Where Did You Go, Polyvore?

Nepotism, wealth, and elitism have long been points of contention in the fashion industry. Twenty years ago, the industry was nearly unreachable by the “average” person and virtually impossible to access for those in marginalized sectors. The beauty standards, financial investment, and networks necessary to thrive in the industry made exclusivity synonymous with fashion. In 2024, although much remains unresolved and there is still a need to level the playing field, significant changes have occurred. The digitalization of fashion and the integration of social platforms with fashion marketing have created opportunities for a greater diversity of opinions to influence the future progression of the fashion industry. And one of the original social platforms to nudge those opportunities was Polyvore.

If you were a teen or tween in the 2000s and 2010s, you most likely remember Polyvore. At its height of popularity, the digital closet and mood board site hosted over 20 million users. Eleven years after its launch, Polyvore was purchased by a major fashion e-commerce platform and, with a day’s notice to its loyal Polyfam, was completely dismantled and erased. The creation and global popularity of Polyvore altered the fashion industry in a way that challenged the industry’s level of accessibility, and six years after its disappearance, the impact of Polyvore rings truer and more relevant than ever.

Polyvore has a beginning so sweet it’s rarely heard of in either tech or fashion. It began when the founder and former Yahoo engineer, Pasha Sadri, designed a digital tool to help him and his wife create mood boards for their house redecoration, replacing manually arranging clippings from interior design magazines. In 2007, Polyvore was born, after Sadri left Yahoo with two of his Yahoo co-engineers, Jianing Hu and Guangwei Yuan, and an idea to expand the digital tool into a site that offered mood board building across various design genres, including fashion.

Enter Jess Lee, the soon-to-be Polyvore CEO and honorary co-founder, who can be credited with launching Polyvore into its global impact. After being introduced to the site by a friend in 2007, a few months after its launch, Lee, a former manager at Google (think, assisting in leading the development of Google Maps), became obsessed with Polyvore. Lee loved the site so much that soon after her obsession began, she sent an email of praise to Sadri along with two pages worth of critiques and suggestions on how to improve the site. Instead of taking her advice and critiques, Sadri asked Lee for coffee to invite her to work for Polyvore and contribute her ideas herself. Lee accepted. With nearly unheard-of kindness, the Polyvore founders officially began recognizing Lee as an honorary co-founder. As she explained in a 2013 interview with the New York Times, “They didn’t have to do that, but the company has a culture of rewarding people who do make a difference.” A few years later, she earned the position of CEO.

Lee envisioned a revolutionized fashion industry through Polyvore: the opportunity to give users the same chance to ascend in the fashion industry through unconventional pathways as she did. The projected dream for Polyvore included brand collaborations, participation in fashion week, and starting a clothing line, most of which was achieved.

When speaking of the impact of Polyvore, it’s important to take into account that Polyvore was from an era of the fashion industry that is drastically different from the one we are experiencing today. Polyvore was born in a time when fashion critique, styling, and market influencing were severely limited to a small hierarchical group (cue Miranda Priestly’s speech about cerulean trickling down to the clueless Andrea Sachs). In an industry that historically creates barriers against class diversity in favor of nepotism and wealth, Lee wanted to create “fashion stars” out of anonymous Polyvore users who would have a direct impact on what was trending and what was marketable.

“Influencers in fashion right now are a cliquey club in New York that’s very hard to get into … The question for me is, can we make a random girl, with great taste, who lives in Minnetonka, influential? Can she gather enough followers that when she says, ‘This is cool,’ it’s actually cool? Can we shape the actual trends that happen?” – Jess Lee, WIRED (2013)

Polyvore gave the opportunity for users to exercise their interest in fashion from a large range of ages. It gave users the opportunity to engage with and style luxury fashion without wealth. It gave users a voice in what they wanted to see on the market and the streets. As Lee described: it was a mission to democratize fashion.

But Polyvore, like all art, creation, and community-building under late-stage capitalism, was, at its core, a business – and revenue, its fuel. Polyvore’s primary source of income? User-preference intelligence. Polyvore sold the intelligence it gathered on user preferences to fashion commerce and retail brands. The gathering of this intelligence allowed commerce brands to adjust inventory and marketing to fit the valued trends determined by the average of 20 million users on Polyvore. In simpler words, the Polyfam community directly impacted consumerism and the commercial side of fashion.

In 2015, Polyvore was acquired by Yahoo for 230 million to bolster Yahoo’s new focus on Mobile, Video, Natives, and Social numbers. The transition was rocky as Yahoo’s priorities changed after the acquisition. In 2016, Verizon purchased Yahoo leading to the eventual sale of several acquisitions including Polyvore. This time it was sold to the Montreal-based fashion e-commerce platform, SSENSE.


View this post on Instagram


A post shared by SSENSE (@ssense)


View this post on Instagram


A post shared by SSENSE (@ssense)

In 2018, a message was released by Polyvore to its Polyfam explaining that the site had been discontinued with no prior warning. Only after a public outcry was a month discreetly given to users to download their user data and opt out of its transfer to SSENSE – unfortunately, due to several technical glitches, users had difficulty opting out of the transfer and retrieving their data. With little warning given, SSENSE acquired a mass amount of coveted Polyvore user data. More than that, the e-commerce platform gained all Polyvore traffic as all Polyvore searches and links were redirected to SSENSE. Finally, SSENSE received any social engagement and promotion granted to Polyvore via social apps.

With absolute despair and uproar over the unfair treatment from loyal users against Polyvore’s then-parent company, Verizon’s Oath, and SSENSE, SSENSE released an apology (three weeks later) but the damage against the community had already been done.

There is irony in SSENSE purchasing and dismantling Polyvore. What made Polyvore so influential to the fashion community was its ability to allow users to create closets of items they were not currently able to afford – being able to influence the fashion market without requiring affluence. The dissection of Polyvore by a multi-billion dollar tech company to then be served to a multi-billion dollar fashion e-commerce platform to be digested and subsequently discarded is eerily poetic. All that remains of Polyvore is the haunting remanence of the Polyvore formatting in current fashion-marketing ploys and the reignition of fashion mood boards sparked by the hunger for escapism that often trails behind a recession.

Six years after the death of Polyvore, fashion influencing has changed drastically – whether it has changed in progression or regression remains debatable. As the economy trudges through a period of recession that coincides with a massively increasing accessibility to fashion theory and critique, the beginning swing of the pendulum push-back against who gets to decide the ways we consume and participate in fashion is palpable.

The most recent F24 show for The Row banned the use of cellphones and the capturing of content. They requested that guests have a technology-free focus on the collection while also keeping themselves in control of how their artistry is distributed. However, it can be critiqued that this move from The Row reinforced the notion that those not privileged enough to be members of the luxury fashion industry must wait; they are to be the influenced never the influencers. Responses to The Row’s decision have been as divisive as this overarching topic. It should be fashion experts who lead the discussion of trending styles, right? But then, there is the question of who can afford to be a part of that elite group of fashion experts and what exactly qualifies someone as worthy of participating.

Half a decade after its disintegration, the selling and dismantling of Polyvore feels almost prophetic. As digitalization drastically transforms the face of fashion, and consumerism and elitism push back against the increasing global accessibility of the industry, the ending reign of an intended-democratized fashion app resulting in driven traffic towards a less-accessible luxury market still storms with the pathetic fallacy of an elitism that has never entirely lost its grip on fashion.

, Where Did You Go, Polyvore?, Liminul MagazineHannah Verina White is a Montreal and Toronto based writer. She has a deep love for the melodramatic and nostalgic, both of which influence the way she writes and the subjects she chooses to write about.