New clothes, without the guilt, expense or wardrobe space associated with single-wear purchases? Before the coronavirus pandemic, smart shoppers extolled rental as a cost-effective and sustainable alternative to shopping. Several new British companies launched, loaning luxury clothes and accessories, and reporting exponential growth in their first years of trading. Could this be the future of fast fashion?
Then the lockdown began; shops shuttered, events cancelled, diaries cleared. Suddenly everything had to be vigorously disinfected and, as we were all holed-up at home for the foreseeable future, there seemed little need to change out of pyjamas. What would become of a newly-launched sector that relies on dressing up and sharing clothes?
Unsurprisingly, the rental market slowed – most businesses had huge plans for the spring occasionwear season, a key opportunity to convince new customers to try renting a special dress to wear once to a wedding, or to Ascot. ‘It’s a perfect storm,’ says Sacha Newall, co-founder of rental and resale platform, My Wardrobe HQ. ‘Fear of cleanliness and people not going out.’
One might have expected it to grind to a total halt. That hasn’t been the case. Natalie Hossack, creative director and co- founder of OnLoan, a monthly subscription rental service which allows clients to borrow pieces by brands including Cefinn, Stine Goya and Shrimps, explains; ‘over 60% of subscribers kept renting – getting dressed an act of much-needed joy, self-care.’ The handbag fanatics, too, have still been renting. COCOON, a subscription service which loans bags by Gucci, Loewe, Chanel and more, saw a similar pattern. CEO Ceanne Fernandez-Wong says, ‘for loyal members, COCOON remains a part of daily life.’
While the act of renting continued, the pieces people wanted to borrow changed. The London-based service Front Row typically offers pieces by international designers, including Balmain, Dior and Dolce and Gabbana. ‘We’ve seen a shift (from eveningwear) towards casual items,’ says founder Shaka Bodani ‘[it’s now] sports luxe and designer activewear.’
COCOON’s lockdown rentals were ‘smaller, everyday bags’. At peer-to-peer service By Rotation, rentals fell, but listings increased, as stuck-at-home clients, ‘Marie-Kondoed their wardrobes.’ OnLoan saw a progression, first ‘cosy knits, as we all reached for comfort,’ then, ‘anything with a puff sleeve and a print,’ to brighten up Zoom meetings, one presumes. Weeks into lockdown, statement dresses were heading out – ‘embracing the joy of dressing when you don’t have to take the tube!’ says Hossack.
One of the draws of the rental market is the sense of genuine care. ‘We never pushed our community to rent during the pandemic,’ says Eshita Kabra-Davies, CEO of By Rotation. Georgie Hyatt, co-founder of cult label rental site Rotaro agrees – ‘our business is built on trust, authenticity, shared values, not pushing fashion during a crisis.’ Hyatt recognised early that business had slumped, so paused rentals, temporarily switching to fruit and veg boxes and donating 10% of profits to the NHS.
Rental businesses are demonstrably agile. Alongside Rotaro’s veg venture, others adapted, albeit less radically, to the changing needs of their audiences. Front Row introduced online styling services, contactless pickup and a try-at-home service, My Wardrobe HQ saw a shift to resale of investment pieces. Companies universally agree that, for now, the primary focus is online – both My Wardrobe HQ and OnLoan have delayed plans for bricks and mortar spaces.
It seems the appetite for conscious consumption has only increased with the enforced pause. According to a recent Rotaro poll, 80% of their community have changed shopping habits since COVID-19 – ‘buying less, buying better.’ Front Row views rental as a clear solution to ‘materialism and over-consumption.’ By Rotation’s Kabra-Davies is inspiringly ‘bullish’ about the need for change, ‘we’re more aware than ever of the pollutive fashion industry and its exploitative labour.’ Her team recently introduced an impact scale, allowing renters to calculate their carbon savings from renting rather than buying. And in terms of wearer satisfaction? Win win – ‘all the thrill, no remorse – nothing makes you happier than packing up a really expensive dress, and returning it…’ says My Wardrobe’s Newall.
Of course, as Newall points out, virus transmission is a central concern – ‘before, no one would have been interested, nowadays, our Ozone cleaning is our most talked about topic.’ Every rental company mentioned here has implemented extra cleaning procedures to protect customers and employees. At Front Row each garment goes through additional steaming, is sprayed with an antibacterial detergent, then carefully packaged, wearing a mask and gloves. They, along with OnLoan, quarantine returned pieces for 72 hours, for added peace of mind.
With stores opening again and shoppers clamouring for a retail fix, will the rental market survive? The response from those in the industry is, unanimously, yes.
Rotaro has reopened and Front Row has already seen a surge in clients planning post-quarantine looks. Hossack says OnLoan’s renters are driven by a desire to enjoy fashion but consume less, ‘they don’t care what season something was made.’
This attitude chimes with moves to reassess the fashion calendar. The perfect post-pandemic wardrobe? ‘1/3 sustainable fashion brands, 1/3 vintage and 1/3 fashion rental,’ says Rotaro’s Hyatt. ‘Buying great quality items that we’ll own forever, and renting the rest, we save money, halt the landfill problem and support sustainable brands. It has to be the best choice for the future,’ says My Wardrobe’s Newall. It’s hard to disagree.