fall fashion

The RealReal Is a Total Mess

And I can’t quit it.

Photo: Kelsey Dake
Photo: Kelsey Dake

Ten years ago, if I wanted to clean out my closet, I’d throw as much stuff as I could into a large Ikea bag and haul it on the L train to Beacon’s Closet in Williamsburg. There, someone with a funny haircut would rifle through my things as I watched, only to serve me a deadpan diagnosis that everything I owned and once loved was basically worthless. But what else was a girl to do with her gently used Steven Alan button-down shirts? Selling on eBay and Etsy would have required me to be my own one-woman online shop. And my stuff didn’t seem nice enough for New York consignment stores like INA or Tokio7. So to the donation bin I went.

Then, in 2011, along came the RealReal, a luxury consignment website and app that made buying and selling used clothes, shoes, and accessories as easy and addictive as swiping on Tinder and as dignified as scrolling through Net-a-Porter. It was conceived by former Pets.com CEO Julie Wainwright as, effectively, a place where Silicon Valley bosses could safely and easily swap their Chanel. But when I joined in 2015, it cheerfully took everything I brought it, too. (Including those Steven Alan button-downs plus the nude Stuart Weitzman pumps I wore to prom.) It felt a little too good to be true. In the beginning, you would receive 60 to 70 percent of the sales price, and the RealReal would style all my items on mannequins, photograph them, Photoshop them onto a white background, price them, list them with all the relevant information like measurements and condition, and send them directly to buyers when they sold, which, in the early days, was usually within weeks. If I had ten or more items to consign, the Real-Real’s “white glove service” would send someone from consignor relations to my apartment in Brooklyn and haul them away.

Shopping the RealReal was also an unusually pleasant experience. And the interface was clean and user-friendly, allowing me to discover moments in fashion history like “Céline by Michael Kors” (yes, that was once a thing), plus a well-curated “editor’s picks” feed helped sort through the chaos. The bright photography and language — “obsessions” instead of favorites — made it feel more luxurious and less like dumpster diving.

Drops happened twice daily, at 10 a.m. and 7 p.m., and I was loath to miss either because competition was so fierce. Colin Stokes, a cartoons editor at The New Yorker, describes his devotion to the RealReal as borderline “religious” and says scrolling through it can feel a little like “pulling the lever on a slot machine” where you can find a pair of pony-hair Armani pants that you never knew existed, the Calypso sandals you loved in high school, or The Row for the price of J.Crew. Andrea Whittle, an editor at W magazine, says she got a similar high from the hunt. “There’s an element of chance and excitement,” she says. “You could just be scrolling and catch something that is a once-in-a-lifetime thing that’s at this absurd price, that is exactly the thing that you’ve been looking for, for months.” I know people who waited years for their Phoebe Philo–era white whale to appear and some who are still stalking.

The RealReal was a perfect platform, for a certain type of consumer, for a very long time. Being so addicted to it allowed me to more clearly see its cracks when they began to appear. Over the past year, items were taking longer to be listed, prices were too low when they were, and items were frequently mislabeled on the site. Employees I had been in touch with — my luxury managers — were leaving frequently. It didn’t seem like a good sign.

According to several former employees I spoke to, the RealReal always had growing pains typical to a start-up, but things got messier after its IPO in 2019. “Once they went public, it very much became about what looks good for investors,” says one former luxury manager. It signed leases on two huge e-commerce spaces in New Jersey and Arizona (in addition to the two it already had) and opened 13 more stores with 16 retail spaces in total: “It was more about quantity of product, rather than the value of the product,” says another former employee. In a CNBC report published at the time, dozens of copy writers and luxury managers spoke to this further, describing unreasonable quotas, insufficient authentication training, and intense pressure. Then, of course, the pandemic happened.

Employees at the company say they feel overworked and underpaid in the face of constant pressure to bring in more merchandise in a shorter time frame — the only way they can earn commissions. One former luxury manager described the operation as a “dumpster fire”: “You’re basically forced to harass people,” they say. “I’d have to say to someone, ‘Do you have anything in your closet? Let’s walk through it. Do you want your wedding shoes? No, you don’t. Get rid of that watch you got for your 16th birthday. You don’t need that jewelry from your bat mitzvah.’ And you have to be on call 24 hours a day for these people to even have a chance at making any money.”

