auction. If it has a stain, a rip, a tear or is missing a button, don't bring it. If we spot it then it doesn't get sold; fix it first or just don't bring it.

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The organisation turned five this year. How different is it today from when it first started years ago?

More participants. When it first started, we were about eight people, meeting in each other's homes in Shunyi. To be honest, the whole concept is exactly the same. People bring food, wine and clothes, and we auction it off. The difference now is that we have four different groups in Beijing: Beijing city, Shunyi, Yizhuang and Plus Size, and way more people involved.

Because of the popularity of the events, we quickly realised that the same two or three auctioneers couldn’t be at every event, so we quickly identified a need to encourage more people to auction, and we have had to formulate policies and schedules to ensure maximum enjoyment for everyone.

As people have been a part of the network and moved away from Beijing, they are launching their own events, and this year we have started a Global Leaders Group to support people who are trying to start auctions in their new home towns – Shanghai held their first event this month.

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Talks and events. Our focus on sustainable fashion has led to talks and events that we have held, especially during Fashion Revolution Week, and we have also helped different organisations, such as INN and the British Club, run their own events.

Communities that branched out from CAN. I would think that the way the community became so tight – both offline and online – influenced many of the groups that I am a part of now. As we realized the impact that having these close connections (online and offline) can have on our wellbeing, many WeChat groups have popped up in the areas of fashion, fitness, sustainability, parenting and more.

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WeChat group. We also connect daily on our WeChat group where people share photos of their new items of clothing they have received from auctions. There’s something awesome about seeing a piece of your clothing on someone else and knowing they are getting joy from it.

Charity. Every single amount of money we raise goes to local charities – mental health, animal welfare, orphans, rural education, the list goes on.. In 2018 we raised over 120,000rmb and this year the figure will be even higher. We love the fact that we can raise so much money and support awesome causes, while having fun and continually changing up our wardrobes.

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Speaking of, congratulations on your annual event getting sold out really fast! How long was it before tickets were all out?

We just had the one in the City last November, and I think it was within 24 hours... we had limited it to 50 tickets because too many people will mean too many clothes. Last year it took about a week.

Some people are still uncomfortable with the idea of wearing secondhand clothes. How has CAN changed this mindset in your participants?

If your best friend gave you one of her shirts, would you wear it or would you be like hmm... no, thank you. When you go to an event and sure, they might not be your best friend. But you're in a room together, sharing food and wine, and you realise that, you know, it's just that other person's clothes I'm wearing.

And you know her. It's not like some random person, or some musty clothes that have been sitting in some secondhand shop where the person's died and it's their estate. And we get some amazing brands of clothing at the auctions, things that didn't fit properly, have only been worn once or some still with tags on. You then just think of it as sharing clothes with your friends.

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Not only has CAN grown in terms of numbers of participants, but also in terms of how individuals in the group have expanded it through other projects.

Sustainable fashion is a movement waiting to happen. It already exists in so many countries, but here.. yeah all secondhand lovers came together and just exploded into this firework of sustainable fashion.

And it's a concept worth spreading. People don't have to be a part of the CAN network; they can easily host one themselves and invite a few friends over and, we actually have a guide for hosts as well. I know someone who is doing one for all her employees which is totally fine. If people can just live more consciously when it comes to fashion, raise money for charity and connect with other women, then it's perfect.

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And also here in Beijing, it's not just about the fashion either; it's the community.

All it was was an idea, setting it up a few times, encouraging people to host, and people just do it and go for it. People have embraced it and it's been the most organic, awesome thing. It took a couple of years in the city to get it going, but it only took a couple of people who were so passionate about it in the city for it to explode. People came along and they filled it with the fire. So if it wasn't for them, this definitely wouldn't be happening as often as it has. I may have been the spark of the idea, but all those women now all have ownership to what it is today and they've all contributed and it's just an awesome community in changing the shape of fashion in Beijing.

How can people join?

Join us on Facebook (Clothing Auction Network) or on our WeChat groups: (Beijing Clothing Auction Network, Shunyi Clothing Auction Network, Haidian Clothing Auction Network, Yizhuang Clothing Auction Network) by adding me on WeChat (ID: becstarnz).

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