It's a stance most working women know only too well: standing in front of an open closet, weight shifted to one leg and head cocked to the side, as we critically survey the contents of its cavernous interior and tumble to the uncomfortable conclusion that we have absolutely nothing to wear.
There they hang in all their awful uselessness: the pieces, bought cheaply on a whim, that have already fallen victim to a handful of wash cycles; the beloved veterans, long-ago conquerors of the cost-per-wear calculus, that we can't bring ourselves to throw away; the shirt that would be perfectly serviceable if it didn't have a missing button; the dress that has been waiting to be dry-cleaned for two years; the frocks that flamed oh-so-brightly for a day and now flop listlessly on hangers like melting Dali timepieces, condemned to patrol for eternity the penumbral outer reaches of our wardrobe.
Rent the Runway co-founder Jennifer Hyman at the US start-up’s massive facility in New Jersey. “I want to put Zara out of business,” she says.Credit:Jamel Toppin/Forbes Collection/Corbis via Getty Images
Even when the closet in question is an exemplar of regularly edited, colour-coded plenty, the meteorological challenge posed by an impromptu long-distance work trip can suddenly render the entire offering inadequate.
Aimee Baldwin, 44, is a Washington, DC, technology consultant and one of few women operating in a man's world that's practically wallpapered in black, navy and charcoal suiting. Despite her job's sartorial constraints, Baldwin enjoys fashion – and in slivers of free time between weekly trips interstate to attend conferences and being a mother to seven-year-old Ryker, she writes a blog, my9to5shoes.com (its tagline: "Style ideas from a wannabe fashionista in a blacksuit world"). In April 2017, she was packing for two weeks away in Miami and Vegas: "Two totally different climates with specific dressing needs," she points out. "At least half of my closet is black suits and, on this occasion, I wanted to take a couple of fun, unique, high-end pieces with me that would work in those environments." It didn't make sense to buy them.
Baldwin is an early adopter of a growing trend – fashion rental – that began in New York and London and has now reached Australia. Some years earlier, she'd hired clothes from a start-up called Rent the Runway, but they'd been formal gowns for a gala here or a high-end wedding there. Then, three months after her son's birth, as she was getting ready to go back to work, she'd looked to Rent the Runway again and to other companies, such as Le Tote and Stitchfix, to help her transition back into her own wardrobe: she was losing her baby weight steadily and didn't want to buy new clothes in a size she was sure wouldn't fit her for long. "At the time, though, no one was catering to corporate needs and it didn't work," she says.
But by 2017, change was afoot. The year before, Rent the Runway – which had made its name giving women access to designer clothes to wear to black-tie functions for 10 to 15 per cent of their purchase price – had launched a second service: a monthly subscription, called Rent the Runway Unlimited, that helped them dress for their Monday-to-Friday work week. For $US159 a month, a customer could keep up to four items at a time, swapping them in and out of her closet at will. And it was going gangbusters.
Baldwin signed up. Over the course of her trip, she snapped herself kicking up her heels in a series of thrilling new outfits, including a black Trina Turk jumpsuit ($US348 retail price), a coral cutout dress, also by Trina Turk ($US298), and a draped wrap by Diane Von Furstenberg ($US448). Another DVF dress – a three-tone, longsleeved leopard-print ($US298) – she fell so in love with that she bought it as soon as she got home.
"Renting allows me to be adventurous," she says. "I wore a pink, off-the-shoulder Saloni dress for my birthday in Denver." She laughs. "So girly, such fun. Not something I'd normally have hanging up in my closet." After trialling other services, Baldwin only uses Rent the Runway Unlimited now: "I have clothes delivered to my hotel and return them as soon as I'm done to avoid carrying them back in my suitcase. It totally fits my needs."
"Our closets are the story of what once was," says Jennifer Hyman, the 38-year-old co-founder of Rent the Runway and, according to Forbes, one of the 12 most disruptive names in business. "These are the jeans that used to fit me; this is the dress that was in style. What if the closet became the story of today – and tomorrow?"
It's October 2018 and Hyman is on stage in conversation with Goldman Sachs chairman David Solomon for Talks at GS, a series of interviews with the world's big thinkers. She's wearing a Millennial-pink, three-quarter-sleeve jacket with skinny burgundy pants and a white shirt that disguises the early months of her second pregnancy. She likes to style her long, dark hair in bouncy, Kate Middleton waves. A Harvard Business School graduate who has been named in the latest Time 100 Most Influential People list, Hyman is powerfully articulate, her anecdotes peppered with soundbites, seemingly coined on the fly, that make journalists quiver slightly with pleasure.
