Second-Hand Clothing Gets a Second Life

Over a dozen venture-backed peer-to-peer fashion marketplaces have launched in the last year. Re-commerce, it seems, is green in more ways than one.
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Since the late 1990s, eBay has dominated the used clothing market. In fact, unbeknownst to most, fashion -- used apparel, accessories, and shoes -- continues to represent eBay's largest category, with close to 2 million listings at any given time. Compare this diversity of product with "normal" fashion e-tailers, whose SKU count is in the tens of thousands, and eBay sounds like the ideal online destination for any fashionista.

The problem, however, is that fashion is not a commodity product. Unlike some of eBay's other categories, customers rarely shop with a specific product in mind. For many products, like a Canon camera lens or a collectible Barbie, eBay is the perfect place to search for the best-priced good, as price is the primary differentiating factor. But for fashionistas: a red dress is not a red dress is not a red dress.

Enter re-commerce sites, the latest manifestation of the "collaborative consumption" trend in the fashion start-up space. At a high level, these new sites are eBay-like marketplaces focused solely on fashion. The innovation? Being more curated, convenient, and personal than selling and shopping on eBay:

1) Curation. This is the most notable and instantly recognizable update to these marketplaces. These new sites carefully select and show only pieces that are of a certain aesthetic and quality (taking into account both product and image quality). One such site is Material Wrld, which requires interested sellers to go through an application process; sellers' closets must be deemed worthy before they are able to post any items for sale.

2) Convenience. By the sheer fact that these sites are curated, the shopping experience is automatically more convenient. In addition, many of these start-ups have identified and attempted to eliminate a major pain point for sellers in the old eBay model: the need to photograph, write descriptions for, and ship each item if and when it sells. Threadflip, for example, offers "white glove service" to sellers; for a fee, users can send a box full of used clothing to the company, and someone will do the photographing, listing, and shipping for you. Meanwhile, Y Combinator graduate 99dresses allows a seller to snap a picture with her smartphone and send it to a central email address; a stylist from 99dresses will list the piece, set the price for you, and even touch up your photo to make the dress look better on the site.

3) Humanization. While eBay may have helped reduce the stigma associated with wearing someone else's used clothing, these new sites go one step further to humanize the buying and selling process. I-Ella asks each seller to upload a picture of herself, to describe her personal style, and to name her favorite charity (a percentage of each sale is donated to a charity of the buyer's choice). Copious builds its marketplace on top of Facebook, so that buyers are no longer transacting with anonymous parties.

So will these newcomers successfully upstage eBay as the global leader in the second-hand apparel market? Investors certainly think so. Over a dozen venture-backed peer-to-peer fashion marketplaces have launched in the last year. Re-commerce, it seems, is green in more ways than one.

Vivian Weng is the co-founder of FashionStake, a venture-backed online marketplace for independent fashion that was acquired by in January 2012. She is a recent graduate of Harvard Business School.

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