You are using an older browser version. Please use a supported version for the best MSN experience.

Will 2019 Be the Year We All Start Renting Out Our Own Closets?

Vogue logo Vogue 3/18/2019 Emily Farra
a person standing in a room © Arthur Elgort

As recently as a few years ago, the idea of renting clothes—vis-à-vis, sharing them with dozens of strangers—felt not just revolutionary, but also a little icky. Wearing a dress after someone else had possibly sweat in it or spilled on it? That’s just so. . .intimate. What if it smelled funny? Or had a weird stain? You’d have to be crazy to gamble on a rented dress for a big work event; you’d have to be crazier to start a business around the concept.

That reaction was ill-conceived, of course. The success of consignment sites like The RealReal and The Resolution Store (where you purchase used clothing, rather than borrow it) are two solid pieces of evidence that fashion’s “sharing economy” is catching on. Then, there’s rental services like Rent the Runway and Armarium, which are both in expansion mode. What at first felt like a fun, relatively low-cost way to try before you buy has now legitimately altered the way women shop and dress. Many women who subscribe to RTR’s Unlimited plan (at $159 per month, you get unlimited access to as many items as you want, rented in increments of four) treat the service like their actual—yes, unlimited—closet.

When I first met RTR’s founder, Jennifer Hyman, she told me she knew women who swung by RTR’s brick-and-mortar shop every morning on their way to work to find something to wear. The next day, they’ll come back to return that outfit, and the process repeats. Other women rely on RTR for weekend wardrobing: One of my sister’s friends, a nurse in NYU Langone’s NICU, wears a new rented outfit nearly every Saturday night. Her “work clothes” are scrubs, so when she’s off the clock, she’s experimenting with statement pieces.

Clearly, the market exists. There are still skeptics, particularly within the fashion industry, but maybe people in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones. Many of the clothes you see in street-style photos are, in fact, borrowed. Editors are accustomed to wearing runway samples to galas and weddings, and no one asks if someone else has worn it first. Most people understand that celebrities aren’t buying their evening gowns for the red carpet—they’re borrowing them from houses (or getting them custom-made, then likely returning them to the house’s archives). In some ways, rental services are bringing that ultraexclusive perk to the masses. We can all agree that a dress (or sweater or jacket) never feels as good as the first time you wear it, and when you’ve rented it—or purchased it secondhand—you get the added satisfaction of not paying the full price.

Over the last few months, several brands have entered the market with their own in-house rental channels: Rebecca Taylor, Express, American Eagle, and Vince are each powered by CaaStle (short for “Clothing as a Service”), which launched in 2011. CaaStle was born from Gwynnie Bee, a rental service built on a model similar to RTR. According to founder and CEO Christine Hunsicker, it was a chance to “test the waters” and gather data for what she predicted would be an even bigger opportunity for existing stores. “With CaaStle, we came up with a Netflix-style access model and felt it could be a great complement to retailers,” she explained on a recent call. “It would allow them to sell their ‘winners’ [or best-sellers] at really high margins and rent the things that didn’t perform as well while creating this deep engagement with the customer. But the biggest hurdle before we launched was, will consumers actually do this?”

What ultimately convinced her was the success of Airbnb. “To us, if you’re willing to rent out your home and the most intimate place in your home—your bed—and other people are willing to sleep in your bed, on your pillow, then people will rent clothing,” she said. “We knew it would take a while for it to become a ‘thing’ in the consumer’s mind, but we also knew they wouldn’t reject the idea because they are literally renting out the most intimate part of their lives.”

Even if you haven’t registered your apartment on Airbnb, the argument can be made that virtually everything in our lives is now shared. If you’re active on social media, your high school classmate (or even a complete stranger) could know what you did last Saturday, what your favorite restaurant is, or what your 2018 highlights were. How many of us can fathom going on a vacation or glamorous work trip without posting about it? The “pic or it didn’t happen” joke is becoming less and less of a joke. And if you’re documenting every moment of your life, you can’t wear the same thing in every photo.