Shortly after conceiving the idea of what she calls "the closet in the cloud", she went to see the president of prestigious US department store Neiman Marcus to ask him what he thought of it. "He told me customers had been renting the runway from him for decades," she says. "It's called buying a dress, keeping the tags on, then returning them. He said the No. 1 return date is January 2. The same women were then going downstairs and buying 10 pairs of shoes; in other words, they were his best customers. I thought, 'I can take away this piece of business – the negative-margin customer – he doesn't care about.' "
In its first week of business in 2009, 100,000 women signed up to use Rent the Runway. Then something really interesting happened: the women who were using the service four or five times a year to hire a dress for a special occasion told Hyman and her team that going to work – not parties – was the biggest occasion in their lives and there was a huge financial, emotional and time-based tax attached to dressing appropriately for their jobs every day. They'd enjoyed their ice-cream sundaes; now they wanted meat and potatoes, too.
"That question, 'Can you enable me to rent for work?' really was the birth of our subscription products," Hyman tells Solomon. "Now, two-and-a-half years later, the average subscriber is wearing us 120 days a year as a substitution for going into her own closet or buying.
"Hey, I have data saying the average American is only buying coffee 85 days a year!" she hoots. More than 60 per cent of Rent the Runway's revenue today comes from its subscription model. At the end of March, just as Hyman was preparing to go on maternity leave, Rent the Runway was valued at more than $US1 billion and granted unicorn status, an accolade only awarded to US start-ups that reach this figure. "I want to put Zara out of business," she told Bloomberg at the end of 2017.
Dean Jones and Audrey Khaing-Jones from GlamCorner, whose inventory has surged from 40 dresses when the business started in 2012 to more than 12,000 today.Credit:James Brickwood
Audrey Khaing-Jones and her husband, Dean Jones, are as warm and wholesome-looking as a pair of biscuits straight out of the oven; they're also co-founders of Australia's leading dress rental business, GlamCorner. When it started trading in 2012, it had an inventory of 40 dresses; now it has more than 12,000 by upwards of 200 designers with a collective worth of $80 million. Its number of active customers is in the "many thousands", says Jones; revenue is in the "tens of millions".
He shows me around GlamCorner's premises, home to 60 employees, inside a thrumming warehouse in Sydney's Alexandria. Racks of dresses snake around one room like a conga line on freeze-frame, while, down a flight of stairs in an adjacent space, an obsessive quality-control team manages, with the help of 16 commercial washing machines, the miraculous transubstantiation of dirty, incoming returns to box-fresh, outgoing product that's ready to ship again in just four hours. "We never thought we'd be in the laundry business when we started out, but here we are!" says Jones. "Some 20 to 30 per cent of incoming items leave us the same day they come back." A single garment, he tells me, has a lifespan of about 20 wears: when it can no longer serve its purpose here, it's either on-sold or sent to charity.
Khaing-Jones and Jones met at Sydney University in the first semester of their first term. She was studying accounting and finance, he marketing and finance. "From the get go, I could see what an adventurous and unique person she was," says Jones. "She grew up in Myanmar under a military dictatorship, which stifled any kind of entrepreneurial aspirations. She saw so much opportunity in Australia. She was exciting to be around."
After graduating, Khaing-Jones went into financial planning, while Jones became an investment banker. "Suddenly, every weekend, it seemed, we had to go to some event: an engagement party, a bridal shower, a wedding," says Khaing-Jones in her charmingly accented English. "I really started to feel the pressure of, 'What am I going to wear?', 'Will I be appropriately dressed?', 'Will I fit in?' My background in Yangon was hand-me-downs and make-do-and-mend: I didn't have any fashion experience. It was really stressful."
One day, she typed "rent a dress" into Google and discovered Rent the Runway. She wondered if there was a company offering the same service in Australia. "There were the traditional, formal boutiques here, but I didn't want a gown," she says. "I just wanted a beautiful, simple dress."
And so it began – with a Facebook page. Their hope was that GlamCorner would be a nice little earner on the side. By the end of 2014, though, it had become clear they were going to need to give up their well-paid jobs to manage the business full-time.
