In Conversation With Patrick Duffy: The Swap King
A recent interview from Laura Jones at The Frontlash about our founder Patrick Duffy…
If you’ve lived the terror of arriving in New York with the intent of “making it big” and only having a few dollars in your pocket, passion in your heart, and naivety for armor, then you will recognize Patrick Duffy’s story.
Duffy left his hometown of Minneapolis, Minnesota for New York, leveraging his good looks and charm to earn money as a fashion model before becoming an aerobics instructor, nightlife promoter, restaurateur, writer, and creative director. Through a chance meeting with the now CEO and founder of The Global Fashion Agenda and the Copenhagen Fashion Summit, Eva Kruse, he discovered his calling as “the swap king.” Duffy co-founded the Global Fashion Exchange (GFX), an organization devoted to community-building by organizing clothing swaps. While GFX’s swap events boast attendees from supermodels to fashion heavy weights, it’s goal is always first and foremost about climate justice. Hence, GFX hosts clothing swaps globally, providing education and toolkits for anyone interested in hosting their own swap—all with the intention to curb consumerism and green the world. He recently opened his first brick-and-mortar location in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.
Patrick Duffy is a born networker, warm, and hilarious. But his easy demeanor belies a fierce commitment to fighting injustice in the world using whatever tools he has available. He has true grit and the sustainable fashion community is better for it.
You’ve had so many job titles: model, restaurateur, Rufus Wainwright’s personal trainer, how did you become the clothing swap king?
My favorite thing to do is to introduce people. One day, somebody came in [to my restaurant], and brought this woman from Copenhagen. At the time, I was also writing for different art, fashion, and style publications on the side so she said, “Why don’t you come and write about Copenhagen Fashion Week, and we will show you what’s happening.” So, I went to Copenhagen, and I saw the Danish fashion. This was back in 2009 or 2010, she said that they had this thing called the Nice Initiative, where they’re focusing on sustainability in the fashion industry. But I was like, sustainability is so not sexy; who cares about that.
Then, Rana Plaza happened, and that’s when I had this holy crap, a-ha moment about consumption, about people getting taken advantage of, people dying. All of that stuff hit me at that moment, and that’s when I realized, “Okay, I have to change my life.”
So, she brought me back to Copenhagen, and they have an open framework for their fashion week. There was something there that was happening called a fashion exchange, and it was just a tent, in the middle of the square, apparently Danish people do it all the time. So I walked into this fashion exchange tent, and all of a sudden, I saw pandamonium. People were going nuts over the exchange of clothing. And I looked at it and I thought, I can actually turn this into a platform, for what is now Global Fashion Exchange.
It’s striking to hear you talk about Rana Plaza, and the immediate effect it had on you. I don’t think it’s always an easy leap for people to make to read about a tragedy and think that happened, and this is my personal culpability and this is what I’m going to do about it—that’s a pretty unique quality to have.
I feel like it’s being human. I saw the Rana Plaza Collapse, and I felt bad, and I was like, I must do something.
It’s not easy because we have this framework of our lives set up. We have to pay our rent, we’ve got kids, we’ve got daily responsibilities. So I think if that was taken away, and everybody could just have a choice to do something good, most people would do something good. But they have the rent, they’ve got bills, they’ve got all that stuff and that’s all tied into consumerism, commercialism, making money, being a part of the system. I think that’s what really stresses people out. So I literally let it all go. I gave all of my clothing away, I gave all of my artwork away. And my relationship basically fell apart because of the struggle.
Since you mentioned it, I’d love to know, how did that turning point, the “Rana Plaza turning point” impact your relationship? That’s something I feel like activists, environmentalists, organizers, don’t talk about enough. How these moments of awakening and discovering a new life purpose impact your relationships. It’s a big deal to wake up one day and decide, this all must go, the system is broken and I need to radically change my life.
Well, I actually felt like I was broken, and I thought that I was part of a broken system. I loved my ex, he was a part of Global Fashion Exchange in the very beginning. But it was very hard on our relationship because there were all of those things tied into it. How are we going to make money? But I had a journey that I needed to go on, and now he has a boyfriend, and he’s happy and doing his thing. I was just saying this to my mom last night, crying. I was like, I feel like I’m so big picture sometimes, that the people that I’m with in a romantic relationship have a very difficult time being with me.
They’re like, you forgot to pick up the bread, and you’re like, but global warming!
The people that I’ve been with, they want to stay focused on the bread because it’s super important to them. But especially now what we’re facing with climate change—60 years left of soil, and 12 years left on the planet, and the sustainable development goals—people need to wake the fuck up.
It’s an amazing thing too to talk about, when you’re talking about love and relationships with people because at the end of the day none of that trivial stuff matters, because we have 12 years left.
Totally. It’s interesting too because what you’re talking about, in the way that you approached your life after Rana Plaza, strikes me as a really good use of privilege. Not everyone—I mean, few, as a matter of fact—have the tools...
...or access—whether they are emotional or economical tools, to dive into this work. And I think that conversely, plenty of people do, and refuse to.
Yeah, that’s another thing.
