At the end of 2020, Michelle Sparman had a COVID-19 health scare. While self-isolating, she thought it would be a good time to clean out her wardrobe, having been busy looking after her two kids and running a community-based fitness program, Fit SW11.
Thankfully Sparman, who’s also a police dispatcher, didn’t have the virus. But she did find two drawers and bags filled with fitness clothing she hadn’t worn in over a year. Normally, she’d bring her clothing to charity shops, but due to the national lockdown, all stores were shut.
“I suddenly thought, why don’t I donate the clothes myself?” she tells Stylist.
Last December, she launched Fit SW11 Apparel, London’s first charity bank dedicated to providing free fitness clothing, shoes and equipment to women facing financial difficulties.
The pandemic has taken a bigger financial toll on women than men, with many struggling to afford to buy athleisure. Researchers from the universities of Cambridge, Oxford and Zurich have found that women in the UK are more likely to have lost their job than men over the past year.
In addition, sending unworn clothing to women who are unemployed or on low-income benefits the environment because reusing clothing minimises wastage which promotes sustainable fitness.
“My plan was to post 100 pictures of clothes on Instagram and ask women whether they’d want them,” Sparman recalls. “But the following kept growing, and I was suddenly getting messages from women all over asking to donate.” It’s been almost seven months since she started the charity, and she’s received well over 2,000 items of clothing.
On a whim, she messaged make-up artist Bobbi Brown about her initiative, who immediately replied asking if she could be on Sparman’s advisory board, endorse the charity on Instagram and introduce her to a PR team.
Sparman’s charity has attracted an outpouring of support and donations from celebrities including Gabby Logan, Beverley Knight, Jennifer Stout, Denise Lewis and Meg Matthews. Nike and Decathlon are also getting involved with her initiative by offering to send clothing. She’s even won WOW Championing Working Women, a competition set up by Jacqueline Gold CBE, CEO of Ann Summers to celebrate UK female entrepreneurs which has led to FIT SW11 gaining more support as a growing initative.
But this isn’t just a London-based venture. She’s getting messages from people from Glasgow to New York asking for ways they can donate. Donations are sent to women’s charities and organisations including UK safe houses for victims of human trafficking, a girls’ secondary school, local community-fitness initiatives, women fleeing domestic violence and any women who have experienced financial struggles during the pandemic.
Carving out a space for women of colour in fitness
Women from all walks of life message Sparman’s Instagram account directly requesting for outfits and this allows her to easily send them clothing. What makes this charity bank so different is the fact that Sparman carefully picks out clothing herself that she knows will fit with the women’s style. She’ll ask them what colours or patterns they like and ensure that they feel cared for.
After seeing a south Asian woman attend her fitness classes in her traditional dress, Sparman talked to her and gave her fitness clothing that was culturally appropriate. “It’s not a case of getting given some random outfit and being asked to be happy with what you’ve got,” she says. “You feel good when you look good so just because you don’t have any money doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t be allowed to feel that way.”
Being able to show Black representation in fitness is important to Sparman. When she was growing up, she couldn’t recall seeing women of colour being celebrated for their strength. “Seeing women of colour setting up initiatives shows power,” she says. “I’m very aware that we need to get the message out that fitness is for everyone.”
Born and raised in Battersea, South London, Sparman’s always believed in giving back to the community and has spent the last four years offering free and low-cost fitness classes.
At 11, she joined the local girls’ basketball team and playing basketball meant being able to travel abroad for competitions while making lifelong friends. “Fitness isn’t about jumping up and down or kicking a ball,” she says. “It’s essential that we continue to invest and give women, men and children access to sports because it offers far-reaching opportunities.”
Creating an online giving community
Right now, Sparman needs help with free postage and transport. She’s working with a sports company to secure storage space for the clothes, as they’re stored in her two-bedroom flat, and hopes volunteers can help her sort out clothing.
She also wants to upload pictures of the clothes on a website and is hoping to create one in the next few months. Offering swapping is something she’s planning on expanding, as women have wanted to be able to exchange clothing sizes.
How you can help other women get active
You can donate and receive unwanted secondhand or new good-quality fitness clothing, trainers and equipment from Fit SW11 apparel. Here’s how it works:
1. Send a DM on Instagram to @FitSW11Apparel to get the address to send the donations to. Currently all donations are received in Sparman’s home address, so she can’t publicly list the address. Donations can also be made to Decathlon in Surrey Quays, London.
2. She then gives out the donations to various women’s charities, organisations and women in need.
3. If you need fitness clothing, send a DM to request an outfit. You can also request for a friend or someone else you know.
4. If you don’t need a donation, you can buy a set of clothing for £5 and shoes for £10. All proceeds go to the charity, and Sparman does not profit from the sales.
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Images: Michelle Sparman/Instagram