Hire power: what happened when I rented my wardrobe for a week
As fashion lovers seek an endless rota of new outfits to look fresh on Instagram, wardrobe rental firms have become a growing trend. Sophie Donaldson tried it out
Two weeks ago, fashion tech company Rent The Runway announced plans to open its first international office in Galway, creating 150 jobs.
The company does not offer its service outside of the US and so the concept of a luxury fashion emporium that rents its wares, instead of selling them, was unfamiliar to most.
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As a business model, it presents a compelling dichotomy, considering luxury items and second-hand clothing occupy very different spheres within the same industry. Despite the popularity of vintage clothing and the rise of re-sale websites like Depop, beloved by teenagers, there's certainly still a stigma surrounding pre-worn items, designer or not.
So who exactly would want to rent a pair of designer sunglasses for the weekend - perhaps people with expensive tastes, without the wallet to match?
Curious to try the rental experience myself, a little online sleuthing led me to Borrower Boutique, an Irish-based online company with a similar offering to Rent The Runway, albeit on a much smaller scale. Since founding the company in 2015, founders Johanna Dooley, Chloe Best and Sarah Monahan have noticed a shift in perception when it comes to pre-worn garb.
"When we first started, so many of my friends told me they thought it was a brilliant business, just one they'd never want to use," Johanna explains. "Now, however, it's almost a trend, thanks in part to the sustainability issue of constantly buying clothing. Every item is dry cleaned and when customers receive an item, it's 'as new'."
The website looks like one, long, aspirational Instagram feed, with a plethora of party-ready dresses and on-trend separates on offer. Aimed at Gen Z and Millennials, the site offers buzzy mid-range labels like Self Portrait, Rixo and Realisation Par. Whilst they aren't luxury, they can set a shopper back a few hundred euros for a dress.
As I scrolled through the items on offer, I spied a silk blouse from a label I've been coveting for months. Retailing for nearly €500, it is well out of my budget, but here it was for a fraction of the price. As I excitedly clicked 'Add To Cart', the appeal of 'borrowing' was made clear - I had a whole new wardrobe for the week for what I'd pay for a single item in a store. In total I spend €315 on four items, but €125 of that is a Rixo dress which is a steal considering a similar new season embellished frock currently retails for €580. Likewise, my silk Self Portrait dress costs €65 to rent, while I'd pay a minimum of €300 for a new season frock from the label. Sure, I'd have to return my haul after three days, but this is the age of Instagram, with nary a repeated outfit in sight.
Indeed, rental clothing companies could be just the ticket for influencers who need a seemingly endless rota of clothes. "People our age want items they can wear once, on holiday for example. Once they've taken a photo of themselves in the outfit, they are not going to wear it again," Johanna says.
Whilst it appears there's certainly a market to be tapped, I can't help but think that renting clothes solely for your Instagram feed would make for a rather expensive photo. In any case, it's far better than purchasing clothing, photographing it, then returning it for a refund, a practice that's become so prolific retailer ASOS has recently updated its returns policy to crack down on 'serial returners'. Besides, I am forced to put my curmedgeonly musings to one side when I sheepishly realise I'll probably be posting the photos from this story to my own Instagram.
Anyway, the majority of people renting clothes avail of the service to supplement their wardrobe for big nights out, special occasions, or when they have a last minute outfit crisis before a black tie event, like model and 'It' girl Thalia Heffernan. The dress she intended to wear to the recent VIP Style Awards didn't work out, and it was her make-up artist who recommended Borrower Boutique. Within the hour, Thalia was red-carpet-ready in a navy and white polka dot Rixo dress.
To ensure the item fits, Rent The Runway allows customers the option to rent the same garment in a second size for a small fee, while Borrower Boutique offers a try-on service for €10. Rent The Runway's items are reviewed by previous renters, with their own photos, so shoppers can see what the item looks like on a 'real' person. Likewise, Borrower Boutique's items are mostly modelled by the founders. Renting from 'the closet in the cloud', as Rent The Runway snappily describes their service, is designed to be as seamless as possible. Indeed, an email notification alerts me to the ETA of my clothes from Borrower Boutique and bang on time, a flurry of bags land on my desk.
Sashaying into the office the following day, I enjoyed a shower of compliments on the striped silk mini dress I had rather prudishly paired with my own brown polo neck. A colleague asks what it feels like to be wearing rented clothes and, honestly, it's pretty fabulous.
Whilst my colleagues were kindly gushing about my new look, the real test, I decided, would be the CGBF (Critical Gay Best Friend). He is as averse to second-hand clothing as he is to golf, and the only time you'd catch him wearing vintage is if he sloshed some 1998 Bordeaux on his shirt. Importantly, he has excellent taste and is appallingly honest.
The following evening, we meet some friends for after-work drinks, during which I studiously avoid the charcuterie board they've ordered for the table - just a drop of pesto or oil from the sun dried tomatoes would be disastrous on this dress. Afterwards, we meet CGBF at a bar. I casually remove my coat and wait as his eyes narrow.
"That's not your dress."
No, I reply, and tell him it's rented. He takes a sip of his wine before replying tartly: "Well you look fabulous - it's just a bit too pink." I consider that begrudging approval, and mercifully survive the evening stain-free. My few days spent in rented clothing has been a success, and I'd certainly consider it an option for special events. I must admit to feeling a small sense of relief once the items were bagged up ready to be returned - the past few days I'd experienced an ongoing sensation of unease, never feeling completely comfortable in the clothes should something go disastrously wrong. Needless to say, my fears of an exploding pen or jagged nail catching on a dress were allayed. If an item is damaged beyond repair, Rent The Runway charges the full retail price of the item. Borrower Boutique is more sanguine and considers damaged items on a case by case basis.
Whilst there's nothing revolutionary about renting a tux or gown, renting a pair of leggings for weekend brunch is a novel concept that's proved lucrative.
In March, Rent The Runway announced it is valued at $1bn thanks to its latest round of funding. It's a business model that could be replicated for any number of consumer goods. Just as you're only likely to wear that ballgown on a handful of occasions, how many times a year do you really use that bread maker or blow-up sun lounger?
Doesn't it make more financial, and perhaps even environmental, sense to embrace the rental economy?
As I give the silk blouse one last lustful look, I wonder if I could get used to having a temporary wardrobe. It would certainly make my storage situation easier whilst ensuring I'd never again stand in front of a wardrobe bursting with clothes, adamant I'd nothing to wear. By its very nature, fashion is fleeting and ever-changing, so shouldn't our wardrobes be too?