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This 24-year-old designer just made $1 million selling used clothes online

The pandemic has been a boon to the online fashion resale market: Depop has seen a 300% increase in items sold between January and April compared to the same period last year. And that’s just the beginning.

This 24-year-old designer just made $1 million selling used clothes online
Bella McFadden [Photo: iGirl]

Only four years after opening a store on the fashion resale site Depop, 24-year-old Bella McFadden has become the first-ever seller to earn £1 million ($1.26 million) on the app. The global recession spurred by the coronavirus pandemic hasn’t shrunk her business. In fact, sales have gone up by 146% since the lockdown began. “I was expecting business to slow down,” McFadden tells me over Zoom, calling from her office in Los Angeles. “But I’m working harder than ever.”

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Bella McFadden [Photo: iGirl]
Depop, which first emerged from an Italian tech incubator in 2011, then established its headquarters in London, is a dark horse in the fashion ecom wars. Here in the United States, it doesn’t have the name recognition of Poshmark or The RealReal. It hasn’t been around as long as Etsy. But it has scaled up, thanks to more than $100 million in funding, and it now has more than 20 million users across 147 countries. The company generates revenue by taking a 10% cut of every item sold on the platform, and it has grown this year, despite the pandemic and recession, as people have had more time to browse through the app and list products. There has been a 300% increase in items sold between January and April compared to the same period last year, according to the company. And that has redounded to the benefit of individual sellers, who see Depop as an important source of income—and then some, in the case of McFadden—as the economy crumbles around them.

[Photo: iGirl]

Fashion, Gen Z-style

But why Depop? How has it emerged as a tour de force in the competitive world of fashion resale? The short answer: Gen Z loves it. An estimated 90% of its active users are under the age of 26, which is a younger user base than those of similar platforms like Poshmark and TheRealReal.

Scrolling through Depop offers a glimpse into the bustling world of Gen Z fashion designers. While sellers cover a wide range of aesthetics–from Y2K fashion to tie-dye creations to logomania–what connects them is a focus on sustainability and accessibility. Depop sellers modify vintage garments or style them in creative ways to make the appealing to customers, which in theory allows these pieces to stay on the market for longer.  (Sellers use the shorthand “Repop” to describe secondhand items they bought then resold on the platform.) McFadden believes that the future of fashion involves designers incorporating sustainable principles, like upcycling, into their creative process. “That’s the way fashion should be,” she says. “We shouldn’t be contributing to the pollution, but finding creative ways to avoid it.”

[Photo: iGirl]

Reimagining the fashion designer

The platform also gives aspiring designers an opportunity to express themselves through fashion, without having to resort to the traditional channels. Typically, to break into fashion, you have to go design school, work for another fashion house, or network with the right people (or, more likely, some combination of all three).

That’s not McFadden’s story. She grew up in Canada, splitting her time between Manitoba and Toronto. She has always been interested in fashion, but didn’t think she could ever break into the industry because didn’t think she was well-connected enough. In college, she stumbled across Depop and began selling vintage items she found at thrift stores and styled to make them look cool. She dropped out of college in 2016 to work full-time on building her brand on Depop.

[Photo: iGirl]
To date, McFadden has sold 40,231 items that are a mix between vintage item’s she has painstakingly sourced from thrift stores and deadstock suppliers, as well as items she designed and manufactured herself. Part of her success has come from building an audience on social media: She posts regular content for her 600,000  Instagram followers and 100,000 YouTube fans. As she has grown, she has hired four employees who help her with every part of the business: traveling the country to source used clothes, designing and manufacturing garments and jewelry, and curating entire outfits for customers based on their personal taste and body shape.

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McFadden attributes her success on Depop partly to sheer dogged hard work. She says that many sellers casually post items from their closets or good finds from local thrift stores. But from the start, she has treated the store as a full-time job. Given the low price point of her products, which include $15 earrings and $25 T-shirts, McFadden has to sell volume.

She spends hours every day sourcing and designing products, then she catalogs them based on their aesthetic. She does “drops” every few days, based on a particular theme. One week, it might be a princess look, another it might be a futuristic aesthetic. Photographing and listing these items takes a lot of work. She seeks out interesting locations—like abandoned hangars and alleys—then shoots all day. (Since the lockdown, she’s had to shoot in her office, against a colored backdrop.) “I start shooting at about eight in the morning, and don’t finish till seven or eight at night,” she explains..

McFadden isn’t the only young designer on Depop to break through and gain some mainstream recognition. Kelley Hice, who upcycles garments that use designer logos, has been featured in Elle and High Snobiety, and been worn by Rihanna. Johnny Grummons, a seller from the midwest, is known for his extensive graphic tee collection, which is on track to generate six figures in sales this year. Jazzelle Zanaughtti, a model and designer, has leveraged her popularity on Depop to launch partnerships with fashion brands like Palladium and Chrishabana.

Bella McFadden [Photo: iGirl]

A point of view

But fashion is notoriously fickle, and the other part of McFadden’s success comes down to how well she’s been able to nail the look of the moment and help others to cultivate it as well. Her aesthetic is informed by her obsession with the ’90s. Her brand name, iGirl (which was shortened from its original version internetGirl) reflects her fascination with the early days of the internet and the fashion that period spawned. She’s inspired by ’90s and early 2000s goth and grunge, and the futuristic looks that emerged from the Y2K period. To nail these looks, McFadden spends much of her time immersed in ’90s pop culture. “I order magazines from the ’90s and study them,” she explains. “I spend a lot of time looking at ’90s websites using the Wayback Machine.”

Bella McFadden [Photo: iGirl]
On her store, you’ll find a pair of mid-rise bootcut pants with a glossy red cobra print, paired with a baby tee and jumbo platforms. You’ll also find a chunky chain-link choker with a skull on it, matched with a white polkadot bustier and black fingerless elbow-length gloves. Or a plaid miniskirt paired with a midriff-bearing lace top and black knee-high socks. These are all looks I’m intimately familiar with, since I was in high school in the ’90s. McFadden’s outfits are remarkably authentic.

She’s become famous for her “styling bundles,” which blend together items she designs with vintage clothes. Each week, she creates a menu of themes. One recent week it was: Bedroom Pop Baddie, Gloomy GF, and Daydream Ditz. For $200, she and her team will create a full look, based on the theme, the customer’s personal taste, and their measurements. It’s an approach that she sees as distinct from the traditional fashion establishment, which is often rooted in exclusivity in every form, including designing for skinny bodies and people who can afford high price points. “I felt like the lone goth in my high school, like I didn’t fit in,” McFadden says. “I want to be a place where people can come for these outfits. And if they don’t know how to start styling these looks, I want to help them.”

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What’s next?

Depop’s growth over the past few months makes sense, given that many consumers have less cash on hand and are looking for inexpensive garments. At the same time, many people are stuck at home with plenty of time to sell items at the back of their closets. But will the momentum continue when the economy improves? And will successful Gen Z sellers want to remain on Depop as their businesses mature? After all, there is some risk to being tethered to a platform like Depop, rather than spinning off into your own brand, as sellers on Etsy and eBay have discovered.

For now, McFadden remains committed to Depop, which has allowed her to bypass the gatekeepers of the fashion industry and build a thriving business. “The fashion industry seemed all about knowing the right people and being in the right places,” she says. “I didn’t think it was possible for me to do that in Ottowa.”

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About the author

Elizabeth Segran, Ph.D., is a staff writer at Fast Company. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts

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