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Rent the Runway reached unicorn status in March. Since the US-based clothing subscription company launched in 2009, a healthy clothing rental economy has emerged with brands like Le Tote, Gwynnie Bee, Humm and Nuuly following in its footsteps. It’s proven such a lucrative business that many traditional retailers are adding rental to their offerings in a bid to compete. But what about in the rest of the world? In the US, the charge on rental has been driven by millennials and Gen Z, according to data from market research firm Lab42. It’s the same in the UK, albeit the market is newer and smaller: Mintel’s Fashion and Sustainability report found that half of millennials had either rented fashion or have considered it.
Priced out of the housing market and raised during the 2008 financial crisis, these consumers are likely to be driven towards price-sensitive and ethical products. They’re also more aware of the urgency of climate change and the environmental and ethical failures of fast fashion because of movements such Extinction Rebellion and incidents such as the Rana Plaza collapse in 2013.
As a result, a number of companies have emerged in this space and the UK’s rental market is expected to double in size over the next five years. Tamsin Chislett, co-founder of monthly clothing subscription platform Onloan, says: ‘A major reason fashion rental wasn’t taking off in the UK before was the strength of its high street. It was the best in the world for getting fashionable pieces at really low prices.’
But the UK high street suffered the worst September since records began in the 1990s, according to data released by Barclaycard. Look at the Arcadia Group. The retailer – which owns eight brands and operates 2,000 shops worldwide – once dominated the British high street but recorded an operating loss of £137.5m this year, a stark contrast to the £119.3m operating profit from the year before. And it is not alone. Online sales are also faltering, with year-on-year growth dropping to 7.5% in July.
‘A lot of people are fed up with the quality, the sameness and the overwhelming amount of stuff to choose from, as well as the ethical cost of it all,’ says Chislett. ‘It is the moment [for rental] to show people that you can have all the fun of fashion without having to buy into the accumulative and disposable nature of fast fashion.’
Founded in the same year as Rent the Runway, Girl Meets Dress offers subscribers with unlimited wedding or evening dress hires for a monthly fee of £99, while newer entrants to the market, Wear the Walk and Front Row, rent high end and designer pieces for a monthly subscription and an added rental fee of 10-15%.
Onloan deals in mid-range fashion. From £69 to £159 a month, the company offers nationwide users with a curated edit of clothing. Using a quick style survey, the team determines what fits along with the colours and styles a user would like. A carefully chosen selection of brands are on offer, from Scandi independents like Malene Birger to London-based sustainable fashion brand Mother of Pearl.
‘We didn’t plan on doing the style edit for the long-term, but people love it. Our customers have less time and appreciate having fewer options and knowing that things are in their true size, will fit their body shape and be in the right colours for them,’ explains Chislet.
Onloan has seen a 30% month-on-month growth since launching in July 2019. Customers are being driven to online clothing rentals part financially and part ideologically. ‘When we asked our customers why they rent, it is because they are fashion conscious and it is because they get to wear clothes that they could otherwise not afford. However, the main reason people do it is because it’s experimentation without commitment and it’s fun,’ says Chislet.
Being able to edit aside, Onloan is a logistics company as much as it is a fashion one. It owns all of the clothes, and also cleans and stores the items in its offices in east London. As the company grows it will have to find ways to combat problems in the industry. For example, Rent the Runway put a freeze on its expansion in September so it could address issues with its logistics and shipping, leaving thousands of customers without their orders.
Eschewing these tricky logistics, a few peer-to-peer rental companies have launched in the past six months – including By Rotation from former investment manager Eshita Kabra-Davies in April. ‘We want to be the Vestiaire Collective or Depop of mid-to-high range fashion rental,’ she explains.
Currently only operating in London, the fashion rental app is free to join but the clothes listed must have a value of at least £100 to make it worth exchanging and to avoid fast fashion making its way on to the platform. While avoiding fast fashion is in line with their sustainable ethos, allowing it to proliferate was the downfall of several other peer-to-peer platforms, including US companies Closet Collective and Dressmate, which has just relaunched as an e-commerce site.
Listings on By Rotation range from £5 per day for a Rixo dress to as much as £70 a day for the coveted Dior saddlebag. By Rotation takes 15% commission from lender and renter. With the option to rent for as little as £5, it is more accessible price-wise than Onloan and as such attracts a younger audience of women in the early 20s to mid-30s.
The app officially opened to the public in early October and has around 2,000 active users. This commission-based model with limited fixed costs means peer-to-peer is easy to scale, which makes it attractive to investors. However, where straightforward rental has its logistics problems, peer-to-peer needs to work harder to get potential users on board as it moves these pain points onto the customer themselves.
Aware of the possible pushback, many peer-to-peer services have set up partnerships to make the process easier. By Rotation, for example, has a partnership with Clothes Doctors, which offers users a discounted rate on cleaning and repairs. While Nu Wardrobe, another peer-to-peer app set to launch in 2020, has a partnership with Pedals, a London-based bike courier that also offers their users discounts. Both, however, have been pleasantly surprised by how willing users are to take on the cleaning and meet up instead of using couriers. ‘It was an assumption we made,’ says Aisling Byrne, the founder Nu Wardrobe. ‘People prefer to meet up because there is a trust element in it. They get to see the person who is going to borrow their piece and vet them a bit.’
Kabra-Davies agrees, adding that it is also a massive part of helping people get over the cleanliness stigma peer-to-peer seems to have accrued. As they grow and become more mass-market – moving away from a base of users with an activist and fashion enthusiast mentality – convenience may become more of an issue. The same is true for Hurr Collective, a London-based peer-to-peer wardrobe rental platform. In the UK, however, fashion rental is still very much in its infancy and these companies are constantly iterating. For both peer-to-peer and straight rental, growth is largely dependent on changing behaviours and perceptions. Although for many this is already happening in slow but meaningful ways. ‘We have been infiltrating girl gangs and that’s how we ended up with subscribers as far and remote as the Isle of Wight,’ laughs Onloan’s Chislet. The company is also thinking about setting up a drop point at Google’s headquarters in King’s Cross after one employee led to a strong base of Onloan customers there.
It’s a story all rental companies share: normalisation of the concept through referral. Emma Slade Edmondson, a sustainable fashion consultant and early adopter of rental, has seen proof of this in her work. ‘I get asked where I got what I’m wearing, and I end up with people you wouldn’t expect grilling me about rental, asking me to alleviate their fears so they can try it. All they need is a push,’ she says.
Diversity in the industry offerings is key to rental’s success as a whole. Onloan is already a riff on the rental model, attracting people outside the established demographic. ‘It had to compete with someone buying a £69 jumper on &Other Stories, say. Our customer is someone who grew up on a diet of Topshop but doesn’t have time to browse endlessly anymore,’ says Chislet. For Onloan, this is mostly women in their 30s and 40s who have the disposable income to buy into a subscription that lets them dress creatively, conveniently and aspirationally.
‘Rental is not there yet for us to compete,’ says Kabra-Davies. ‘We have to convince people it’s OK to rent first – we need to work together across different areas to do that. Honestly, I see the future customer being someone who works across several apps.’
The future of fashion looks like it is moving beyond traditional models. Ethical retailers will work alongside resale and rental to create a more circular economy. ‘A person will have several accounts. They will try, which may lead to buy, and when they’re done they will sell. Rental will be there to aid that and supplement a wardrobe of core pieces that are well and sustainably made with one-off pieces,’ says Slade Edmondson, who uses several services, including By Rotation and Onloan.
As Onloan’s Chislet puts it: ‘It’s a way to follow fashion without adding to the problem. It’s the have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too way of dressing.’