A pair of A.L.C. shorts styled as a one-shoulder sweater on the RealReal. The screenshot was posted in May by Instagram account TheWeirdReal. Photo: Courtesy TheWeirdReal

This higher volume means more work every step of the way, from the photo department to the warehouse, and more opportunities for mistakes. Take one look at the Real-Real’s abysmal Better Business Bureau profile or its replies on Twitter, and you’ll find a litany of complaints. Some of these are small — one person recently reported finding dirty underwear in the parka they ordered, for instance. It has also had some pretty funny styling mishaps — like putting a pair of striped shorts on a mannequin as an off-the-shoulder top.

But other issues are more serious. One former luxury manager had a client whose $10,000 Hermès bags mysteriously disappeared en route to the warehouse; another manager’s client had a few hundred items get lost in the RealReal’s custody. Both managers say it took months for the company to make their clients whole. “While we very rarely lose a consignor’s item, if we cannot locate it in a timely manner, we proactively make it right by buying it out right regardless of the situation; and we’ll continue to do so,” said Rati Sahi Levesque, co-CEO and COO of the RealReal, in a statement. Sellers have had items credited to their accounts that they never consigned, and shoppers have received other peoples’ orders. (This summer, a co-worker had a box full of designer suits show up to her apartment out of the blue.) As a consignor, items that once went up in a week now take months — one person says he waited nine weeks for his jewelry to go on sale.

The RealReal has tried to automate parts of its process, including copywriting, photo retouching, and pricing. But the technology isn’t perfect, nor as savvy as the company’s fashion-obsessed users. “They say it’s all ‘touched by experts’ and blah, blah, blah, but at some point, it became so automated that things can happen like someone’s $8,000 Oscar de la Renta gown showing up on the site for $200,” says one former luxury manager. Christina Juarez, a VIP client who’s been a member since 2013, says she stopped consigning with the RealReal for this reason — she’d rather give the clothes to her dog walker. “If I’m not going to make money from these people,” she says, “what’s the point in dealing with the aggravation?”

When I complained about the pricing on an item in the spring, it took over a month to get a response from customer service (effectively, “We’re looking into it”), and by then a lucky shopper had already snagged the deal. Consignors do have the option to approve pricing before their items go on sale in some cases, but this means waiting even longer for a human “expert” to review the situation. Even then — to give an example from personal experience — skirts that were currently retailing for $1,450 were offered a selling price of $145. Desperate, many customers will turn to their luxury managers for help — sometimes even months after they’ve left the company — but it’s not their job to fix these problems and there’s little they can do. The ones who are still there are busy trying to consign new items.

As any stone-cold Beacon’s Closet employee could probably tell you: Resale is a tough business. Since 2011, the market that the RealReal helped create has boomed, but neither the RealReal nor a number of its competitors, including Poshmark and ThreadUp, are profitable. (The RealReal reported a net loss of over $50 million in a recent quarter.)

In early June, Wainwright stepped down as CEO and gave up her board seat. New management is reportedly trying to cut costs further. “We are in a much stronger place with our staffing and recent hire of our new CRO who is committed to maintaining a strong and positive culture, and our sales force attrition has returned to historic levels,” said Levesque. “We are fortunate that our business has grown significantly and we now have tens of millions of customers and our volume is much higher than where we were just a few years ago.”

Whether or not things change, there are plenty of people hanging on. “Basically, no matter how bad the service gets, because it’s the only place where I can get these things at a decent price, I’m going to keep shopping there,” says Laia Garcia-Furtado, a Vogue editor who has been gradually stocking up on rare ’90s Prada for $150 to $200 an item since 2014.

I’m in her camp. The RealReal has created a monster in me. As a consignor, I expect to make a fortune, while as a buyer, I expect the cheapest of prices. But I can’t quit it. I’ve dabbled with other resale sites — Vestiaire Collective for all the Prada in Europeans’ closets and Rebag for cash upfront — but none are as easy to use, have an inventory as large, or have prices close to as good. (A brief dalliance with Dora Maar ended when I spotted a Prada dress going for $995 — then the same style for $375 on the RealReal.) “Are you ever haunted by the ghosts of things that you didn’t buy and you should have?” asks Whittle. “The ones that got away could be on the RealReal, and that’s what makes it so magical. It’s like that dress from The Row that
I almost got on sale six years ago and then didn’t. Who knows? Someday it could show up.”

More From the 2022 fall fashion issue

See All
The RealReal Is a Total Mess