At the end of last year, the couple launched a two-tier monthly subscription service for workwear (Starter and Premium: $99 a month buys a monthly wardrobe refresh of three items, while $149 secures a box of three items and unlimited box swaps). The success of Rent the Runway was a compelling example for venture capitalists AirTree Ventures and Giant Leap Fund: to date, GlamCorner has attracted $4.5 million in investment. "Our objective is to offer customers a better deal, especially those who are shopping the fast-fashion price point," says Jones. "We want to remove the burden of ownership from her while keeping that price point the same and give her access to an infinite wardrobe of designer and quality brands." A heady hybrid, in other words, of designer duds at fast-fashion prices and on fast-fashion rotation.
"The GlamCorner girl, who shops most of the time at Zara, Cue and H&M, just loves the idea that she can be seen out wearing a Zimmermann top and tag herself on Instagram wearing it," says Melissa Singer, national fashion editor of The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age. "Zimmermann is a prime example of an amazing Australian fashion success story that's ultimately moving further and further beyond the reach of the average woman in terms of cost and size range."
Kat Kutchel, 25, is a social media and marketing coordinator from Chadstone in Melbourne. She has long hair with red-ombre balayage and is wearing large glasses with a white, tailored shirt, high-waisted jeans and a red and white scarf. About 80 per cent of her wardrobe, she tells me, is made up of canny thrift buys and vintage finds. "I totally relate to that thing Karl Lagerfeld said about tracksuits being a sign of defeat," she says. "I don't do casual."
Kat Kutchel in a rented Keepsake top.
Recently, she began a Starter subscription with GlamCorner as a way to introduce variety into her work wardrobe: "I'm looking for pieces that make a statement, so that when I'm in a meeting I make an impression." This month, she's having fun playing with a black, floral Keepsake print top with bell sleeves (pictured, $260 retail price: "It's very versatile"), a fire-engine-red midi skirt by Saba ($229: "I'm so attached I might buy it") and a blue-floral, vintage-style dress by Nicholas, "to wear out for dinner" ($650).
"All of these items are $200-plus, but wearing them gives me a good feeling inside because I didn't spend anywhere near that and I love a bargain," says Kutchel. "I'm getting a lot of compliments and I'm happy to tell people I'm renting."
Singer sees rental as particularly attractive to those who aren't fixated on wearing the latest trends. "There are a lot of women who wouldn't know or care that the Rebecca Vallance gown they're looking at online is three or four seasons old." Others, however, particularly as they get older, would rather wear a gown that's 20 years old and call it vintage than wear one that's four years old.
A recent GlamCorner Premium box that Singer received, containing a Rebecca Vallance dress, Elliatt suit and Ellery top, failed to satisfy, she says. "It's not a criticism of the individual brands – I like and own pieces by all of them. The items just weren't right for me on the day in the same way that they mightn't be if I tried them on in a department store. For me, at the moment, rental is still something I'd be looking at for black-tie only."
Still, the mood of shoppers is changing. In her book, The Sum of Small Things: A Theory of the Aspirational Class, sociologist Elizabeth Currid-Halkett details how awareness – social, environmental and cultural – has assumed its own cachet. As a result, Millennials – those born between 1981 and 1996 – and their Gen Z followers are turning away from low-quality, ecologically disastrous fast fashion in favour of higher-end brands that offer durability and functionality. According to an American brand affinity index, compiled last year by Goldman Sachs and Condé Nast, the top 10 brands include Victoria's Secret (in the No. 1 spot), Nike, Nordstrom, Kate Spade, Adidas, Gucci and Coach. Fashion retailer Forever 21 limped home at number 25.
But while having access to rarefied items is important, owning them isn't. Millennials are being resourceful in the way they access them because they know that permanent acquisition isn't only wasteful, it's also a bit … well, boring. Why permanently tether yourself to a Chanel Coco Splash tote today when you could be carrying a rented Dior Saddle bag next month, or a Balenciaga Motorcycle, bought third-hand from an on-the-march luxury resale site, such as the RealReal, thredUP or Vestiaire Collective, the next? Millennial queasiness around big spending – a vestige of the post-GFC hangover – also accounts for why fashion rental is growing by 11 per cent worldwide year on year, according to trend-watcher Allied Market Research, and expected to reach $US1.85 billion globally by 2023.
Shanya Suppasiritad, founder of wardrobe-sharing platform Tumnus.
Credit:Monica Pronk/Monica Pronk Photography
In 2015, Shanya Suppasiritad was a 32-year-old personal stylist, living and working in Melbourne, when her world – specifically, her place in it as a professional shopper – changed forever. After coming home from work one evening, she decided to pour herself a glass of wine and watch a new fashion documentary, called The True Cost, on Netflix. Directed by Andrew Morgan, the film is a harrowing examination of the supply chain that enables fast fashion to exist. It begins with a retelling of the 2013 collapse of the eight-storey Rana Plaza building outside Dhaka in Bangladesh that killed 1134 garment workers and injured another 2500, before going on to chronicle the misery of cotton farmers in India and Texas.
Suppasiritad's priorities shifted overnight. "I thought I had the power to educate my clients and be an advocate for change," she says, "but I realised early on it's not what they wanted to hear. They didn't want to know that the very thing that was making them feel better about themselves – fashion – is also damaging the world." Shortly afterwards, she went to a talk on sustainable fashion. "I found myself sitting next to this girl who was wearing a beautiful, white pleated skirt," she remembers. "The whole time I was looking at this skirt, thinking it was so perfect for a party I was going to the following week."
After the talk, Suppasiritad complimented her neighbour on her skirt. She, in turn, told Suppasiritad she was feeling bad about it now because it had been a "fast" buy from Zara and, in the next breath, asked her if she'd like to borrow it. Suppasiritad happily accepted the offer. That night, a lasting friendship – and a business idea – were born.
Last year, Suppasiritad founded the digital wardrobe-sharing platform Tumnus – "because Mr Tumnus is the first Narnian whom Lucy meets when she enters the wardrobe [in C.S. Lewis's The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe]" – which allows communities of like-minded lovers of fashion living in Melbourne and Sydney to lend and borrow existing items of clothing. "More than 100 people signed up in the first 100 days," says Suppasiritad. "We now have 400."
A quick browse of the platform reveals treasures aplenty: a fun, oversized royal-blue Elvis sweater supplied by Lisa in Collingwood; a strappy black Zimmermann maxi from Manisa in Coburg; and a colour-splashed silk maxi by Elk from Marcella in Northcote. At the moment, the service is free to lenders – the borrower pays for shipping, cleaning and, if the item's pricey, a deposit – while the average lending period is five weeks. In August, Suppasiritad will launch a subscription service "similar to Rent the Runway or GlamCorner except that instead of having our own inventory, our boxes will be curated by a team of stylists using lent pieces. Lenders will receive a payment for each piece that's borrowed".
The same year as the Rana Plaza tragedy, Dutch brand MUD Jeans introduced a leasing system for humanity's most ubiquitous uniform and one of the least ethical garments to produce. Customers have the option of either buying outright a pair of its organic cotton jeans or leasing them for €7.50 (about $12) a month. At the end of 12 months, they choose whether they want to hang onto them or swap them for a different style. Buyers and leasers alike promise to make use of MUD's free repair service and to send the jeans back to company HQ for recycling once they've reached the end of their lifespan. By 2016, founder Bert van Son – a wind-swept, 30-year veteran of the textile industry – was CEO of the world's fastest-growing sustainable jeans outfit. "We want to remain the owners of the raw materials, which means that we are responsible for the end of the life of the product," he says. "We clean up our own mess."
Sustainability is now key to the conversation around fashion rental, agrees GlamCorner's Jones. "If our average item is rented 20 times, that's 19 other times it didn't need to get manufactured in the first place. That's a 95 per cent reduction in the manufacturing and supply chain footprint." Last year, the company achieved B-Corp status, an accreditation that vouches for its meeting rigorous standards of social and environmental performance.
I meet Jessica Hussein, 42, as she snatches a quick bite to eat in her lunch break one day in Sydney's CBD. She's wearing a rented fitted black Elliatt Astral dress (retail: $209) and black patent-leather pumps. A busy mother of three who works as a relationship manager for a Japanese food service company, Hussein reckons that over the course of an average week she's wearing rented clothes two days out of five. "Wardrobe is a critical factor in my work, but I don't want anything that I'm not going to wear at least 10 times taking up space in my wardrobe," she says. "It's just so wasteful."
Hussein became one of GlamCorner's first Premium subscribers. "When I'm in-house, I have a uniform: black pants and blazer, white blouse and ballet flats," she says. "But when I'm going to meet a client, I make an effort. A client will see 120 people in a week. I have specific goals, things that I want him to partner with me on, so I need to be memorable." With the burden of ownership removed, Hussein, like Baldwin, says she's become more experimental in her choices. A few years ago, she would never have dreamed of wearing Gorman, a local designer known for her bold prints and colours. "I borrowed a beautiful dress recently … pressed pleats, fitted bodice, vibrant pinks, oranges and greens. I wore it with a plain blazer and people were stopping me in the hallway to give me compliments."
I don’t want anything that I’m not going to wear at least 10 times taking up space in my wardrobe.
She's happy to share with them that she rents her wardrobe. "I have a well-paid job, but I couldn't afford to update my wardrobe as frequently as I do using this service. And I'd rather wear something amazing that's been worn and cared for than buy something new and far less interesting off the high street." I ask her if, in all the time she's been renting, she's ever been aware of the, um, scent of another woman as she has unboxed a "new" dress. "Never," she says categorically. "And I've been a regular for four years."
Fashion and sustainability writer Clare Press.Credit:Damien Pleming
Despite highfalutin talk about the circular economy and the new "from waste to woke" era of enlightenment, fashion rental still faces a peculiarly visceral challenge: does it feel, well, icky to climb into an outfit that a stranger vacated just 24 hours earlier? For Clare Press, Vogue Australia sustainability editor and author of Wardrobe Crisis: How We Went from Sunday Best to Fast Fashion, it's an increasingly old-fashioned argument. "I interviewed someone once about this and she said, 'Do you think that way when you climb between the sheets of a bed in a five-star hotel room or when you eat in a Michelin-star restaurant using cutlery that isn't new?' It's so true."
Press rented her wardrobe for London Fashion Week in February from UK firm Higher Studio. Interested, primarily, in showcasing the edgier work of emerging designers, she delighted in wearing a flared wool coat by Minki London and a red silk coat-dress by Patrick McDowell. I ask if she experiences the same dopamine bump when unwrapping a rental outfit from its tissue paper as she does when the purchase is new. "It's even better," she says conspiratorially, "because you don't feel guilty afterwards."
But the rental model presents designers with a quandary in the same way, perhaps, that e-commerce discombobulated bricks-and-mortar retail outlets 20 years ago. Does the model cannibalise their sales? "Look, our customer is never going to buy an Alice McCall dress in David Jones for $700: she's spending $80 or $90 at Zara," says Jones. "We demonstrate to labels that we're able to introduce their brand to a new middle market that could become an incremental revenue source for them." In other words, the girl who rents a Ginger & Smart dress for her 21st birthday might feel more inclined to buy one for her 30th.
"We have deep insights compared to a regular retailer," he adds. "A designer has one season to get data on a product, but we can go back to him or her and say, 'That item from two years ago? It's very popular. We need more.' They say, 'I haven't made any of that in a while,' and we say, 'It'd be good if you could. Customers still want it.' "
Local designers don't want to discuss the issue – not with me, at any rate. "There are some who see this business model as a necessary evil and co-operate begrudgingly and others who've come to the conclusion that it can serve their interests," says Singer. "When luxury brands in the US were first approached by Amazon and the other big online retail behemoths, they worried that [a commercial relationship] would kill the value of their brands. But then they realised that numbers don't lie: if they were going to grow sales, they had to go where the customers are."
Finally, my inbox throws me a lifeline: an email from Anna Arcuri, design director at GlamCorner label Pasduchas. "I won't lie," she tells me over the phone. "Some of our stockists feel uncomfortable about the arrangement, but I believe rental is a trend that's here to stay and we need to work with it, not against it … And I think, ultimately, renters become buyers." Does she foresee a time when labels will be designing clothes specifically for a rental market? "Maybe," she concedes.
Sharing clothes isn't a new concept: women have been doing it with their wardrobes, and their children's, for generations. Neither is hiring them: men have been able to lease morning suits and tuxedos for decades. But when we take these old behaviours and add scale in the form of a global landscape of shifting consumer attitudes and – crucially – technology, it creates atmospheric conditions that allow the fashion rental proposition to intensify like a gathering weather front.
"Honestly, we didn't expect this opportunity to be as big as it has become," says Jones, as we sit sipping tea around a table on sunshine-yellow stools in GlamCorner's bright, white kitchen. "It might be the only time in our lives that an opportunity this big comes across the desk. We're feeling focused: this is our opportunity to change an industry."
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