There is something initially disarming about having a nonchalant conversation with a stranger who is half-dressed. The young woman stood there in her bra as we talked about how hot it was, and indeed, it was reaching saunalike levels inside the storefront of Halmoni Vintage — even though it was mid-January. As such, putting on a shirt seemed like a frivolous activity. Around us, women in various stages of undress were too busy to notice. They were excitedly picking through heaps of clothes on the floor, trying on garments, and stashing their finds inside giant shopping bags. Conversation was inevitable inside the tiny 350-square-foot space.
And that's partially the point. The "Naked Lady Soiree," which is held every other month, is just as much about building community as it is about swapping clothes. Halmoni Vintage owner Natasha Harden started the events about two and a half years ago. Having newly arrived to Oakland, she wanted to build a support network around clothing — "like a slumber party but not in your house," she said. The store is located in a neighborhood near Lake Merritt that has many new Oakland residents, said Harden, so she invites newcomers to the swap as a way to make connections. "It's a great way to meet people, because you're new to Oakland, you want to look different. That comes when you're moving to a new city and reinventing yourself," she said.
Clothing swaps — wherein participants bring clothing and accessories they don't want, dump them on the floor, and engage in a free-for-all — are nothing new. Most are organized among friends and held in houses and apartments, where you can trust the provenance of the clothing and feel comfortable stripping down to your skivvies. Perhaps understanding this dynamic, Harden bills her swaps as "body-positive," wherein "women of ALL body types" can "meet new friends, trade clothes and have fancy drinks in a supportive and nurturing space." Harden is quick to point out that although the event is for women only, that definition extends to those who are "woman-identifying" — including transwomen and those who are genderqueer.
Indeed, the vibe felt safe and friendly, thanks to both sheets that covered the store's windows and to Harden herself — who dispensed drinks, smiles, and friendly banter. If there's anyone who feels comfortable in her skin, it's Harden, who often posts selfies on Instagram with the hashtag "bigbellyfashion."
I showed up to January's Sunday-evening swap with a bagful of clothing and $10 (the requirements for entry). As soon as I walked in, women began eyeing my goods. I got the sense that someone would appreciate the wildly colored Seventies polyester dress that was buried at the bottom of my bag: Sure enough, as soon as I fished it out, a woman's eyes brightened. "Oooh! What's that?" she asked. Moments later, she was buttoning it up, giddy. Thankfully, the supportive environment extended to the lack of snooty fashion judgement as well.
As any true shopper knows, the thrill is not so much in the end product but in the hunt. And this pursuit — although it was not technically free — felt gloriously unrestricted. There is something about the swap scenario that makes items you might not have looked twice at in a store suddenly strangely appealing. Twenty minutes was all it took for me to unearth a pair of high-top Converse, an H&M cardigan, and some funky red overalls — a whole outfit.
Harden said the Naked Lady Soiree has grown steadily, from fewer than 10 attendees at the first iteration to about 25 at January's event. She has even taken her swaps to local schools, and hopes to one day host a "fat-friendly" swap. Perhaps one of the coolest aspects of the Naked Lady Soiree is that all of the leftover clothing is donated to Serenity House in Oakland, which helps women overcome trauma. "It is really turning into this thing that I didn't know or think it could turn into," Harden said about the swap.
As I walked out into the cool evening air with my shopping bag, I felt that buzzing lightness that comes with retail therapy, but the sensation was much better than a trip to the mall — I had gotten rid of things, shopped sustainably, and in the process maybe even helped someone. The next day, I laced up my Converse.
The next Naked Lady Soiree will happen on Sunday, Mar. 16 at Halmoni Vintage (1601 2nd Ave., Oakland). 6-8 p.m., $10 (plus one bag of gently worn clothing or accessories). RSVP at Halmoni.net