Back in the 1990s, as an impoverished student in the UK, I rented clothes. Not day to day outfits, but if I was going somewhere super special, then designer rental was my first port of call. A first date; a university ball; my first job interview – these were all occasions on which I rented clothes, and I wasn’t alone. A good friend of mine was an even more voracious clothing renter than I was, and loved nothing more than to hire a Versace frock just for fun.
Why did we do it? Well, clothes were expensive. The disposable clothing trend wasn’t quite upon us, and even though I was a regular at UK high street stores like Top Shop and River Island, those clothes weren’t cheap – not the way clothes are now. I remember buying a pair of flared jeans for £30 in 1996 and feeling like I’d won the lottery. We actually saved our money, got up early on Boxing Day, and queued for the legendary Next sale where a £200 minimum spend was considered a win. Being able to walk into a store and refresh your entire wardrobe for £50 was a pipe dream - discounted designer was unheard of.
A lot has happened since then, though, and with the social media ‘Insta-ready’ trend and worries about the ethics of cheap clothes, I can see why suddenly clothing rental might be taking a front seat once again. It’s not that we don’t want to spend our money, it’s that disposable fashion has taught us a fresh new outfit for each event is essential. Social media demands it, but our wallets can’t support us to buy ethical investment pieces each time.
Research by Westfield in December revealed that one in five UK consumers would be interested in renting outfits from their favourite retailer, and in London, respondents indicated they would spend upward of £200 a month for an ‘all you can wear’ deal. New York-based designer hire company Rent the Runway are now moving toward everyday fashion rental, with co-founder Jennifer Hyman stating their aim was to “put Zara and H&M out of business”. They offer unlimited clothing rental for NZD$300 a month, and aim to become users full time wardrobe.
This model of subscription retail is common in the sharing economy, but subscription clothing hire is a completely different fish to the popular luxury dress rental services my friends and I frequented 20 years ago. It goes beyond the idea of accessing something nice for a special occasion - it supersedes the idea of clothing ownership completely.
Will it take off? Well it already has overseas. In China, YCloset launched a successful viral marketing campaign earlier this year to help waylay fears about the cleanliness of the clothes. In the UK, Girl Meets Dresses have said their business had changed from occasional hire to people renting two or three items a week.Founder Anna Bance told The Guardian, “ownership is becoming more irrelevant than ever before.”
This trend is pleasing to many commentators, noting that moving fashion toward the sharing economy could be very good for the planet. According to an article in the Independent in August, the average American is expected to bin 37kg of clothing a year, with 50 percent of fast fashion purchases discarded within 12 months. Subscription clothing rental could solve that, with each item getting at least four times more wear than if it were owned.
There are consumer upsides too. Writing for Ecocult, Alden Wicker says that renting key pieces alongside a capsule wardrobe could be a game changer. “Up until renting came into vogue, there was no way to affordably and ethically/sustainably take part in trends,” she says. “Just take the off-the-shoulder trend. It’s such a lewk, that you can’t wear it more than once a week. Do you succumb to fast fashion … or do you buy the sustainable/ethical version at $75, like I did, knowing that it will probably be out of style – if not next summer, definitely the summer after?”
In the US, many high street stores are already looking at separating their business into ‘sale’ and ‘rental’ and the ability to walk into a shop and walk out with a rented piece might solve the biggest failing of this model – the wait for the product. But jettisoning an owned wardrobe completely is a huge cultural shift for Westerners, and I’d not sure we’re yet to give up on our Carrie Bradshaw dreams.