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Before I went into the large room at WIZO's Jerusalem branch, I didn't know people who didn't buy their clothes in stores. Completely by chance, I dove into piles of clothes selling for a shekel apiece and into the world of clothing collectors. I wasn't enthusiastic when a friend invited me to join her one morning, dropping off clothes at a charity and also "taking a few clothes." "You'll enjoy it," she promised, flashing her most enticing smile.

A few hours later, I stood helplessly in front of a closet bursting with clothes. The knowledge that I had nothing to wear prompted an uncontrollable urge to hop over to Zara. But the thought of the overdraft in my bank account stopped me. Frustrated, I packed a few unneeded items and off we went. I didn't know that I would bring back a lot more than I had taken.

At WIZO, the clothing fest was in full swing. "Try it on," suggested a young man dressed in student chic to the young woman on the other side of a pile of slacks. "It'll fit you." He tossed her a great red dress, and I couldn't help but hope that it wouldn't fit her. And, indeed, the young woman took a look at the dress and casually tossed it straight into my arms. She and her friend sat comfortably on top of a pile of clothes. They lazily picked up things while reporting loudly to their friends, students at the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design.

The room was bubbling with activity. Total strangers suggested garments to each other, and generously complimented each other. Here and there someone hemmed nervously and defended his territory. We were there for several hours. Among the frightening shmattes were garments in excellent condition, straight from the brand-name stores, alongside vintage clothes that seemed to have their own story. It was a real ball.

Gleaning items for a shekel

The WIZO (Women's International Zionist Organization) secondhand shops, where donated clothes are sold cheaply, were originally intended for the needy, but they have long since been discovered by aficionados of secondhand clothes: students looking to save money, fans of an eclectic style of dress and bargain lovers. The large shop at the WIZO office in Jerusalem receives huge amounts of used clothing from donors and sells them for several shekels apiece.

Old and young were everywhere sifting through the mounds of clothes. The scene reminded me of Jean-Francois Millet's 1857 work, "The Gleaners," and even more so of the poetic film of the same name by French director Agnes Varda. In 2000, Varda documented people who scavenge through trash. As the film progresses, it becomes a fascinating and disturbing analysis of the Western culture of plenty.

This harmless hobby of eccentrics long ago moved over into the mainstream and caught on with the yuppies once the chic of secondhand clothes was discovered and the yuppie trend of renovating old houses and furniture with a retro flavor caught on. When old and inexpensive clothes became vintage trendy and the prices went up accordingly, the collectors who love bargains switched from shopping in stores to looking for clothes at charities or yard sales.

Bartering markets for clothes and other things, where no money changes hands, also popped up, created by social groups advocating recycling. Very quickly they also became part of the eco-chic trend, along with organic food, and spread around the world from its birthplace in the Boston area and San Francisco. Now it is arriving Israel and sprouting like mushrooms after a rainstorm. Three years ago, during a conversation with friends, Merav Carmi of Nahalal incidentally tossed out the idea of a market where clothes from their closets would be offered. They thought about it and then went ahead with the idea. They piled the clothes on doors they placed across boxes and they invited friends to come and take. The market was a success and became an institution.

At the Nahalal market today, in addition to clothes, dishes and other items are now exchanged, as are organic foods such as jelly and tahina. Some 400 people show up on the last Saturday of every month. "At first we had to get rid of the neediness associated with secondhand stuff," she says. "People didn't get that it's free and insisted on paying." Everyone who comes, takes whatever they want. Among them are Filipino workers, who send packages of clothing from the market to their families back home. Nevertheless, says Carmi, there still remain huge piles of clothes, which she distributes to charitable organizations. Bags of clothing that can't be worn are taken to nearby garages that use them as rags.

According to Carmi, who lived in Tel Aviv until a few years ago, the market changed her awareness of consumption and purchasing. "I don't buy clothes anymore. I don't go to malls at all," she says. Once she used to shop on Tel Aviv's Sheinkin Street and at expensive stores. But now she "doesn't need these covers." A new awareness evolved and with friends she set up a perma-culture farm (based on sustainable farming techniques) where they grow their own food. The farm started, she says, in order to create a transitional place from a culture that teaches people to feel lack via advertisements. ("If you buy a certain car, you'll be happy.") She says: "It took time until I opened up to the realization that there is tremendous abundance in the world waiting to taken in."

Favorite pastime

The Nahalal market, and others like it, in Moshav Be'er Ora, Kfar Malal and in the Sergei Courtyard in Jerusalem, has growing numbers of visitors. Most have not turned clothing exchanges into an ideology and a way of life, as Carmi did; people come to enjoy and get things for free, but the concepts of recycling and moderating consumption are not foreign to them.

"The barter market is my favorite pastime," says Yael Sonschein, who several weekends ago organized a barter market in Tel Aviv's Wolfson Park. There was a festival-like atmosphere as dozens of smiling people filled up bags with clothes placed on the grass. Sonschein, who says she is a devoted clothes aficionado, is a member of the Beshutaf (Together) organization, a social network set up to create partnerships among people using items and ideas for community needs. Until six months ago, Sonschein was a kindergarten teacher. But after she went to the Nahalal market a few times and was hooked, it seemed she had found her destiny. "Let me pore through piles of clothes for hours," she says. "I love finding great clothes because that's the fun part in getting new stuff. I always was a collector, but if someone looks in my closet, he'll find it's empty. I dress nicely and then pass the clothes on. A collector, yes, but I don't like to hoard."

Sonschein is horrified by the idea of spending NIS 300 on a dress, when you get a bag full of all kinds of good stuff for NIS 60. She is thinking of opening a secondhand store and earning a living from that, but still maintaining some of the principles of Beshutaf. For Sonschein, the world of clothes exchanges and secondhand clothing is parallel to the glamorous and shiny world of shoes and accessories of "Sex and the City," but not necessarily opposed to it. It's a no less trendy development, equally narcissistic, but with less guilt, because you're not spending money.

Clothes collectors love clothes and accessories. There are some who get as excited about fabrics as others do about works of art. To a certain extent, they are involved with clothes no less than Carrie Bradshaw and her friends. As with the infiltration of organic foods, they indicate that ecological concepts have long ago stopped being the exclusive domain of places such as Pardes Hannah, Karkur or Galilee hilltop communities.

Today those who once were fans of shopping abroad and who now have less disposable cash are discovering the barter exchanges. For Anna Carmi, a ceramicist from Jerusalem, the visits to WIZO have become routine and she hardly buys clothing in regular stores for herself and her daughters, and only rarely goes to secondhand shops. Carmi believes in recycling: "It reduces the dependence on earning more and saves time not spent shopping. Every time I come, it's like finding a treasure. You never know what the next visit will hold in store for you. Because it's so inexpensive I always bring other people with me. I fill up my closet and distribute the extras to others or bring it back to WIZO.

"I like sorting the good stuff out from the junk," she says. "It comes from being brought up on haute couture. My mother was a designer and for me it's an exciting visual exercise to find fabrics and clothes with a fine finish. It's an adventure, like going out to gather mushrooms in the forest. I'm particularly interested in designer clothes. I appreciate the investment in clothes and think it's cruel to throw them out. I also create handmade items. And if something rips, I don't want it to be thrown out, but to be of use a little longer. It's not always my style, but I have to take them home and revive them. It's sort of like adopted pets from the Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals."