How the Rental Fashion Market Has Made Itself Pandemic-proof

Updated: Sep 3, 2020

As seen on Fashion Roundtable.

If you’ve watched the first Sex and the City movie, then you’ll remember the scene when Carrie’s assistant Louise struts in sporting the latest Chanel bag and declares it ‘rented.’ For many of us, owning the latest ‘It bag’ feels like a very surreal and distant dream, yet renting opens up designer labels to a far greater audience. According to Business Wire the global online clothing rental market reached $1.26 billion in 2019 and is on-track to reach the predicted $2.08 billion by 2025.

The sharing model is nothing new and has been around for generations. Non-monetary sharing has always been central to a circular economy and we can see this play out in the surge of free repair cafes that have been popping up all over the UK— with experts offering their knowledge and a ‘how-to’ on fixing anything from bikes, to textiles, antiques and even electricals. Renting is another form of this, and fashion companies like Rent the Runway in the States have been around for over a decade, based on the principle that everyone deserves to have their ‘Cinderella moment’ and providing everyone with the opportunity to experience luxury fashion. Repairing, upcycling, mending and renting keeps items in circulation for that much longer and can only have a positive impact on our environment. In fact, a report by the Ellen McCarthur Foundation found that if we just doubled the number of times a garment is worn, then on average green-house gas emissions would be around 44% lower. For me, this is one of the simplest and potentially most powerful ways of capturing fashion’s true value. 

Initially, many designers had reservations about this model, but this has seen a large shift over the last few years, with the benefits for brands far outweighing any negatives. Not only are a new audience experiencing their products, the possibility that renting could replace the fast-fashion model entirely and end in its demise is perhaps the biggest draw card for luxury brands. There is also a very real advantage to cut-out the copycat controversies that occur each season and the dilution of designer’s brand equity. Remember Zara’s complete rip-off of Tuesday Bassen’s artwork back in 2016? 

Since Covid-19 hit, our shopping habits have shifted online and for many of us there will be a period of understandable restraint and a tightening of our purse strings due to the economic standstill of the past few months. With this in mind, more people have seen the benefits of monetising their wardrobes with the UK’s leading rental platform, My Wardrobe HQ. It has seen a 50% increase in their listings since the start of the pandemic. This is definitely an option that is on consumers’ minds as we look for ways of consuming fashion more consciously.  

With this in mind, I went straight to the top and spoke with Sacha Newall, the founder of My Wardrobe HQ. For those with reservations about sharing, well anything, in the current climate – this may put your minds at rest. The majority of items listed on My Wardrobe HQ are straight from the brands who made them and since the start of the pandemic they have doubled their direct brand relationships. Every item that arrives at their warehouse (even bags and shoes) are fully sanitised using an innovative system called Ozone. This uses a type of oxidation to kill bacteria and viruses and essentially disinfects, sanitises and deodorises garments, shoes and accessories. My Wardrobe HQ are also working at launching a subscription-based service moving into the new year offering unlimited outfits to subscribers each month. “If you want to do the school run in full Isabel Marant each day, you can. And then swap it out for a different designer the next,” says Sacha. Their aim is to offer a new kind of accessibility to women while challenging the current linear fashion system. This allows access to all the latest trends below what we’d each spend per year on fashion (in 2017 it was estimated that we spent around £1,042.00 annually on clothes). 

Rental fashion companies have placed customer safety first, and adopted new strategies to limit contact between those using their services. “Throughout lockdown, we strongly recommend using a home collection or courier service like MyHermes’ contact-free collection to post rentals as safely as possible”, says Victoria Prew, co-founder of Hurr Collective. ”Since small-scale events picked back up at the start of July, demand has surged for more casual, everyday rental pieces. Over the past month, HURR members have been renting for picnics in the park, date nights and staycations too!” Likewise, By Rotation has seen a 60% increase in app users since lockdown began, listings are up by 50% and 10,000 people have joined their Instagram community during the pandemic.

The average woman in the UK owns around 95 items and only wears around 59% of them. Very few of us haven’t made a fashion faux-pas, myself included. I’ve heard the line ‘I’m hanging onto it for when I lose a few pounds’ more times over my career than I can count – it’s something that I’ve even done myself. Frankly speaking, one of the biggest obstacles with renting fashion is giving up the ideal of ‘owning’ everything. This no longer works. You only have to look at the state of the environment, to realise that if £140 million worth of clothing is ending at landfill each year, then we have an exponential crisis on our hands. There has to be a mix of systemic change within design practices, but also a change in how we consume fashion.

Speaking purely as a stylist, renting makes sense on so many levels. It has the opportunity to offer consumers all the latest trends at a far better quality, and the ability to change these pieces regularly without any buyer’s remorse.  I’d recommend focusing on investing solely in the essentials i.e. good quality crewneck tee, white shirt, sustainable denim and perhaps a blazer. You could then utilise the sharing model to rent trend-driven pieces and or pieces for events. In fact, with far fewer events to go to at the moment, renting could certainly offer the key here and would ensure that we don’t buy into pieces that may not get as much wear as we’d hoped and leave us short for other more essential items. 

As a society we have become accustomed to buying new at an alarming rate and the reason we’re seeing so many pieces at landfill each season is that fast-fashion brands have capitalised on the throw-away influencer culture, leaving many of us feeling a very real pressure to keep up. Here in the UK, we’ve been far slower on the uptake of rental fashion. We need to devalue the concept of ownership, so renting becomes the most viable option. In an ideal world, this would put into practice everything we’ve been talking about. For example, it would allow us to support fashion designers and with less players in the field would increase the opportunity for brands to do right by sustainability. Scaling-up the rental model could also start a shift away from our throwaway society. What I particularly like about the rental model, is its openness for everyone to be included at some level. After all, fashion should be for everyone. And if renting is truly a possible solution to the demise of fast-fashion, then where do I sign up?