What I wrestle with personally, is that what we’re talking about, at the crux of it, is sacrifice, right? Sacrifice in service of something. That can be sacrifice of your things, which you did. It can be sacrifice of people, sacrifice of a way of life. And that’s sort of the elephant in the room, I think, in these conversations; that people with a lot of privilege are going to have to sacrifice some of that privilege.
The one percent has to help the 99 percent, of course.
And it’s not just about the money, it’s about what you’re doing with that money. I have no money, but I’ve been blessed with access. My wealth is in my relationships with people. Thank God, I was good at something, that people respect me for something, and that people like me because I used that as a leverage.
Access is a valuable currency.
But I’ll tell you, it has not been easy. Five years ago, when we first started, it wasn’t sexy. People thought it was a great idea, but it would never really go anywhere. And it was the perseverance of believing in it. We were making money on sponsorships for a while, but that wasn’t really going anywhere because you can only have so many things sponsored. I had to really retool things, and by the grace of my friends, my ex, my mother, people supporting me. But I just feel compelled to keep doing it.
It sounds like you have a strong community to lean on. I would love to know a little bit about how global fashion exchange is community building.
I’m a natural connector; so with Global Fashion Exchange, that’s really what it’s about. The first event was at the Neuehouse in New York, and we had a really great community of people there. I realized that it’s about the movement, empowering people, and empowering everybody to come with tools and knowledge. That starts with a community; people need to feel connected to someone, and they need to feel connected to doing something that has a positive impact.
Now instead of having this sponsorship model, we offer clothing swap toolkits for people. We make them open source, and people can apply for them. The result we’ve had from these simple toolkits has been overwhelming. I’m teaching people about that a-ha moment that I had when I saw a fashion swap for the first time. There’s information and knowledge—facts and statistics—about water usage, plastic, human rights, and all of those types of things, which gets people talking.
And now, you’ve opened your first brick-and-mortar pop-up. Tell me all about that.
With the pop-ups, there’s the shopping, and then there’s the learning. So every time we do an event, there’s a talk or something that happens with it, because we want to make sure that people walk away with something more.
My partner Brooke and I, we’ve been wanting to do the brick-and-mortar for a while, but how are we going to pay for it? How does that happen? It seemed so hopeless. So a couple of months back, I was invited by Devin Gilmartin and Tegan Maxey from The Canvas. They have a space at Hunter College, and invited me to speak on a panel there about fashion and technology. Devin and Tegan are in their early twenties, and I was inspired by that. I started to learn about what they were doing, and how they were working with developers and real estate people, to change fashion through their lens. They cracked something, which not a lot of people have done; which is working with the owners of these big buildings to say, “Listen, these places are empty. Let’s use this as a way to promote sustainability, sustainable development goals, reuse, recycling, all of those kinds of things.” I talked to them, and I said, “Would you ever be interested in doing a swap shop?” There are brick-and-mortar stores that do swapping around the world, and they work on points. We’re not the first one to do this, but we’re the first one in New York City.
The Canvas was opening a space in Williamsburg, and I said, “You have a store with these sustainable brands. I will bring the swap shop in; we will design a point system.” We co-created this system of sharing and points, which is basic and easy to follow. We’re building an art and culture program around it, that’s all focused on the U.N. sustainable development goals, and social change. We launched it, and it has been a massive success. People are sick and tired of having to shell out money for clothing that is falling apart. I think providing people with another option is great.
I think of Saturday as the day where you mill around, and you might go shopping but you also clean or organize your stuff. I can’t think of a better thing than, on a Saturday morning, Marie Kondo-ing in the morning then getting with a friend or a couple of friends, and heading to a clothing swap. That sounds like a much nicer thing than going shopping and coming home with a credit card bill.
The cool thing is you get swap credit. So if you don’t see anything that day, you get to come back. The one thing we found with the swapping events is the pandemonium. But if you provide people credit, it creates this relaxed atmosphere, where people feel really good about it.
The cool thing about it is all of the education that goes with it too. People who wouldn’t necessarily know about sustainability are coming in and learning by proxy. They see the signs on the wall about human rights, and water usage. They don’t know that it takes 7,000 liters of water to make a pair of jeans. Then, you wouldn’t believe how interested they get when you start to explain to them the impact of the fast fashion industry, and the fast fashion brands.
I’ve seen your talks before, and read past interviews and you have an inherent positivity around this topic and this work, which I think is rare and refreshing. Do you think you could offer training to sort of...
I really think that should be your next venture.
Post-traumatic climate grief counseling.
That’s going to be next big industry.
There’s a lot of incredibly important activists out there that I love, but some of the ways that they communicate is so heavy. I get it, we need to do this. But at the same time, when we look at human behavioral studies, people don’t want to be told things in a negative way. So you can’t be shouting at people with a megaphone that we’re going to die. You have to turn it into a light atmosphere, so they can feel that they’ve discovered something, which is going to make them feel empowered.
I agree, it’s really important to talk about the things that you gain by becoming an engaged citizen, like friendships, community, all of those things. So, when you are feeling low, when you’re having a climate grief day, what lifts you up?
