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Polyvore users mourn one of fashion’s most creative online communities

“Polyvore was a place we could express ourselves, whoever we were”

Last week, social commerce platform Polyvore closed its metaphorical doors, after being bought by luxury e-tailer SSENSE and – to put it lightly – shit went down. When trying to log on to the site, members were redirected to SSENSE’s homepage, and instead of their profiles, boards and the likes and comments their friends had left them, they were met with invitations to shop the hottest new arrivals. Unsurprisingly, people were not happy.

The site was a hub for fashion lovers who logged on in their millions – 20 million, by some counts – to create style mood boards and shopping wish lists, and share them with the friends and communities they made online. Polyvore was also a place for small, independent businesses to promote themselves and their products, and even allowed those with an interest in working in fashion to hone their skills. Take Farren Fucci, for example: the stylist posted the boards he created to Instagram, grew his social audience, and now creates looks for Rihanna, Bella Hadid, and Carine Roitfeld.

“At first, I thought SSENSE was some pop-up or that my computer was bugging out,” says Lauren Coates, a member from Chicago who founded a petition calling Polyvore to be reinstated (which, at the time of publishing, had almost 14k signatures). “I refreshed the page and re-booted my computer a few times before it finally sunk in. I genuinely couldn’t believe what was happening – we received no warning that the site was going to shut down and we didn’t get a chance to make arrangements to save our boards or contact our friends on there before it did.”

High school student Coates joined Polyvore because it gave her a way to create her own outfits and be a “personal stylist” without actually having access to designer goods. “It’s kind of like playing virtual dress up,” she says. “You can experiment and go crazy without having to commit to spending money on actually buying the clothes.”

Though she originally came for the “fantasy fashion”, what she eventually got out of the site was much more than that. Coates describes the Polyvore community as being tight-knit, despite being spread out across the world. “It might seem odd, because I’ve never met any of the friends I made on Polyvore in real life – but when you talk with someone almost daily, you get to know them pretty well,” she explains. “In the end, we weren’t even messaging about the site. We were messaging to ask how each other’s day went, or if someone’s grandma was out of the hospital yet. That was a big reason why the sudden shutdown hurt so much – I was cut off from people I’ve known for years. Some of them were from places like England or Australia, so if Polyvore doesn’t come back the chances of me reconnecting with them are slim to none.”  

That communities that were built up over the course of Polyvore’s eleven-year run have been deleted without consideration or explanation after the site’s sale is what has hit many hardest. Reddit groups have been set up for members to track down their friends, and Twitter has been infiltrated with posts from users looking to reconnect.

“It feels like I had an art studio filled with 10 years’ worth of work and someone just burnt it down” – Jasmine Wingfield

“Polyvore had one of the sweetest and most positive online communities I’ve ever come across,” says Jasmine Wingfield, a filmmaker from London who used the platform to create costumes for her characters. “There was a unique spirit of supportiveness and creative exchange among users, and a lot of people used the site as a form of art therapy to cope with mental health issues such as anxiety, depression, and trauma, or physical health issues – especially chronic illness and disability. There were many support groups set up for this on Polyvore. Where are those people going to go now?”

Many users are asking the same question, and whether SSENSE realises that not only has a valuable creative outlet been taken away, but a support network has disappeared in the blink of an eye, too. “Polyvore was a place we could express ourselves, whoever we were,” says Anita Nikolic, who lives in Serbia. “Many people used the site as an escape from a harsh reality, it was their safe harbour. In short, Polyvore felt like home.” With the internet’s anonymous forums a sometimes dark place, that a source of such positivity has been dismantled makes Polyvore’s demise all the more devastating for members.

As the initial shock subsides, users are angry, as even a cursory glance through the #BringBackPolyvore results on Twitter will prove. Former members have called out to both SSENSE and former owner Oath to reinstate the site and restore their data, but, for the most part their pleas have been ignored. Many also called into question the motives behind the sale, and were not aware of the Canada-based retailer until they were redirected to the site over the weekend.

