My dear friends, Ania and Anne, Monika, Teresa, Dorota and Dorota, Lidia, Ela, Marta, Joasia, Tanja, Agnieszka and Johanna, Kasia, Krysia and Christine, Maria and Maryla, o, Esther of course – is it something we can copy for Berlin? Can we start with our own items and see how it works? I have plenty of things, probably we all have…
Rent the Runway Wants to Lend You Your Look
With its subscription service, the company has created an unusual hybrid of fast fashion and luxury. Will it stop you from buying new clothes?
At the back of my narrow New York City closet, squished between a thick sweater that has gone ignored since last winter and a long-retired pair of floral-print jeans, is a dress that I have never worn. I bought it at Zara last April, in a flush of springtime optimism. The dress is a hundred per cent cotton, midi length, and belted at the waist. It is also bright yellow, somewhere between ripe banana and free-range egg yolk. In the dressing room, I thought that it made me look cheerful, like a modest yet sexy daffodil. At home, my unsparing mirror told the truth: I was Big Bird with pockets. The return window closed long ago; that’s seventy-nine dollars added to my open tab of sartorial bets made and lost, joining the expensive brocade palazzo pants I wore to a fancy function and then forgot about, and the mom jeans that I got on a trip to Stockholm, where they seemed safely on the hip side of hideous. I have plenty of clothes that I love. Even so, the weeds are starting to choke the garden.
According to Jennifer Hyman, the C.E.O. of Rent the Runway, I am not alone. “Every woman has the feeling of opening up her closet and seeing the dozens of dead dresses that she’s worn only once,” she told me recently. Each year, as Hyman is fond of pointing out, the average American buys sixty-eight items of clothing, eighty per cent of which are seldom worn; twenty per cent of what the $2.4-trillion global fashion industry generates is thrown away.
Chief among the culprits here are fast-fashion businesses like Zara and H&M, which flood their stores with a constantly renewed selection of cheaply manufactured styles cribbed from high-end designers. Inditex, the Spanish company that owns Zara, is the biggest clothing retailer in the world, and produces 1.5 billion items a year. Its business relies on both the fact of surplus and the impression of scarcity. If you take a few days to mull over a possible purchase, it may well be gone by the time you return. Prices are low enough to nudge customers to buy that bedazzled leopard-print cape to wear out on Saturday night, even if it ends up at Goodwill on Sunday morning.
Hyman founded Rent the Runway in 2008 with Jenny Fleiss, while both were in their second year at Harvard Business School. The idea was simple. Men have long been able to rent tuxedos for black-tie events. Why should a woman spend a fortune on a gown that she’ll probably never wear again? Rent the Runway gave women access to designer dresses for a fraction of the sticker price. A dress was delivered in two sizes, returned by prepaid shipping label to the company’s warehouse, dry-cleaned, and sent out to the next wearer.
A few years ago, Hyman thought hard about how to expand the business. The company tried offering a subscription service for handbags and accessories, but it fell flat. At a focus group held in Washington, D.C., Hyman spoke with a customer who compared Rent the Runway to an ice-cream sundae. “It’s delicious. It makes me feel awesome,” the woman said. “But after I eat the sundae I feel really fat, and I don’t want to have another one.” Hyman said, “For me, that was a eureka moment. She was saying that Rent the Runway was a nice-to-have, not a need-to-have. If I’m going to be an analogy to food, I want to be your meat and potatoes.”
In 2016, Hyman and Fleiss launched Rent the Runway Unlimited, a subscription service that initially aimed to help professional women dress for work, and has since expanded to cover most of their daily fashion concerns. For a hundred and fifty-nine dollars a month, a customer can keep up to four items at a time, rotating out any piece as often as she likes. She might, in October, rent a heather-gray coat in a woollen-cashmere blend by Theory (retail price: $925), then, in December, trade it in for a pillowy Proenza Schouler puffer ($695), with three rental slots remaining to cycle through a dizzying selection of skirts, slacks, joggers, jeans, and jewelry that she might wear to the office, or to a party, or on vacation, once, or ten times, or never.
By the end of this year, Rent the Runway will offer fifteen thousand styles by more than five hundred designers, with a total inventory of eight hundred thousand units, stored in what Hyman calls “the closet in the cloud.” Browsing that inventory on its Web site, or scrolling through its app, can feel like bobbing for apples in the sea. Styles go by—too cheesy, too skimpy, too random, too reasonably priced to waste a rental on—and then: a billowy floral Marni skirt ($1,140; “TO DIE FOR,” according to one reviewer), or a sporty Vince day-to-night number ($375; “glamorous & comfortable”) to pair with a bold Oscar de la Renta tulip necklace ($990; “Walked around like Princess Diana with it”).
“Lots of forces are disrupting the fashion world right now,” Cindi Leive, the former editor of Glamour, told me. “There’s the over-all demolition of every old rule you can think of about how people should dress. The concept of work dressing versus casual dressing is gone in a lot of fields. So is the idea of dressing for day versus night, or of what makes a January outfit versus a July outfit, or of what’s appropriate for a twenty-year-old versus for a fifty-year-old.” With its subscription service, Rent the Runway has created an unusual hybrid of fast fashion and luxury, offering speed, variety, and that dopamine hit that comes from buying something new plus the seductive tingle of leaving the house in something expensive. Customers are encouraged to play with their style without guilt. If a piece doesn’t work out, it goes not to a landfill but to another user, and another, and another.