Cast your mind back to this time last year, pre-pandemic, when a £39.99 polka-dot dress from Zara was the only viral fashion phenomenon getting all the headlines. In retrospect, it’s fair to say that its arrival, and swift departure from the shop floor, was probably when must-have-but-will-probably-wear-once culture reached its divisive peak; lauded by fast fashion conglomerates, lambasted by the eco-conscious.
Was it really necessary for everyone to own the same dress, asked the critics. What pleasure lies in wearing exactly the same thing as at least three other women in the office? Why don’t people just buy it and, you know, share it?
Step forward, fashion rental companies. Having already been widely adopted in the US, thanks to the pioneering platform Rent the Runway, until early last year renting clothes was a concept mainly reserved for special occasions here in the UK. Yet several style and tech-savvy entrepreneurs who had spotted its potential and brought it to UK shores were starting to gain traction.
It wasn’t long before magazine editors began to hail rental as a refreshingly guilt-free model, thanks to its sustainable credentials, and users were signing up to lend and rent in droves. Then, Covid-19 struck.
As the retail industry reeled from profits taking a heavy blow, high-street stalwarts fell into administration and celebrated high-fashion houses shuttered, it would be logical to expect the burgeoning fashion rental sector to take a nose-dive, too. After all, with social engagements cancelled indefinitely and a new era of suspicion when it came to sharing and touching common surfaces, who would want to lend and rent clothes to strangers? It turns out, lots of people.
Eshita Kabra-Davies founded the rental platform By Rotation, which launched in October 2019 and quickly became a favourite thanks to its roster of cult brands and influencer-approved items. She says the number of users on her app has grown from 12,000 to 25,000 since 23 March 2020, the day the UK went into lockdown, while the number of items listed by lenders grew by 120%.
Sacha Newall, CEO and co-founder of the UK’s first fashion rental marketplace, My Wardrobe HQ, which she launched with Tina Lake in 2018, says she saw a 50% increase in stock listed by brands and private lenders. As the summer grew to a close, Selfridges launched its Project Earth initiative, which included its own rental service in collaboration with the platform Hurr, founded by Victoria Prew. Selfridges’ executive buying and merchandising director, Sebastian Manes, said the service is “feel-good fashion suited to our customers’ mood right now”.
How these companies function is as simple as it sounds. By Rotation, for example, is a peer-to-peer service, so private lenders and renters manage the process themselves, either posting or meeting up to exchange items, and taking care of the cleaning (under brand guidelines) with no interference – unless there’s a problem – from the business. A kind of Airbnb, but for clothes. My Wardrobe HQ, meanwhile, holds items it authenticates from independent sellers and unsold stock from brands, and looks after the couriers and cleaning. They make their money from taking a percentage of the rental fee.
How much you pay (or receive) depends on what the lender asks for; how long you can keep it varies (most have a minimum of four days); and there is no statute on how old or new each piece is, it just has to be in really good nick. Other popular rental sites that have risen to prominence recently – including OnLoan, Endless Wardrobe, the Devout and Rotaro – use similar models, or an increasingly popular subscription service which sees customers pay a fixed amount for anywhere from two pieces a month.
The main difference between this new-wave of fashion rental and its old reputation for fancy dress is that these are items to wear every day; pieces that scratch that itch for something new without claiming precious space and hard-earned cash, or giving in to fast fashion. Through a post-Covid lens, it’s easy to see why it’s capturing the zeitgeist.
“Rental is picking up because people are really concerned about their pay packet but still want something new and nice to wear without the financial risk,” says Newall, whose re-sale integration also allows a renter to buy a piece for a fraction of the original retail price if they happen to fall in love with it.
As well as the financial implication, periods of lockdown have paved the way for a more Marie Kondo-approved style of living, says Kabra-Davies: “A lot of people have noticed how small their space is and how much stuff they’ve amassed, and realised they don’t need that much.”
On a larger scale, people have had time to reflect. “We’ve become more aware how fast-fashion is produced,” she says, citing recent investigations into how brands treat their garment workers. “I think people have had time to read a lot and they’ve realised there’s something wrong with the way that they are consuming. They’re beginning to look for ways they can replace fast fashion.”
Ironically, Newall says, it was the arrival of fast fashion that originally displaced fashion rental from the high-street so it will be familiar to some, but “for the younger generation, the idea of access over ownership is something they fully embrace.”
Both Newall and Kabra-Davies credit the “eat out to help out” scheme for giving their businesses a boost in August. “It suddenly gave people a licence to have a bit of fun again and indulge themselves in a way they maybe hadn’t done with Covid,” says Jane Shepherdson, chair of My Wardrobe HQ and the woman responsible for Topshop and Whistles’ success in the 2000 and 2010s. “Without knowing what you’re going to be able to go do [Post-Covid], rather than buy something and potentially only wear it once, rental gives the opportunity to wear something for one night.”
Often, that will be something you might not have been able to afford: a Chanel quilted handbag to spruce up your back-to-work look (retail price £3,000; yours for £18 a day); a Valentino blouse for your next Zoom meeting (£1,590 to buy; £26 a day to rent); or a bright red Ganni jumper for drinks (£280, or £8).
“I love the accessibility and democratisation of it,” says Shepherdson, who says she would never have bought the “full-on embroidered Gucci suit” she recently rented. (Said suit retails at £2,100, but rents at £34 a day.) Kabra-Davies extols the lender benefits, too. “Users who have been renters become lenders, because they think: ‘Why don’t I make £50 for a weekend of renting something I won’t even be using?’”
The environmental benefits of a circular rental model – compared to wear-once consumption – are, of course, the driving factor behind many brands chasing the rental market. According to Greenpeace, global production of clothing has doubled in the past 15 years, contributing to the £140m worth of clothing which is sent to landfill every year in the UK alone.
There are of course concerns about contributing to carbon emissions through more frequent cleaning and transportation, yet in most cases theses are minimal, offset or in the process of being improved. The majority of platforms, including My Wardrobe HQ, use recycled packaging, green couriers and ozone cleaning, a process that eliminates bacteria and viruses (popular right now for obvious reasons).
Meanwhile, the peer-to-peer services encourage their users to exchange in person where possible, and to care for items using eco-friendly methods (although By Rotation issued guidelines and encouraged people not to meet during the height of the pandemic).
A frequently raised issue for the rental fashion industry is that it negates the “buy less, buy better” mantra adopted by sustainable fashion advocates, which encourages consumers to make long-term investments in their clothes. Kabra Davies – like her counterparts – promotes a capsule wardrobe made up of quality pieces which can be regularly reinvented with rental.
“People have said we should be trying to not want those things, but that’s just an impossible thing to do,” adds Shepherdson. “You can’t tell people not to want something, but you can find a way to allow people to have that feeling responsibly.”
Rather than deny the innate human desire for newness, which we associate with pleasure and reward, fashion rental can give us the dopamine release we need – maybe more so during tough times – says Carolyn Mair, behavioural psychologist and author of The Psychology of Fashion. “We get used to things that give us pleasure quickly but the strength of the initial pleasure depletes over time,” she explains. “Fashion thrives on our need for novelty and so renting – and other options that allow us to have ‘new to us’ – satisfies so many of our current needs.”
Fashion rental relies on changing perceptions around sharing and second-hand goods – and renegotiating the concept of “new”.
“If you think about it, nothing is ‘new’ in fashion,” says Therese Bassler of Style Coach, who encourages her clients to use rental services when appropriate. “It’s just presented in a different way at a different time… newness is the perception of the individual.”
The increased appetite for individual expression in lieu of following trends also plays into rental fashion’s hands. “On the high-street, [brands] are selling a lot of the stock they never sold last year this year, which shows you things aren’t really changing,” Shepherdson says.
Bay Garnett, the stylist and Oxfam ambassador who brought a thrift market to Selfridges as a part of the charity’s “Second Hand September” programme, notes the shift in consumer attitudes, too. “Who’s going to listen to anyone saying, ‘You should be wearing this? This endless train of stuff, this relentless marketing to make us think we all want and need [things]. People don’t want to do it any more. It’s like being force-fed something.”
As someone at the forefront of retail for more than two decades, Shepherdson sees an exciting future for rental fashion. “We’re seeing a lot more brands who want to come and trade with us directly as they know the narrative is changing,” she says, noting that it was already tough for brands to turn a profit with 100% footfall, let alone reduced by 60% now.
“It makes perfect sense that a designer would design purely for rental,” she says. “When they’re wholesaling, they’re selling for something like 30% of the retail price, whereas if they rented something only four or five times they’d make the same amount of money. There is definitely a shift happening.”
Newall agrees: “It’s interesting that people understand the message that it’s not only good for the environment, but good for them personally. That’s when you start to see real change.”
What a difference a year makes.
Ready to rent? Five more rental fixes for fashion-savvy men and women
Rotaro Founded by former trend-forecaster Georgie Hyatt and her partner Charlie Knowles, Rotaro offers fashion-forward cult labels such as Rotate Birger Christensen, Ganni and Rejina Pyo. TheyIt offers in a range of more than 200 pieces from £15 for a four-day loan, as well as a service to choose two dresses and return the one you don’t wear. It uses sustainable processes where possible, from its biodegradable packaging to eco-friendly laundering and repair. rotaro.co.uk
Endless Wardrobe Rather than sourcing from elsewhere, Endless Wardrobe owns all of its stock, so there are many sizes of the same item. Including brands like Alexa Chung, De La Vali and Essentiel Antwerp, it’s the go-to party dress service and is great for a holiday wardrobe. Prices include delivery, dry-cleaning and damages, and if you love an item you’ve rented, you can ask to buy it at 80% of the RRP. From £19, endlesswardrobe.com
The Devout Many services specialise in occasionwear; the Devout offers a great selection of everyday essentials, loungewear and workwear for men and women. A subscription service allows customers to choose five pieces for £79 a month, and once the clothes can no longer be rented they’ll be added to an outlet sale. Any unsold items will be passed to Shelter, which supports people struggling with homelessness. thedevout.com
Onloan Tamsin Chislett and Natalie Hasseck created Onloan in 2018 to ‘reignite a love of clothes without the guilt’ so fashion can be ‘truly enjoyed, not consumed’ and women can dress for who they are ‘that day, that month, or even that moment’, in labels like Shrimps and Baum and Pferdgarten. Memberships can be paused or cancelled any time. From £69 a month, onloan.co
Moss Bros Dating back to 1897, Moss Bros is an old hand at the rental game and has perfected the process of suit hire: book an appointment and an expert will help you choose, and give styling advice, from how to tie a cravat to whether to wear oxfords or brogues. From £49.95, mossbroshire.co.uk