May and Luisa are starting a business. The two high schoolers are surrounded by piles of cheap vintage and second-hand garments that they collected from flea markets and thrift stores around the city. They’re debating whether a belted tweed jacket they just purchased from RAW Flohmarkt should make it into the ‘shop’ they’re setting up on online fashion platform Depop, a kind of Gen Z version of eBay. “We buy loads of thrift clothes for ourselves, so we have a lot of things that either don’t fit or just aren’t our style anymore,” says 17-year-old May, who’s wearing a DIY prune slip made from an old underdress that she “found” in her mum’s closet and tie-dyed into a stylish outfit.
Known in the scene as ‘flipping’, the friends’ plan is to buy more used clothes and then resell them for a profit. They’re going for a vintage-inspired mix: high-waisted Levi’s jeans from the 1980s, oversized graphic T-shirts, a men’s cashmere cardigan, a retro floral dress and a silver knit top to match with tracksuit pants.
“They’re all unique pieces which we handpicked in Berlin,” says Luisa. For the photographs, they’re keeping it simple, posing in front of a neutral-coloured background, although they’re thinking of including a plant in the corner to add to the aesthetic. They already have a name for their brand, which they won’t reveal before it’s launched – “We don’t want to be jinxed,” they laugh.
At this point, the only thing holding them back is the payment issue; PayPal, which processes payments on Depop, requires Germans to be at least 18. So they’ll either need to wait until May turns 18 next year in February or try to get a family member to agree to help them out. In the meantime, they’re getting everything ready to upload to the app. Luisa is excited: “It’ll give us the chance to be financially autonomous, to be our own bosses.”
Flipping: a lucrative deal
May and Luisa are the target demographic for Depop: young fashion-enthusiasts, happy to make a few bucks by offloading some of their clothes. Since its inception by Italian entrepreneur Simon Beckerman in 2011, the London-headquartered company has received more than 18 million downloads globally. Of this, a staggering 90 percent come from people under the age of 26. The spike in interest coincides with broader trends in the fashion industry.
According to a recent study by thredUP, the world’s largest online consignment store, the global second-hand market has more than doubled in size over the past five years, with the rapid growth mostly owed to Gen Z; that is, people 24 years old or younger. The impact of this generation on retail hasn’t escaped the attention of Depop’s CEO, Maria Raga. In an interview with Bloomberg last year, she explained how the company is “empowering them to be the ones who are going to shape and transform the fashion industry… And we do that by allowing them to build businesses in a very easy way.”
When it comes to encouraging young resellers to be business-savvy, the platform is quite hands-on. Setting up an account is free and easy, as is shopping and listing items. Depop occasionally reaches out to active resellers with tips on how to attract more followers and take better pictures, while also curating categories of promising resellers to make their profiles more noticeable.
The app is widely described as a cross between eBay and Instagram, although its design more closely resembles the latter. It has an explore page, where users can browse the newest trends, and a newsfeed, where they can view and like the most recent uploads of the people they follow. In exchange for the convenience and accessibility, it takes a 10 percent commission on all sales, while sellers are responsible for packaging and shipping the items directly to the buyer.
Some young resellers on Depop have become so successful that they’ve ended up launching their own fashion lines in exclusive partnerships with the company. Meanwhile, even committed resellers with only a few thousand followers can earn anywhere from €500 to €1000 per month. One seller disclosed to Exberliner that, in her good months, she makes around €800 by flipping vintage clothes.
While eBay once dominated online resale, in the past 10 years the industry has diversified and splintered into smaller start-ups. Depop is not the only peer-to-peer commerce app vying for the attention of young Berliners. Others include Vestiaire Collective, a Parisian site that specialises in high-end luxury goods; Mädchenflohmarkt, which has a concierge service that saves resellers the effort of packaging and shipping items; and Kleiderkreisel, a Lithuanian company known as Vinted outside of Germany. Resellers will sometimes use two or more of these platforms to increase the likelihood of flipping certain pieces. And by getting an idea of the market value of specific brands or trends, users like May and Luisa could very well earn twice as much money as they would in a mini job.
Industrialists or enthusiasts?
So with cash to be made from flipping, are these Gen Zers doing it for love or for money? Kasper relaxes into a retro-style leather armchair, something he picked up on eBay Kleinanzeigen last year. Techno music softly plays from a stereo in the corner of the room. Behind him, two large clothing racks are crammed with puffer jackets, vintage sweat- shirts and 1980s windbreakers. “These were my grandfather’s,” he says, tugging at his trousers. Pointing to his abstract-patterned shirt, he continues, “this, I bought for €1. My socks were a gift. Pretty much everything I wear has been worn by other people. These clothes all have their own personality.”
