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Meet the second-hand personal shoppers thrifting so you don’t have to

Style bundles are a shopping trend taking over social media.
Style bundles are a shopping trend taking over social media.

By Leah Dolan, CNN

(CNN) — Micah Russelll, a 28-year-old from Oklahoma City, is a full-time personal shopper and stylist who has shopped for over 370 people since March 2023. She has never met any of her customers in person, or even seen their image on a video call. Instead Russelll works completely remotely, requesting that her clients send through measurements and a Pinterest mood board of their vision to help her curate what she calls “sustainable style bundles” — packages of second-hand clothes specially selected to fit each client’s brief.

Who would trust a total stranger online to build their dream closet? Hundreds of young women, apparently. There are currently over 197 million views under the TikTok hashtag “stylebundle,” where a new generation of personal shoppers advertise their services by documenting the bundle-building process. Thousands of clients, too, record their first reactions in popular “unboxing” videos — most tag their shipment supplier in positive reviews. On the secondhand resale app Depop, searching for a style bundle produces more than 98,000 results.

The process begins with pinning down the customer’s fashion inspiration on a vision board, usually created on Pinterest. Images can be as specific as a shot from Prada’s Fall-Winter 1999 runway, or as general as a model off-duty selfie snapped in a T-shirt and jeans. Digital personal shoppers then attempt to recreate what they see using only second-hand pieces. Depending on how much you’re willing to fork out, style bundles can create an entire wardrobe in one fell swoop. For $500, Russelll promises between 24 and 31 articles of clothing (her $150 package contains a maximum of 10). Some sellers include shoes and accessories in their offering, but the combination of garments is a surprise. With the wait for your new look varying from one week to eight, this is the antithesis of fast fashion.

Russell — who has “tried to be a stylist” for the past five years but struggled to make ends meet — estimates that during the last four months she has built between 30 and 60 bundles per week, the majority of which are for clients aged between 18 and 24. They use phrases like “coquette,” “clean girl aesthetic” and “whimsy goth” to describe their sartorial vision — a jumble of words to the untrained eye, a collection of precise signifiers to digital natives. Russell spends most of her days trawling thrift stores, local markets and estate sales as well as online auction sites like eBay and Poshmark, hunting for garments that might fit the bill. In April, she enlisted the help of two assistants to manage the demand.

“We’re booked out until December,” she said in a video interview with CNN. “All the money I’ve made has gone to buying a (storage) space, a computer, and an iPad for the girls who help me.”

According to ThredUp’s 11th annual resale report — the leading examination on the state of the resale market in the US — online resale will reach a value of $38 billion by 2027, making it the fastest-growing sector in the second-hand market. The study also found it was those born between 1997 and 2012 driving the digital surge, stating 58% of Gen Zers who bought second-hand made at least one of those purchases online (more than any other generation).

Landess Hutson, a 25-year-old from Austin, Texas has been selling clothing bundles on the side since 2020. She works full-time as a stylist for the e-commerce personal styling portal Stitch Fix, though the money she makes selling second-hand online means she could quit her job. “I think a lot of people are taking (second-hand shopping) really seriously for the first time,” Hutson, who charges between $100 and $500 for a clothing parcel, told CNN over Zoom. “I can mimic almost every single trend at the thrift store, because most things have been made more beautifully in the past, and the quality is 100% better.” For plus-size clients whose sizes are often scarce in thrift stores, Hutson adds a disclaimer that the curation process may take longer than eight weeks. Russell is less concerned. “I’ve never had an issue when it came to sourcing for plus-sized clients,” she said. “I live in Oklahoma, (one of) the fattest states in 50 states.”

Outsourcing the often tedious shopping experience is nothing new. Luxury department stores like Bergdorf Goodman, Saks or Barneys were once renowned for their free in-house personal shoppers, though they often serviced those able to afford the suggested clothes and their five-figure price tags. In 2018, Bloomberg reported that to hold a regular slot with a Barneys stylist you generally should demonstrate an annual spending capacity of $2 million.

But what was once exclusionary has now been updated by sellers like Hutson and Russell, with a new-aged emphasis on sustainability and accessibility. “I could definitely be making way more money selling individual pieces,” said Hutson. “But that’s not what I want. I want to make (fashion) more sustainable and community based. We need to get back to trading clothes, using them or repairing them and making sure they last as long as possible.”

Gen Z are widely regarded as the most eco-conscious generation (40% consider the environmental impact of their purchase “extremely or very important” according to McKinsey’s newsletter on Gen Z consumption habits) yet the panopticon of social media and the accelerated trend cycle stands at odds with slow fashion. For Hutson, second-hand style bundles bridge that gap. “There is definitely an issue of dressing for Instagram,” she said. “And feeling like you have to do it cheaply. I think (my clients) believe this is a cheaper way to get that cute Instagram photo.”

The idea of buying in bulk appealed to 22-year-old Gina Cosenza from Philadelphia, who bought her first style bundle for $90 earlier this month. “I found it to be a sustainable and cheaper way to get a large quantity of clothes,” she said in a phone interview. “It would be just as easy to go to Shein and order (lots of) clothes there, but I’m very against fast fashion.”

Thrifting can also result in distinct, one-of-a-kind pieces irreplaceable at mass retailers like Shein — a lace-trimmed Gunne Sax prairie dress from the 1970s, or a pair of patent black vintage Gucci mules. The scarcity of these pieces (and the combination of luck and time required to find them) bestows a kind of kudos onto the wearer. Hutson, who posts her thrifted outfits on Instagram and TikTok to her combined 90,000 followers, is often met with disbelief when she says her looks are head-to-toe second-hand. “People try to tell me that I’m lying,” she said. “But it’s an art form to me. Not everybody is able to do it.”

But Cosenza — who used a seller she found on TikTok (not Hutson or Russell) — says she felt entirely absent from her personal shopping experience. After filling out a Google Form detailing her measurements, preferred fit and a link to her carefully curated Pinterest mood board she expected to wait several weeks for a shipping confirmation, allowing her digital stylist time to scour for the perfect second-hand pieces.

For Hutson, sometimes the briefs submitted by clients can feel like moving targets. “I’ve never seen trends go by as fast as they are right now. It’s by the week,” she said. “I’ll thrift something for someone on the weekend, and I think if they’re not getting their bundle for eight weeks they might not even like this aesthetic anymore.”

But the allure of a style bundle goes beyond supporting circular fashion, or even cultivating the perfect capsule wardrobe — it’s about the promise of a tailored experience with you at the center. As living costs around the world skyrocket and countries brace for a recession, luxuries become smaller and more cherished. The ability to opt out of what many consider to be a mundane task fulfills a fantasy. It was partly what persuaded Cosenza to invest in the first place. The idea of her own ‘stylist,’ picking out pieces for her felt special — like something available only to famous people. “You look at celebrities like Doja Cat, who has her own stylist and think, ‘Oh wow, I wish I had that for myself,’” she said.

But Cosenza isn’t quitting yet, and already has two more style bundles on the way. After the attention her TikTok received, several sellers reached out keen to change her mind (and receive a positive shout out). This time Cosenza is receiving live updates while her stylist is still inside the thrift stores. “I’m giving it at least one or two more chances before I give up on the whole process,” she said. “But I want to keep trying.”

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