Growing up in a conservative suburb of Toronto, Bella McFadden stood out. “Everyone in my high school was either a football bro or a basic girl that only shopped at the mall,” she says. In her second-hand chequered trousers and velvet dresses, paired with purple lipstick and a choker, she looked like she was from a different planet. Short of local soulmates, she turned to social media. Under the handle @internetgirl, she built up a large following that shared her passion for retro, thrift-shop fashion. “I loved my friends that I would make online, because I didn’t have friends in my day-to-day life,” she says.
Two years ago, Bella dropped out of college and began monetising her social-media presence on Depop, an app on which people trade second-hand clothes. At 22 years old, she has amassed close to half a million followers on Depop, placing her consistently in the platform’s top ten global sellers. She now employs two assistants, recently opened up her own website selling unworn second-hand stock, and has started her own fashion line. Fans often approach her in the street asking for autographs and selfies. The clothes that alienated the once-lonely teenager from her peers have built her an adoring fanbase and a career.
In 2014, Bo Brearley returned to her parents’ home in London from university and discovered her favourite old jumper was missing. She confronted her 15-year-old sister, Eve. Eve confessed – she had sold it on Depop. Nearly four years on, Bo, now 22, hasn’t entirely forgiven her. “I loved that jumper!” she howls when she remembers it. Nevertheless, the sisters teamed up to create a shop on Depop called Past Trash, selling party clothes from the Nineties and early Noughties. It became the biggest selling Depop shop in the world in terms of volume of stock sold, shipping 500 items a week to everywhere from Barbados to Norway.
Depop was launched in 2011 when Simon Beckerman, an Italian entrepreneur, decided to make a new, hip online marketplace by creating an app that merged editorial and sales. “I realised most of the decision-making in buying fashion was through references,” says Beckerman, who had previously founded a youth-culture magazine and then a sunglasses brand. “I realised Depop needed to be social.” The team designed the app with Instagram-style features, with “follow” and “like” buttons, comments and chat, already familiar to social media users. Users download the app, make a profile, upload photos of clothes they want to sell, scroll through the “explore” page of items recommended by the Depop team, search for a specific item or browse their Facebook friends’ stores. When you buy an item, the individual seller is responsible for packaging and sending it to the buyer. Money changes hands through PayPal, or users can meet in person.
Twenty-two years after the launch of eBay, an industry has developed around the online resale of clothes. Data are thin, but ThredUP, a fashion resale website, estimates the value of the “recommerce” market, as it is delicately known, at $18bn in America; IBISWorld reckons it is worth around £700m in Britain. Second hand no longer means bargain. At the luxury end of the spectrum, Vestiaire Collective, founded in 2009, allows people to sell their last-season Chanel and Prada; Rebelle, a German company founded in 2013, even provides a concierge service, which evaluates, wraps and dispatches the clothes for you.
M-commerce – selling through mobile phones – is also a growing industry. In 2016, the UK’s m-commerce sales rose 47% year on year, according to IMRG Capgemini eRetail Sales Index. The two phenomena have dovetailed; apps for users selling second-hand clothing have proliferated in the last few years. In China, where WeChat has blazed the way for the integration of shopping and social media, the recommerce market is valued at $60bn. Xian Yu (which translates as Idle Fish), is a social-commerce app which, like Depop, lets users curate a shop, although it’s not focused exclusively on fashion. Alibaba spent $15m to acquire Xian Yu in 2016. And as smartphones get bigger screens, and retailers make their sites more phone-friendly, the rest of the world is catching up. Poshmark, Depop’s competitor in America, has 3m sellers and is planning to expand internationally. Vinted, a startup in Vilnius that facilitates half a million international transactions per week, is particularly active in Europe.
Depop is different from other clothes-resale apps in that it markets a seller’s taste as well as their garments. The platform gives equal weight to commerce and socialising, and offers users an opportunity to utilise their creativity and social-media acumen in order to make their shop a success. In one photo on her account, Bella sits in a nude, patterned bodystocking priced at $15, teamed with a red wig, chunky black cybergoth boots, blue eyeshadow and bright-red lipstick. “SUPER stretchy fabric to accommodate to ur curves” the caption reads. “Pair under so many bad ass looks...throw on a vintage lip service Plaid dress and chunky platform boots OR with an oversized Marilyn Manson tee and a black lip...OBSESSED w this design!” She writes the captions herself. “I like to make them relatable,” she says. “It’s engaging the following to get them to look at what you’re doing.” Most of her buyers are young. “The stuff I pump out is very reasonably priced,” she says. “So that the teens can buy it on their mom’s credit card!” It’s working. Her shop listed $7,000-worth of items in August this year.
These shops feel more eclectic and progressive than the high street. Some young men have curated exquisite drag outfits, selling pink-satin ruffs and customised skirts. Plus-size models are often mixed in with size 8s. Depop encourages users to present their clothes with impeccable styling and photography, and will contact users who have good stock but bad photos to give them tips. “We are really hands-on when it comes to discovering and empowering creativity at an early stage,” says Depop’s senior marketer, Tainá Vilela. “That’s what sets us apart.” Depop has now become a desirable clothing brand for teenagers, even though they don’t actually design, manufacture or sell any clothes themselves, other than a few branded T-shirts.
Wearing cast-offs has no stigma these days: rather, it has cachet, because it implies that you rely on your own taste, not that of chain stores’ buyers. Depop actively recruits people like Bella with a large social-media following to cement its reputation as a desirable place to shop. Celebrities such as Dita Von Teese and Emily Ratajkowski treat it like another social channel and have opened online stores. Even established online clothes brands such as Monki sell one-off or customised items on the app as a way to reach a younger audience. Last year, around $130m-worth of clothes was sold on Depop, more than double the year before; the app has been downloaded 8.5m times and has 2m active users a month, mostly in Britain but also in America, Italy and Australia. Four-fifths are under 25. “Some call them millennials or Gen Z,” says Beckerman. “But we call them people who like to be independent, creative and free.”
Most Depop users have grown up in the shadow of the 2008 financial crash and rocketing university fees. Unpaid internships and zero-hour contracts are widespread. “The new generation is much poorer than the last,” says Maria Raga, Depop’s CEO. “They’re much more entrepreneurial. Instead of getting a job as a waiter, they just make their own shop, and maybe something will come out of it.” For many, Depop is their first experience of buying and selling, Beckerman points out; many are savvier than traditional fashion outlets, some of which are struggling to adapt to mobile selling. “Technology is splintering the sales process,” says Michael Holt of retail consultancy group Fitch. “Traditional shops try to stitch all those splinters back together again – which we call omnichannel. This can be painful as it means bringing legacy IT and staff together in ways that the business hasn’t been built around.” It’s far easier for new retailers that started out as online-only to adapt, especially if the cost of entering the marketplace is now close to zero.
This new business model is also influencing what’s being sold on the high street. Retro styles and normcore have so permeated Gen Z’s wardrobe that if you walk into the cooler high-street stores, you’re confronted by an array of charity-shop style clothing – fleece car coats, flares, flimsy crop tops – at four times the price (albeit without the musty smell). Teenagers have long been both the inspiration for, and main buyers of, high-street designs. Desire for unique, vintage clothes combined with new technology has led them to cut out the high-street middleman.
Depop has allowed teenagers to profit from their own sense of style, social-media presence and an embedded understanding of what their peers want to wear, while learning what it takes to build a business. “Today on social networks you already notice that you follow more individuals than institutions. [Fashion blogger] Chiara Ferragni has many more followers on Instagram than the New York Times,” says Beckerman. “I strongly believe that in the future both editorial and retail will be in the hands of the individual.”