There’s also the fact that Rebecca Taylor RNTD, Vince Unfold, and RTR Unlimited are subscription plans just like all of the other ones vying for our attention these days. But unlike the subscriptions that promote a “minimalist lifestyle” by eliminating any and all options—they might offer one “perfect” razor, for instance, or one toothbrush with refills delivered automatically every month—at least there are choices involved in renting clothes. These companies aren’t offering you one great dress; RTR has more than 6,000 dresses to choose from across the entire site. That’s the opposite of minimalism. The items that get rented the most tend to be of the bold, printed, and statement-making variety, too—not basic “uniform” stuff. From that, you can deduce that women are more likely to invest in their basics, like gray sweaters and jeans, but will rent the fashion-forward pieces they may only wear once or twice.

a close up of a white wall: A delivery from Vince Unfold. © Photo: Courtesy of Vince Unfold A delivery from Vince Unfold.

How does that work out for Vince, a brand rooted in a kind of low-key California minimalism? For starters, the decision to launch Unfold was bolstered by Vince’s success on Rent the Runway: The platform offers data that a department store never could. “On Rent the Runway, our ‘keep’ rate [where users decide to keep an item they’ve rented] is very high,” brand director Tomoko Ogura reported. She’s seen similar rentals convert to purchases on Unfold; Ogura and creative director Caroline Belhumeur believe it comes down to Vince’s superior quality. “Our clothes lend themselves to being passed from one person to another because they don’t fall apart,” Belhumeur said. She went on to explain how her own daughter, a teenager living in Los Angeles, only wants to shop on Depop, a peer-to-peer secondhand app, never mind the fact that it’s all used. CEO Brendan L. Hoffman agreed: “Half of the clothes in my daughter’s room are someone else’s,” he said. “She just trades with her friends. That generation is growing up very differently now. So, the endgame [for Unfold] is to get younger people into the brand earlier, so as they move on in life and in their careers, they become shoppers in our main store.”

This 27-year-old might not be considered one of Vince’s younger shoppers, but that made sense to me. I tried Unfold for a couple of months and was struck by the variety offered on its site; it felt akin to shopping on Vince’s regular e-commerce page. The hammered-satin bias-cut skirt I’ve had my eye on was there, along with some lofty cashmere knits I could never afford to buy, though I was extremely tempted after a long winter of rotating through the same sweaters over and over. How Unfold works is similar to RTR Unlimited and other rental plans: You get to borrow four items at a time, but you can switch out your items as often as you want for $160. You don’t necessarily get to choose which four are delivered each month, though; you’re encouraged to keep 24 items in your “Edit,” or virtual closet, at any given time. My first delivery included a chunky cardigan, a silvery camisole, a teddy jacket, and an oversize plaid “shacket,” something I wouldn’t normally gravitate towards. But why not give it a go? Having a bag full of new-to-me items also made it a lot easier to get dressed for work in the mornings; I wore my Unfold pieces every day for a week. Shortly after returning them, I was pinged to add more items to my Edit, but admittedly found it a little difficult to find 24 I genuinely wanted to wear.

The other app I tried was radically different from Unfold, Rent the Runway, and virtually every “sharing” app I’ve seen. Wardrobe, which launched in beta just before the holidays, is arguably the most intimate sharing experience yet: It allows you to rent clothes directly from other women’s closets. Creating a profile on Wardrobe is as easy as setting one up on peer-to-peer consignment apps like Depop or Tradesy, but Wardrobe is aiming to elevate that experience in a few ways: It doesn’t accept fast-fashion brands, and its team reviews every photo for quality control. If you don’t have a real camera or a well-lit space to photograph your pieces, Wardrobe even sets up studio hours in New York every week.