The 23-year-old began developing an interest in luxury fashion at flea markets in his Bavarian hometown, where he could find hidden gems from designer brands like Fred Perry or Burberry for €5 – and sometimes even less. Initially, he was only interested in reselling them, but eventually moved into the direction of collecting the pieces for himself. “Most of the things I buy I personally like and think could fit me. And if they don’t fit or I don’t like them, I just flip them.”
While making money is part of the appeal of reselling used clothes, Kasper maintains that it isn’t his primary motivation. “I’m more into collecting and owning cool vintage pieces,” he explains. “If you go to Polo Ralph Lauren right now and buy a jacket, you can be certain that thousands of other people have that same jacket. But if you have something from the 1990s or the 1980s, like this shirt” – he says, pointing to the one he’s wearing – “no one else has it.”
It’s a sentiment shared by Lotte, a Berlin-native who currently studies sustainable resource management at the Technical University. “I always got super annoyed when I saw other people in the street wearing the same thing I was,” she says. Indeed, the second-hand craze in Berlin is in part fuelled by younger consumers’ desire to feel unique. To own rare, vintage pieces gives many the feeling of distinctiveness and individuality. And second-hand commerce apps provide them with a channel for that self-expression.
Building second-hand activist communities
Like most forms of self-expression, the social network aspect is also very present in second-hand resale. For example, Kleiderkreisel, which has 30 million downloads across Europe and the US, and 7.5 million in Germany alone, has a function that allows users to like posts, follow resellers and share their profiles. However, unlike Depop, Kleiderkreisel refutes the idea that it aims to help young people start their own businesses. Lisa-Marie Berns, PR manager of the company’s Berlin office, stresses that the platform’s primary goal is to build a community of people who love second-hand clothing. For example, resellers on Kleiderkreisel don’t have ‘shops’ like on Depop, they have ‘wardrobes’.
The idea that these social commerce apps actually create like-minded communities is not, however, divorced from young resellers’ desire to make money. ‘Circular Fashion’ has recently become a buzzword in retail. The phrase comes from the concept of circular economy, a system designed to reuse resources and minimise waste production. Proponents of circular fashion aim to extend the lifespan of products by ensuring that they circulate in the resale economy for as long as possible.
“Our internal studies confirm increasing interest in circular fashion economy,” Berns claims. “As a key player in the second-hand fashion market, we combine the need for conscious consumption with the desire for wardrobe variety.” Nineteen-year-old Sofia, who has sold over 150 items on her Depop shop, says that sustainability is her most important concern. “It’s not only about being conscious about what you’re buying and where it comes from, but also knowing where the stuff you buy goes if you’re not using it anymore.” For cost-conscious Gen Z consumers, buying and selling second-hand is not only an affordable way to look good, but also a means to connect with others who reject the damaging effects of fast fashion. “It’s a lifestyle,” Kasper explains. “I’m really trying to produce as little new as possible. The same goes for furniture – anything really. If it’s already there, why should I buy something new? I don’t want to be part of this production chain.” In some cases, this kind of activism extends beyond concerns for the climate. Sofia’s Depop bio states that she donates 15 percent of her monthly sales to the Movement for Black Lives, a coalition of groups representing the interests of black communities in the US.
The future of online thrifting
While fast fashion still dominates retail, thredUP’s study shows that second-hand is catching up quickly. In fact, last year the growth rate of the resale market was 25 times that of traditional retail, and it is projected to have a global value of €54 billion by 2024. As for the online side of things, it seems Covid-19 has given it a further boost, with Kleiderkreisel witnessing 17 percent more uploads on their platform between the end of February and June. So while second-hand shops in Berlin face a setback due to the pandemic, online thrifting is not only withstanding the economic turbulence, but is in fact accelerating. With this in mind, young Berliners look increasingly likely to turn to apps like Depop, Kleiderkreisel and Mädchenflohmarkt, where they can use their experience with social media, as well as their sense of style and political beliefs, to help make a socially responsible profit.
“It’s important to invest in the kind of future you want,” Sofia says. “Especially in this capitalist system, the way you consume can make a huge difference. It’s an easy but substantial way to influence the market – and a wonderful way to change the world.”