Well, my family. I call my mother like 15 times a day, she’s like, not again.
She loves it.
I have a very close group of people that I just love so much. What also brings me joy is helping other people, connecting other people brings me joy. So if I can help foster a relationship that’s going to help you—whether it’s related to sustainability or not—that makes me feel good.
We both know many of the prominent people in this space and usually it’s not surprising that they’re a climate activist. They often studied sustainability at university, and then had a pretty linear path to this work. I love that you had a nontraditional entry point to climate activism and as a result, your activism and messaging is joyful, and not traditional, which is probably why it’s effective. Do you agree that we need every non-traditional activist on board right now?
What’s your advice around this? Because I think people want to help, but they don’t know how. They’re scared to be out there on the internet, they’re scared to stand up for what they believe in, they perhaps feel that their skills aren’t useful in an obvious way. What’s your advice?
Advice for wanting to make a change?
Well, I’ll tell you a funny story real quick. So I was invited to speak last year in Costa Rica. I had a 15 minute speech, and prepared a whole thing about GFX and the metrics, and the billions of impressions that we have in 46 countries. And, it didn’t make me feel very good because this isn’t how I talk normally. But before I went on stage that day, the woman who founded the summit, Andrea, she asked to see my presentation. So I showed it to her, and she’s very clinical, and she shut the computer, and said, “Patrick, you just need to go be funny. Just talk, that’s what you do, just talk.” So with two minutes to go, I scrapped my presentation, and I changed it to one thing that said, “Hi, I’m Patrick.” So I’m standing there, and in the front row, Donna Karen is staring at me. I pointed at Andrea and I said, “That woman, Andrea, told me, ‘Patrick, just go be funny.’” And, everybody started laughing. Basically, what people can do is find something that they’re passionate about, that they want to make a difference with. It doesn’t have to be like, addressing climate change as a whole. It doesn’t have to be about deforestation as a whole. It’s something that’s in your wheelhouse, that you can understand, and you feel safe with. That you feel like you can make an impact with and it will eventually start to grow. When I first started clothing swaps, I never imagined that it would be in over 40 countries. I never imagined we’d have 30 some partners, I never imagined that—if I were to have it would seem too daunting. My friend John Opperman, who runs the Earth Day Campaign says, “Do just one thing.” I think that’s pretty smart to start with because there are so many things.
It’s also as noble to be the support as the visible person on the frontline.
Frankly, without that support, they could not do what they do. And every little pillar of support really adds up.
I think the first thing is educate yourself, like look at the landscape and find out what’s happening. It always kind of blows my mind. When I do my little posts on Instagram, I wonder, who is really paying attention to this? Because Instagram has 900 gazillion people, and everybody is promoting themselves, and their contoured makeup, and their muscles. It’s a powerful platform, but very few are really using it to its full extent, as a communication tool for change. It makes me then think about who’s caring? And how is this being communicated? And, are people being educated enough? And, if people knew the facts, I think it would kind of blow their minds. Because it’s not just about the world falling apart, it’s about consumers getting duped, and being taken advantage of.
Do you hope to one day see a larger shift in the way that we consume?
The whole point of GFX is to show people, we need to slow it down. We need to stop almost. I’m so happy to see all of these zero waste shops pop up because it’s really showing people that single use is bad. I call it the Dixie cup effect, because Dixie is the first one who came out with single use, as a way, just throw it away.
I hope that people will understand what consumption actually is. My brother, who I love and adore, is a bodybuilding weightlifter and he’s all about, I’ve got to eat meat, I’ve got to fuel my body, protein. At the same time, when I think about that, it’s like, Mike, did you know that one pound of meat actually takes 20,000 liters of water to produce? I think he doesn’t, because he’s been told that you have to do this for fitness. My dream is that people will wake up.
Broaden their point of focus.
Yeah. I mean, we have these statistics, like 60 years left of the soil, shocking.
Yeah, if we even get there though. I don’t even worry about that. I’m like, 60?
Or 12 years left of an inhabitable planet. Or the water scarcity, and what’s going to happen with that.
And those stats about parts of the world choosing between food crops and cotton crops by 2030. I don’t know why, but that specific piece of information haunts me. I guess because we’re talking about the potential collapse of an entire industry.
I think that’s what this little swap project is a representation of. The fact of the matter is that there’s so much waste on this planet now that we can repurpose. The good news is that waste is a resource. That’s something that we have to look at, circularity. But the fact of the matter is that that’s not stopping companies from producing with virgin product. So what happens like when the collapse of the infrastructure of all of these companies, what happens to all of those people? What jobs are they going to have?
What is your fashion utopia? If you could reimagine the system what would that look like to you?
It would be to have creative people, being able to do what they do creatively, in a regenerative way. Meaning, being able to create beautiful collections of clothing, that are not harmful to people, harmful to the planet, regenerative in some aspects, so whatever that looks like. It’s creating an industry that actually gives back, in a multitude of ways, more than taking.
I think it’s having an industry that gives more than it takes. I think that’s a big thing for the fashion industry.
Originally published in The Frontlash
*this conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity