This app made a lot of money for designers in Gen Z. Now, they’re leaving school.
During the pandemic, many young designers got their start with the help of the social shopping app Depop. Some are now going somewhere else with their success.
When Shirley Tang started selling handmade clothes online in 2020, she knew exactly where to do it: on the app Depop, which was at the forefront of social shopping at the time.
Ms. Tang, who is 22 years old, started selling hand-draped mesh and woven tops and skirts for $100 to $200 in her Depop shop, where she now has 24,000 fans. Most of her customers were around her age, and they talked about her creations on the app. Magazines and Grammy-winning artists like SZA and Kali Uchis started to notice her store. Her business grew quickly.
But this year, Ms. Tang started putting all of her attention on selling her ORIENS clothing brand only on her website. She said that because Depop was so popular, she kept making the same things over and over, which stopped her from being creative. And she was sick of the app taking 10% of every sale as a commission.
Ms. Tang, a rising senior at the Parsons School of Design, said, “I wanted that independent establishment, even if it meant losing out on a few new people who would have found my pieces on Depop on their own.” “I thought that was a sacrifice worth making.”
As the pandemic spread, Depop became a launching pad for hundreds of millennial and Gen Z designers, like Fanc Club, whose corsets have been worn by celebrities like Olivia Rodrigo, and Gogo Graham, whose designs have moved to the runways of New York Fashion Week. With an Instagram-like interface that lets people upload photos with captions, follow and message each other, and find curated items, Depop became a popular fashion marketplace for people in their teens and twenties.
But like other online shopping businesses that have grown a lot in the last two years, Depop is now having to deal with the bad side of its success. Dozens of the creators it helped get started, like Ms. Tang, have started taking the brands they built through the app to other platforms, like Instagram and TikTok, or are leaving the app altogether to start their own online stores.
That makes it hard for Depop to hold on to a young audience, which is known for being easily bored. Having the most popular and sought-after designers is important for keeping users and getting more of them. Market researchers have found that younger shoppers tend to be less loyal to brands and platforms than older shoppers are.
Peter Semple, the chief brand officer of Depop, which Etsy bought for $1.6 billion last year, said that the pandemic “has definitely changed the size of our business.” He said that the question about the app’s users has become, “How do we keep them interested and up-to-date so they stay part of the Depop ecosystem?”
Mr. Semple also said that it wasn’t unusual for sellers to leave Depop and that their successes often led other designers to join the app. He gave the example of Emma Rogue, who sold used clothes and turned her Depop shop into a real-life vintage store. He said, “Then we need to be more interesting for the next group of people we want to grow.”
Last year, Depop said it had 30 million registered users, which is more than the 13 million it had in 2019. About 90% of the people who use it are younger than 26. Its income more than doubled from the year before to $70 million in 2020. The app wouldn’t share more recent numbers, and Etsy doesn’t share Depop’s finances separately.
Simon Beckerman, an entrepreneur, started Depop in 2011 as a website where anyone could sell anything. (He isn’t working on the app anymore.) Soon, it became known for selling used clothes. Influencers like Chiara Ferragni, an Italian fashion blogger, opened Depop shops to let their fans look through their closets. Mr. Semple said that by 2015, Depop was taking advantage of Gen Z coming online and making its platform more interactive.
In 2018, Depop focused on becoming a marketplace for fashion and made it harder for sellers to sell things other than clothes. Since then, the app has become a part of Gen Z culture, with people like Megan Thee Stallion, Emma Chamberlain, and Winnie Harlow promoting it. People like Bella McFadden, who resold clothes from thrift stores on Depop and now runs a separate business and a YouTube channel, became social media influencers and tastemakers in their own right.
After the pandemic, more people started shopping online at places like Depop, which helped the app double its number of users and income in a year. This success made more sellers want to set up shop on the app. To do so, they give their date of birth, billing address, and PayPal account information.
But as time went on, some Depop sellers wanted to grow their businesses outside of the app. Brianna Lopez, who is 25 years old and from Winnetka, California, said it was hard for her to connect with the customers of her That Valley Girl Depop shop. She became a member of Instagram last year.
Most of the time, Ms. Lopez said, she only talked to customers on Depop when they wanted to buy something. She said that on Instagram, she could share more personal parts of her life through features like “Stories,” which let people post photos and videos that disappear after 24 hours, so that “people get a sense of who I am and who they’re buying from.”
Still, Ms. Lopez spends more time on Depop, where she has 30,000 followers, than on Instagram, where she has less than 1,000. This year, her best-selling item, a mesh halter top with embroidered flowers that sold for $58 and went viral on Depop, got customers to praise her shop in comments and reviews.
Other Generation Z designers are now spending much less time on their Depop stores. Desireé Zavala, 23, from Caguas, Puerto Rico, started selling on Instagram last year after sales in her Depop shop, Conscious Brat, dropped. (The name of the store is a reference to Bratz dolls.)
Ms. Zavala said that she now liked Instagram better because she could use tools like Reels, which let users make short video montages, to ask customers for feedback, show off outfits, and tease new items. She said that was not how she could talk to customers on Depop.
“Depop looks like social media, but it doesn’t feel like social media to me because I can’t connect with anyone there, so it’s just business,” she said.
On both Instagram and Depop, Ms. Zavala has about 14,000 people who follow her. Even though Depop is where 90% of her sales come from, her Instagram feed is more interesting. She recently posted a photo of a red-and-black lace camisole with the caption “hOT GotH SumMer.” The photo got about 3,000 likes on Instagram, but only 100 likes on Depop.
Someone on Instagram said, “You would actually kill in that,” and tagged a friend.
“Stowwwpppp, I want it,” said the friend.
Rhi Dancey, a clothing designer in London who is 28 years old, is almost done with Depop and is putting all of her attention on her own online store. She was a stylist who was out of work when the pandemic started. In March 2020, she started her own business on Depop and gained 36,000 fans. She also grew the business on Instagram, where she now has 50,000 followers.
But by the end of 2020, she had stopped using Depop and set up her own website. Even though she still sells her mesh tops, dresses, and lingerie on Depop, she only gets one order on Depop for every 10 orders on her website.
As restrictions on the pandemic have been lifted, Ms. Dancey said she was also building her brand outside of Depop through in-person events. This month, she worked with other artists and designers to open a pop-up store in Berlin.
Ms. Dancey said, “I still have the Depop shop because I don’t see what’s wrong with it.” But “now that the world is changing, I would have to rethink how to do things before I could put more energy into it again.”