Men may be used to renting a tuxedo for special occasions. But if you ask the average woman about renting a dress for a holiday party, she’ll probably find the idea a bit distasteful.
Not law school student Sarah Mannix. She sees nothing untoward about renting a dress. She graduated from college five years ago, and back then it was normal for her to go into one of her friends’ rooms and ask to borrow something.
“Borrowing someone else’s clothes to wear for one night has always been my 'go to' move for having a good wardrobe,” says Mannix.
Rental clothing companies are betting on that attitude. Some have niches such as plus-size or pregnancy clothing. Others offer aspirational customers like Mannix a little luxury. Shawn Grain Carter, who teaches at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York, says young consumers watch plenty of reality TV and read a lot about celebrities’ lives. They want to imitate that lifestyle.
“You might not be able to afford a yacht, a private plane or second home,” says Carter. “But you can afford an Hermes handbag, a Birkin bag, and then you can return it because you only need it for that weekend to impress your friends at a bar mitzvah.”
Jennifer Hyman, co-founder and CEO of 5-year-old company Rent the Runway, says Spotify, Netflix and AirBnB are just part of the rental economy, and that fashion is an obvious next step.
“I fundamentally believe that within the next 10 years … every single woman will have a subscription to fashion,” she says. “Just like she has a subscription to music and entertainment. And a portion of what you wear will be things you rent.”
Of the companies that have sprung up during the last 10 years or so, Rent the Runway is the biggest and most ambitious. It specializes in leasing designer gowns and accessories for a few days at a time. Customers search for their garment and reserve it online. After they've worn it, they ship it back to the company’s warehouse in Secaucus, New Jersey. It’s dry cleaned, mended if necessary and shipped to the next customer – often on the same day. The company says it runs the largest dry-cleaning operation in the U.S.
I had never thought about renting a dress before, but I ended up trying one on in a Rent the Runway New York showroom. Briefly slipping into a deep plum, sleeveless gown made me feel a bit like Cinderella. I could rent the dress for $165. Sadly, my life isn’t glamorous enough for me to need it.
Mannix goes out a lot more than I do, and has spent about $800 at Rent the Runway over the last few years. She prefers to rent rather than buy because her goal is to look good at the particular event she’s attending.
“I’d prefer not to be wearing the same thing that I’ve been in Facebook pictures or on Instagram wearing six months ago,” she says.
She may not have to wear the same thing twice even when she starts work as a lawyer. Rent the Runway recently launched a subscription service. Customers can put together a queue of everyday clothing and accessories and receive a few new items a month. Mannix is on the waiting list.