The fashion site, the millionaire and the Instagram star: How Fashbae fell to earth

Backed by businessman Eric Watson and launched in a blaze of publicity, online trader Fashbae disappeared almost as quickly as it arrived. Now its founder is traversing the globe in a jeep. Business editor Maria Slade tries to keep up with events.

It had it all. A suave multi-millionaire investor and his lookalike son. An equally photogenic founder. Fashion. Cutting edge e-commerce, acres of media coverage, global expansion plans.

So what happened to Fashbae, the online trading platform that launched to much fanfare in early 2017 and expired not 10 months later leaving a trail of grumpy and out-of-pocket users in its wake?

Few newborn startups get as much attention as Fashbae. In its first months of operation the site enabling buyers and sellers to trade pre-loved clothing received coverage in a procession of national media outlets. No doubt it helped that its rarely-quoted backer, controversial businessman and former Warriors owner Eric Watson, was prepared to front up for pictures, video and aspirational interviews outlining the venture’s offshore growth agenda. “This is truly a beautiful thing, New Zealand can be part of a global expansion of e-commerce but the people and the marketing and the financial aspects of the business can be housed in New Zealand,” he waxed lyrical.

Its 23-year-old founder Bridget Thackwray had approached Watson, a family friend, with a promising idea. Fashbae’s point of difference was that it would tackle many of the risks and hassles of online trading, such as payment issues. In conjunction with NZ Post she had developed a payment system that took money from the buyer’s account but didn’t release it to the seller until the bought item had been posted.

Garments for sale on the Fashbae site

“Because of her knowledge, Bridget’s actually developed a platform that has huge applications,” Watson said. “She’s is a great example of how hard work and perseverance pays off.”

Watson senior asked his son Sam to help Thackwray raise capital and take Fashbae global.

“We’re seeing huge numbers of users coming online and using the site,” Sam Watson said in January 2017. “Bridget’s a fantastic operator so we have a lot of confidence in her.

“In total, we are looking to raise US$1 million, and not surprisingly the initial response has been very positive with US$500k already confirmed.”

But by October 2017 it appears the well-funded dream was over. Company Office records show Thackwray was removed as a director of Fashbae Ltd and her shares were taken over by Sam Watson and his friend, Unfiltered founder Jake Millar, who had previously held smaller stakes.

Activity on the Fashbae site abruptly ground to a halt leaving users high and dry. “I had sold an item of clothing and my money was sitting in the website’s wallet so I sent the item to the buyer,” trader Rachelle Lightband says. “I put in the tracking number to release the funds, which were a little over $60, but it didn’t work.

“I tried to contact Fashbae but they never replied to my messages.”

Juliana Dumitrescu was similarly owed money. “You had the option to have it in your wallet, and then when you wanted you could put in your bank account and get the money,” she says. “I thought ‘I still have some stuff to sell, I’m just going to wait’. And a month or two [later I] hadn’t logged on, and when I did, I couldn’t log in.

“There were lots of girls, a lot of items on to sell, I don’t know what happened to those.” 

Vicki Lilleyman isn’t out of pocket but remains irked by the pin-pulling. “I think I listed some things and then all of a sudden that was it. Then I just started to get annoyed because I thought ‘well at least she could respond’.

“She could have put a note.”

Disgruntled traders leave messages on the Fashbae Facebook site.

Hot on the heels of Fashbae’s apparent demise Thackwray met Topher Richwhite, a member of London rock band Lonsdale Boys Club, co-owner of an Auckland cocktail bar and son of high profile investment banker David Richwhite. Within months of meeting, the couple had embarked on Expedition Earth, an epic, social media-catalogued, three-year journey around the world in a jeep named Gunther. They aim to raise awareness of environmental issues, and are currently 18 months into the adventure and about to head to Arctic Russia, Thackwray reports.

Fashbae, like so many startups, didn’t make it, she says by email. “I think it’s amazing the support and encouragement in New Zealand towards starting a business. I see so many young people looking to give it a go, which I think is really great.”

Her father, yacht builder Phil Thackwray, unexpectedly passed away just after Fashbae was started. “It made it even more difficult as the business was in the stage where I could not be in the office constantly. 

“Beyond that, there was a lot of competition out there, and unfortunately it didn’t manage to survive.”

Asked about the out-of-pocket traders, she says “I was not involved with Fashbae during that time. However, I did see the comments online and also received a few personal messages on Facebook, so looked into what was going on.

“It was almost impossible for me to do anything since I was not working there anymore, so I did not have access to the website’s backend system. 

I queried the situation and I believe there was approximately NZ$350 frozen in the business, which was owed to around 15 customers. Everyone was contacted and re-paid from what I know.”

Former Warriors owner Eric Watson, R (Photo: Getty.)

Neither Sam Watson nor Eric Watson responded to The Spinoff’s inquiries. It is fair to say Eric Watson may have other things on his mind. As a result of court action in both the UK and New Zealand, Watson and his business interests have been ordered to pay $203 million to former business partner Sir Owen Glenn and the taxman.

Sam Watson is now group CEO at his uncle Richard Watson’s US-based hemp and CBD company Dr Watson CBD, according to his LinkedIn page. He hit the social pages recently over his relationship with his step-mother’s best friend and fellow Swedish model Frida Andersson Lourie.

Jake Millar says he has nothing to do with Fashbae. “I provided a seed investment (alongside other investors) into the company and had no executive or advisory role whatsoever, which the founders will confirm.

“The business was founded by two close friends of mine who I wanted to support with a personal investment – which I did – because I wanted to see them be successful,” he says.

Thackwray and Richwhite have support from a number of sponsors for Expedition Earth and relationships with conservation organisations including National Geographic, which they do assignments for en route. “Last week we actually received a hand-written letter from Sir David Attenborough wishing us luck on our journey and conservation work (he is a patron for a conservation program we work with), which has been such an amazing encouragement,” Thackwray writes. “The work we do for conservation is focused on the growth of the human population and its effect on the natural world.”

They have a few business ideas for Expedition Earth, she says. “The final leg of the journey is at this point looking to become a series. We are in talks with producers in the States and UK about this.

“However the end product of Expedition Earth will be a conservation-based organisation. We have already started working on plans for projects in New Zealand,” she says.

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