“I had never heard of SSENSE until I tried to open Polyvore, and I’ll never shop there,” says Jasmine Wingfield. “Their price range is completely inaccessible for the average person, and the styling is, in a word, vacuous.” She has a point: 60% of Polyvore’s members were aged between 18-34, and many of those used the site to create aspirational outfit sets as opposed to ones they intended to actually buy pieces from. “Presumably they bought the site for its user data (which was handed over on an opt-out basis, which we were only informed of after the transaction had occurred). But had SSENSE done their research, they would have realised that it wasn’t, on the whole, a shopping site, and the vast majority of its users were not from a demographic who could afford luxury goods,” Wingfield continues.  

Anita Nikolic is more blunt in her assessment of the reasoning behind SSENSE’s acquisition of Polyvore. “Many people, including me, think that SSENSE destroyed Polyvore to try to fight for a higher position in the industry, and to reach the level of Farfetch or Net-a-Porter and other successful Polyvore partners,” she explains. “Right now, SSENSE is redirecting all Polyvore links, including ones from Google, Facebook, Tumblr and Pinterest, from all across the web – which is millions and millions of hits – to its site. Additionally, SSENSE absorbed all of Polyvore’s Facebook likes, meaning Polyvore users must visit their page to un-like it manually, as well as their Pinterest and Tumblr pages if they’re active on there, too. Many people still don’t know about this – it’s not easy to inform all 20 million people – so some have not had the chance to opt-out. It’s abuse of user data.” In light of Facebook's extensive (see: understatement) data breach, and the fall-out of Cambridge Analytica, it's easy to see why people are concerned.

“A lot of people used the site as a form of art therapy to cope with mental or physical health issues – especially chronic illness and disability. There were many support groups set up for this on Polyvore. Where are those people going to go now?” – Anita Nikolic

Despite messages from distraught users across social media, and Coates’s ongoing petition, aside from sending out an email to users instructing them how to download their archived boards – which for many didn’t work – SSENSE remained quiet on the matter until an official statement was released on Tuesday night.

First apologising for the distress it had caused the platform’s community, the retailer went on to assure members it had not received any of the data they had entrusted to Polyvore. To users dismay, however, it also confirmed that SSENSE was unable to bring the site or its functionalities back, saying the parent company of Polyvore (Oath) was responsible for managing the content and data transfers.

Many are disappointed, not just with the fact that Polyvore really is gone, but also with SSENSE’s response. “The statement feels genuine, and it doesn’t seem like they had much to do with how the transition was handled – it just feels a little too late,” concludes Toronto-based graphic designer Kelly Best. “They waited almost a week before apologising or even acknowledging that anything unfair had happened. Being silent while people were rioting on their social media pages about something that mattered to them felt really dismissive.”

Elsewhere, users who were aware of SSENSE have called the closure of Polyvore a missed opportunity, saying that with the innovative retailer’s impressive brand list and aesthetic, it could have built on the site’s success and developed it into something new – or at least allowed users to create boards with its own product. “I don’t get the point of all this mess,” says Inès Mebarek, a fashion student from France. “Buy it, okay, but you don’t have to ruin it. I think they could have turned it into something great.”

But not all the blame lies at SSENSE’s door, say some. “The people I would be interested in hearing from are Oath Inc. and their parent company Verizon, who are the ones responsible for putting Polyvore on the market in the first place,” says Jasmine Wingfield. “Why did they choose to do this? Why did they make no effort to find a suitable buyer? Why was the handover managed so incredibly poorly, with no respect for their large and loyal fanbase?” To her, the real issue is much bigger than Polyvore. “The incident has shown up yet another worrying lack of consumer protection laws when it come to online services and social networking. Businesses have been ruined, friendships have been lost, and millions of hours of work have been deleted without consent or warning. It feels like I had an art studio filled with 10 years’ worth of work and someone just burnt it down.”