Editor’s note: We revisited Our Closet in 2020. Check out the latest updates on Jill Aschkenasy’s pop-ups here.
A woman enters a West Philly anti-poverty organization’s office, takes a number and waits 45 minutes for her turn inside a pop-up clothing store. In a rack of sweaters, she pulls out the softest one and inspects the label: Michael Kors. Cashmere. She wonders for a moment what this sweater would cost at the mall—over $500, she thinks. A struggling single mom, she has had trouble filling her fridge and faces a tough custody battle. But she needs clothes if she’s going to get a job, and keep it, to support herself and her kids.
She tries on the sweater, runs her hands down her torso as she looks in the mirror. “It looks great on you,” a sales associate tells her. She smiles, for the first time that day. Then she goes back to the racks, where she finds a skirt to go with the sweater, and four other pieces of clothing to take home. Everything is free, thanks to Our Closet, a local nonprofit that collects gently-used quality clothes for needy women, men and children in Philadelphia.
“That’s a beautiful thing,” Our Closet Executive Director Jill Aschkenasy says, recalling the “sale” of the designer cashmere sweater.
Aschkenasy was a domestic violence and sex crimes prosecutor in the District Attorney’s office in Manhattan until 1999. Three years later, she moved back to Philadelphia with her husband and four kids. Back in her hometown, she pondered her next move. “I wanted to fill a need that actually existed, not just that I thought existed,” she says.
While meeting with local teachers about getting book donations and other charitable ideas, they reached out to her with requests such as donating clothes to a family that lost everything in a home fire. “I got calls about 17 different tragedies [like this],” Aschkenasy said. “After doing it a couple times, I thought, ‘I’m onto something.’”
Aschkenasy founded Our Closet in 2011 in Bryn Mawr. It now operates pop-up shops at four locations in West Philadelphia: at LIFT-Philadelphia every Wednesday, and People’s Emergency Center, The Dornsife Center and Philadelphia Episcopal Cathedral on the first, second and last Fridays of each month respectively.
“We’re right where we need to be so they don’t have to take three buses to get to us,” Aschkenasy said.
Unlike most clothing donation programs, Our Closet does not require a referral. It is open to anyone who takes a number and waits in line. “It’s not really my place to judge what level of need there is for any one person,” Aschkenasy says.
Aschkenasy intentionally designed Our Closet to feel like an actual retail store, so customers feel like they’re shopping,not just taking charity. Volunteer sales associates assist customers in picking out clothes and advising them on how they look—like their own personal shopper.
Our Closet relies on donations from women around the region, and on volunteers to operate the shops. Even Aschkenasy is a volunteer; she takes no salary from the nonprofit’s small operating budget for her work as Executive Director. (Her husband, Paul, is a real estate developer.) “Part of what makes our current model so sustainable is that the bulk of what we are doing relies heavily on in kind donations of clothing and time,” Aschkenasy says. “Therefore, we are able to serve a large number of people on a relatively small budget.”
Throughout its history, Our Closet has partnered with corporations and summer camps on clothing drives and offers open “sorting nights,” when volunteers who are busy during the day can help by sorting donations at Our Closet’s warehouse in Bryn Mawr. This year, Our Closet also partnered with The Shipley School and Penn Charter School to engage students in a year-long service project. First students seek donations from friends and family, then they work at the the pop-up shops at the end of the year.
Since its founding, Our Closet has distributed more than 30,000 articles of clothing to more than 7,000 shoppers in the city.