Shopping On Instagram While Malls Die

Illustration Tim Lahan
February 17, 2015

While retail migrates to mobile, a few smart shops are already there.

Instagram has many convenient uses. You can see if Khloe and French are back together, or find the perfect shade of platinum to dye your hair, or check to see if your ex from freshman year is still hot, and you can do it all while you're waiting for a friend to show up at a bar. You can follow L.A. art stars who wear the perfect beat-up Levi's, and rich Kuwaiti girls who live for H&M collabs. But one thing you cannot do is click on an item you love and buy it. If you see a Moschino belt on a friend, or a complete stranger, or Nicki Minaj, how perfect would life be if you could just purchase it while you're scrolling?

After all, it's not like mall shopping is thriving. According to a recent Bloomberg report, 300 U.S. malls—mostly mid-market ones—are facing extinction, and online shopping has much to do with it. But while you might be buying your toothpaste and batteries from Amazon Prime, shopping for clothes is a little more particular. Etsy and eBay both have a huge selection, but that's also their downfall: they're not easy to browse.

Instagram is, but it hasn't yet made itself shoppable. That doesn't mean a bunch of companies aren't trying. There's Like To Know It—users who favorite affiliates' Instagrams get emails back with shoppable links—and Soldsie, which lets sellers automatically email invoices to Instagram commenters. An app called Spring has been called the Instagram for shopping, allowing users to follow and shop brands like Public School and Beyoncé. Another app, Poshmark, is like if Instagram and eBay had a baby, and that baby was a gently used Tory Burch bag: users take photos of items in their closets for sale.

Search for #shopmycloset and almost a million posts come up, kind of like an international yard sale that offers brown Zara faux-fur vests for $28 or twice-worn Air Jordan 4s for $150—all yours if you leave a comment.

And then there's Dash Hudson, a Halifax, Nova Scotia-based company that started after Thomas Ran-kin, the co-founder and CEO, got increasingly frustrated trying to buy a Burberry jacket on his phone. Their app offers shoppable versions of curated looks taken from Instagram, so they might feature a pic of Karlie Kloss in a pair of skinny jeans and a gray V-neck sweater, then suggest similar ones from Mother and Need Supply Co. that you can buy with a single tap. According to Rankin, their user base is growing 10-20 percent month-over-month. At the very least, the startup seems to have helped his own shopping issues: the last thing he bought was a peacoat from the Dutch line Scotch & Soda, via his app. "And now," he says, "I've got my eyes on a new pair of Common Projects sneakers."

Apps that try to replicate Instagram work well for larger brands with lots of stock, but they're less effective for vintage clothes or one-of-a-kind pieces. So some users have created their own shops within Instagram. Search for #shopmycloset and almost a million posts come up, kind of like an international yard sale that offers brown Zara faux-fur vests for $28 or twice-worn Air Jordan 4s for $150—all yours if you leave a comment, usually with your PayPal email so the seller can send over an invoice. But #shopmycloset is the wild west: it's unregulated, and there's no intermediary, no customer service, and no conflict resolution. You're basically sending your money into the ether with a prayer and a hope that a Mansur Gavriel bucket bag will indeed be delivered in due time. The safest bet is to stick with sellers like Alyssa Coscarelli, aka @alyssainthecity, who has a couple thousand followers and is highly Google-able (i.e., a real person who lives in New York), which lends a sense of reliability to her dedicated Insta-shop, @shopalyssainthecity, where you can now find a pair of high-waisted vintage patchwork denim shorts for $14 plus shipping. She, like other Insta-sellers, leave the sold items up as a kind of archive.

Perhaps the most beloved Instagram shop is Fox & Fawn, a Brooklyn-based vintage boutique with IRL store locations in Bushwick and Greenpoint. Beverly Ragon, who co-owns the shop with Marissa Johnson, created an account three years ago.

"Once I saw you could shop right from their photos, I was done. it's basically a live feed, straight from your favorite shop." —Vallen Leigh

"We started posting stuff that was in the store, and people started asking to buy stuff," she says. So they developed a system. Customers would call and file their credit card, shipping info, and Instagram account. When they wanted, say, a cashmere Marks & Spencer sweater, they'd leave a comment that says "ring me," and it's done. The code word was important, since lots of people would say "love it" or "want it" without necessarily wanting to buy something. Now Insta-sales make up about 30 percent of Fox & Fawn's business, but on a snowy winter day when no one's shopping in person, it can be more like 70 percent.

This whole process, which offers vintage freaks constant shopping fodder, is cheap to reproduce. It doesn't use a model, studio space, or a professional photographer. Cost is also why Fox & Fawn doesn't sell on other platforms: "We already pay rent; we have a merchant services account; we already pay for credit card processing," Ragon says. "It doesn't make sense for us to pay additional seller fees on a platform like eBay or Etsy and then again on PayPal. That's why Instagram is perfect for us: it allows us to reach a wider audience but is easily integrated into the flow of the workday."

Fox & Fawn's approach has caught on with like-minded stores, like Friends Vintage and Worship, which are both in Brooklyn, as well as Squaresville, in Los Angeles, and Painted Bird, which has locations in L.A. and San Francisco. It's probably telling that all these stores are in California and New York, where life is expensive. Ragon says she thinks it's because life is expensive, and people have limited clothing budgets. After a decade of fast-fashion dominance, people are looking for clothes that are better made but still cheap. Nineties-influenced fashion has been so ubiquitous for the past five years that many in search of flannels and combat boots spurned Alexander Wang in favor of the authentic vintage versions. (If you're looking for a trend report, Ragon says the '90s have gone as far as they can go and '70s romance is what shoppers are after now—think Jerry Hall silhouetted in Biba.)

"Instagram is perfect for us: it allows us to reach a wider audience but is easily integrated into the flow of the work day." —Beverly Ragon, Fox & Fawn

Some people fear the glory days of making up your own easy and innovative ways to buy and sell on Instagram won't last. Eleanor Moore is a 31-year-old who sells antiques in Forest Hills, NY and shops for vintage band T-shirts at Fox & Fawn. "I keep waiting for some massive corporation to try and capitalize on it, like charging sellers," she says. For now, at least, Fox & Fawn's Instagram operation has developed a wildly loyal clientele. "Once I saw you could shop right from their photos, I was done," says Vallen Leigh, 31, a vocational counselor in Fort Collins, Colorado. "It's basically a live feed, straight from your favorite shop." Her favorite find is probably a vintage United Colors of Benetton wool coat "that I wear, like, every day in the fall. I'm wearing it today, actually," she says. "But I missed out on a jungle-themed dress earlier this year, and it still haunts me."

Instagram is a little portal into someone's life—the outfits they favor, the way they decorate their homes, the vacations they take—which is maybe why Insta-shopping often ends up feeling so cozy, likeyou live in a small town where all the shopkeepers and customers know each other. It lets places like Fox & Fawn be that better brick-and-mortar store for people who live far away, and it does it in a friendlier way than other e-commerce platforms allow. "Seriously, some of these gals have become real-life pals through the power of the store's Instagram," says Ragon. "We all follow each other's personal profiles. I have a strange narrative of their lives and sense of style through it. There's somebody in Arkansas interested in a shirt and I can say, 'It won't fit you. I know your bust size.'"

From The Collection:

Spring Style 2015
Shopping On Instagram While Malls Die