Gen Z designers made it big on this app. Now they’re graduating.

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By Kalley Huang, The New York Times Company

When Shirley Tang started selling handmade clothing in 2020, she knew just where to do so online: Depop, an app at the forefront of social shopping.

Tang, 22, began offering $100 to $200 hand-draped mesh and woven tops and skirts in her Depop shop, where her following grew to 24,000. Customers, most of them around her age, traded messages and commentary on the app about her creations as her store caught the attention of magazines and Grammy-winning artists, including SZA and Kali Uchis. Her business surged.

But, this year, Tang began focusing on selling her clothing brand, ORIENS, exclusively on her website. Depop’s popularity had led her to make the same items again and again, she said, hemming her in creatively. And she was tired of the app charging a 10% commission on every item sold.

“I wanted that independent establishment, even if it meant losing out on a little bit of new people who were going to be organically finding my pieces on Depop,” said Tang, a rising senior at the Parsons School of Design. “To me, that was a worthy sacrifice.”

The onset of the pandemic led Depop to become a springboard for hundreds of millennial and Gen Z designers, including Fancì 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 its Instagram-like interface, through which people can upload and caption photos, follow and message one another and discover curated items, Depop turned into a go-to fashion marketplace among teenage and 20-something shoppers.

But, like other online shopping businesses that boomed over the past two years, Depop is now confronting the downside of its pandemic-fueled success. Dozens of the creators it helped establish, such as 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 establish their own online stores.

Jennilee Marigomen, The New York Times

A sewing table at the home studio of Shirley Tang, whose fashion brand ORIENS launched on Depop in 2020, in her Vancouver, Canada, July 18, 2022. Depop, a social shopping app, was a springboard for many young designers during the pandemic, but some are now taking their success elsewhere.

That is creating difficulties for Depop as it tries to hang on to a young — and notoriously fickle — audience. Having the most sought-after and buzziest designers is crucial to retaining users and growing their number. Younger shoppers are generally less loyal to brands and platforms than older shoppers are, according to market researchers.

Peter Semple, chief brand officer at Depop, which the e-commerce website Etsy bought last year for $1.6 billion, said the pandemic “has certainly driven the scale of our business.” The question regarding the app’s users, he said, has become, “How do we remain interesting and present to them so they continue to be part of the Depop ecosystem?”

Semple added that sellers leaving Depop was nothing new and that their successes often inspired new designers to join the app. He cited Emma Rogue, a seller of secondhand clothing who turned her Depop shop into a brick-and-mortar vintage store. “We then have to be more interesting for the next group of people we want to cultivate,” he said.

Depop said it had 30 million registered users last year, up from 13 million in 2019. About 90% of its active users are under the age of 26. Its revenue more than doubled to $70 million in 2020 from a year earlier. The app declined to share more recent figures; Etsy doesn’t separately disclose Depop’s financial information.

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