We’ve all done it: found the perfect outfit for our next night out, justified the price by promising (really promising) ourselves that we’ll wear it to our next three events – and the Christmas work party, too. Then months later we come across that must-have item limply hanging at the end of our wardrobe. We remember our promise, and why it was broken: Instagram. So it’s in the charity shop pile after just one wear.
But, the trend toward more sustainable fashion – for our purses as well as the planet – is breaking new ground. Enter, the rent-a-wardrobe services which promise the thrill of wearing new clothes without the hefty price tag, the guilt of spending or the cluttered wardrobes. It’s been gathering momentum in America with companies like Rent the Runway, and now it’s taking off in Europe and the UK, too.
It’s about time. Fashion has never been faster, cheaper or more convenient. We now spend an average of £1,000 a year making our clothes rails bulge and bin an incredible 300,000 tonnes of unwanted items.
Globally 53 million tonnes of garments are produced annually and a staggering 73% ends up in landfill or is incinerated. But, as highlighted by the recent backlash against Burberry following their incineration of £28 million worth of stock, consumers are beginning to wake up.
And the call for change is coming from all sides of the fashion spectrum. Although it may seem at odds with her sales targets as a coveted designer, fashion leader Stella McCartney is a big advocate of rental schemes. She even filmed her winter 2017 campaign video in a Scottish landfill site to highlight our waste issue.
It’s a business model that’s currently underrepresented. At a time when we rent cars, phones, music and films it was only a matter of time before fashion caught up.
The rental and subscription market, which includes luxury items and casual wear – not just occasionwear – is now making up for lost time. By 2027 it is expected to make up a third of our wardrobes, according to the latest research from Thred Up.
A JEAN-IUS IDEA
Shaking up the industry of one of our most-loved items of clothing is MUD Jeans, based in the Netherlands.
The company uses organic cotton and up to 40% of recycled materials in each pair it makes. It also uses 78% less water than the 7,000 litres that’s used to make the average pair of jeans. But best of all, it’s committed to the circular economy and is leasing its jeans to keep denim from landfill.
The idea, which began in 2013, is to ensure “every pair of jeans represents a valuable source of raw material which must be reclaimed and then recycled into a new pair of jeans,” says marketing manager Danique Gunning.
For €7.50 a month (£6.40) customers from around the world rent a pair for a year, then send the jeans back and get another brand new pair. The returned jeans are cut up into tiny pieces and mixed with other organic cotton to make the new items.
When a decent pair of jeans can easily cost upwards of £100, it’s actually easier on the wallet than buying a new pair every year, too. This model still appeals to the sense of newness that consumers want, but doesn’t price people out of having a more sustainable wardrobe.
“The millennials are becoming more and more important for us. They don’t necessarily want more material possessions but rather more meaningful experiences that help them live better,” says Gunning.
TALK THE TALK, WEAR THE WALK
Other rental services on the market are not only confined to jeans. In London, Zoe Partridge is giving the rental phenomenon a broader appeal with her company Wear the Walk. Dubbed the revolving wardrobe, for a £60 monthly subscription you’re sent clothes, wear them for a month, return them and receive something new.
Partridge uses emerging and mostly sustainable designers. Of the 2,000 items in her east London studio, most have a lifespan of about 30 rentals, after which they’re sent back to the designer to be upcycled or repaired.
It seems like a no-brainer, but it’s taken the majority of the year and half it’s been going to entice people in. “Last year was so hard as sustainable fashion wasn’t really a thing,” she says. “It hadn’t been normalised and people saw renting – like borrowing a Marc Jacobs dress for a wedding and not telling anyone – as a dirty secret, or like a Moss Bros concept.”
But this year, sustainable fashion has been far more widely talked about. “It’s become cool and we’re really riding on that trend,” she says.
For designers, the business model has the additional benefits of being a try-before-you-buy system. They have the luxury of pushing the boundaries in their designs, have minimal waste as most pieces are one offs, and customers can essentially test drive an item before deciding whether to invest in it or a similar piece by the same brand.
Riona Treacy, one of Wear the Walk’s designers, says: “rental clients tend to share their experience of wearing an outfit on social media, so it is a great insight into what shapes and items customers are drawn to wear for certain occasions.”
BUYING LESS AND RENTING BETTER IN THE DIGITAL AGE
With all these positives, why has renting clothes taken so long to challenge its retail model?
Dr Claudia Henninger, lecturer in fashion marketing management at Manchester University, says hygiene is one issue. “Seeing as clothes are close to the skin there are hygiene aspects that need to be considered and are more of a challenge compared with streaming music, for example.”
As such, dry cleaning is now something that’s usually included in the rental cost, along with any repairs or accidents.
Renting clothes is also as far from a one-size-fits-all model as you can get. The better something fits us and the more easily we can try something on the more likely we are going to find items we love. Advancements in technology are showing promising ways of making the rental model a lot more accessible and easier for customers.
Soon we might all be able to live the dream of a real-life version of Cher Horowitz’s digital wardrobe from the 90s film Clueless.
“Body scanners could provide the consumer with accurate sizing information and virtual reality could offer a new consumer experience,” says Henninger.
The future, to borrow – and build upon – a famous Vivienne Westwood quote looks set to be to ‘buy less and rent better’.
Main image: Wear The Walk designer Michaela Frankova