Interestingly, Wardrobe’s founder, Adarsh Alphons, cited Airbnb, too. “We’re living in a world where Airbnb books a million nights a day, and you’re taking a shower in a stranger’s house and sleeping in their bed—sometimes when they’re also in the house,” he said. “I think people are ready to borrow a jacket.” He and his team spent months organizing focus groups and talking to women about how they already borrow clothes amongst themselves: what they like to borrow from friends, what they’d never borrow, and so on. “We don’t want this to just be a transaction,” Alphons added. “I wanted it to be a little bit more. I think when you fit into someone else’s jacket or dress, it brings us a little closer, because that [personal] experience and that karma passes through.” Every transaction can be sent with a personal message, so it becomes a conversation. “What works about Airbnb and Lyft is that you know there’s a human on the other side,” Alphons continued. “This isn’t a faceless corporation you’re borrowing from. The strongest connection is always between two people, not a person and a corporation.”

a screenshot of a cell phone: A glimpse of the Wardrobe app. © Photo: Courtesy of Wardrobe A glimpse of the Wardrobe app.

On the app, you can follow someone’s “closet” much like you’d follow their Instagram profile; for influencers in particular, it seems like a pretty genius new revenue stream. Instead of just telling her followers where to buy a skirt or bag, for instance, an influencer (or editor or model) can put those items up for rent on Wardrobe. For many women, knowing they’re borrowing from an Insta-famous girl whose style they admire could be a game-changer.

While Wardrobe aims to be a social experience, you aren’t actually meeting the person you’re borrowing from (unless you want to, of course). Once your request to borrow an item has been approved, the owner will drop it off at their nearest Next Cleaners or Jay Cleaners, which operate as Wardrobe’s “hubs”; there are 40 locations throughout New York City. The item is then transported to the hub closest to you and you pick it up, wear it, and then drop it off to get dry-cleaned before it lands in the owner’s hub again.

As you might expect, Alphons got the idea for Wardrobe from surveying the unworn stuff in his own closet. The concept isn’t far off from his first business, Project Art, which transforms underutilized library spaces into art schools for kids; it now operates in 43 libraries across the U.S. “I thought, If someone wants to borrow a suit from me for $50, I’d be totally up for it—just get it back to me in one piece,” he said. “There’s 3.6 billion items of clothing left unworn, and 70 percent of what we buy ends up in the garbage within the first two years. Consumption is going up as we throw more away.” In contrast, every time you wear a rented item, you reduce its carbon footprint and extend its lifespan.

Unsurprisingly, Gucci is one of the more popular brands on Wardrobe. Party dresses are a big category, too, but during our meeting, Alphons pointed out a few accounts dedicated to vintage; they were similar to the vintage “shops” on Instagram, where you place orders via direct message. One woman on Wardrobe isn’t willing to actually sell her vintage collection, but is happy to let you borrow her ’40s dresses and ’60s jackets. A few stores and boutiques even have Wardrobe accounts, like Assembly New York. “It’s a good way for stores to rent out some of their extra stock or past collections without putting them on a huge markdown,” Alphons explained. That’s a clever answer to a serious problem—one we can see catching on quickly.

I borrowed a few items on Wardrobe before New York Fashion Week, when I was living just a few blocks from a Next Cleaners. The process was quite seamless, and since I knew I’d eventually have to give it back, I wore my two-tone sweater three or four days in a row. I hope the girl who borrowed it after me liked it just as much. The next step is to create my own Wardrobe account and post items from my wardrobe—I just haven’t had a chance to take photos of everything. A few coworkers are surprised I’m willing to rent out my clothes to complete strangers, but I’ve had someone mining my closet for the better part of 20 years, so something tells me I won’t have much trouble.

https://assets.vogue.com/photos/5b44e07bc794d20c56539d7a/master/w_660,h_165,c_limit/Banner-Runway.jpg

UP NEXT
UP NEXT
AdChoices

More from Vogue

AdChoices
image beaconimage beaconimage beacon