How fashion rental became a significant player in the eCommerce game

A little over a decade ago, as eCommerce was finding its feet, a few savvy entrepreneurs spotted a gap in the market for luxury fashion rentals online. Whilst suit hire companies like Moss Bros have long acknowledged that men’s occasionwear is far more practical on a rental basis, the majority of the fashion industry have historically failed to recognise that purchasing multiple designer gowns to wear once and discard is not hugely practical, nor do we wish to be photographed in the same outfit at every event due to the pressures of the current social media climate. Designer labels and high-end brands are the oft-coveted dream for many fashionistas, but remain an unrealistic commitment for most: not only is the price tag large, but many feel the decision to select just one statement piece too pressured.

Enter Bag Borrow or Steal: one of the original rental platforms that launched well over a decade ago, this innovative platform allows users to hire designer handbags and accessories for a fraction of their purchase price, making luxury labels accessible. Founded in 2004, the idea was wildly successful and sparked a multitude of similar platforms with diversifying product ranges; in 2019, consumers can rent pretty much anything they desire, from designer earrings to high street dresses, as well as loaning their own luxury goods to other users to help cover the costs of more lavish purchases!

It may still be an emerging market, but the increasingly diverse offerings available are making rentals one of the fastest growing trends in fashion and eCommerce.

Eco friendly renting

Consumers globally are sending enough clothing to landfill every year to fill 459 Olympic-size swimming pools, which is simply unsustainable for the environment. Experts are urging consumers to be more considered in their approach to purchasing (and perhaps more importantly, disposing of) their clothing for the sake of our planet. Fashion rental services can help to minimise the volume of clothing we throw away, reducing the amount we purchase in the first place, and in turn the number of damaging processes undertaken by the fashion industry to manufacture clothing.

Research reveals that each item must be worn a minimum of thirty times in order to justify its own creation, so for a statement piece that is unlikely to surface more than a handful of times at best (like that sequined jumpsuit for the one black tie event you attend in a year), renting means that multiple users will help each item to be worn the recommended thirty times to balance its environmental impact, especially as rental clothes are appropriately dry cleaned and mended by professionals to extend their lifespan.

The volume of returns is currently growing at an alarming rate and comes with serious negative consequences, including emissions, non-recyclable packaging, and plastic waste. Renting can help reduce this volume by regulating how often things are sent out and returned; rather than ordering a constant stream of clothes to try on and send back, renters receive and return goods on an agreed schedule, reducing the volume of shoppers who order multiple items throughout the month with the intent to send the majority of them back.

Circumstantial renting

For eco- or budget- conscious shoppers, renting rather than buying appeals when you already know for sure that an outfit will only be worn once. For those who usually stick within a fast-fashion budget but have a luxe event to attend, renting a designer gown is preferable to parting with hundreds of pounds for an item which will either live in a wardrobe for the rest of its life or attempt to find a new home via a dress agency.

A more common circumstance where the rental market appeals is during pregnancy: some sites, including Rent the Runway, who also offer maternity wear, provide the perfect solution for mums-to-be who happen to have a busy wedding season and an ever growing bump. They even provide a service which allows you to submit your due date as part of the registration process so you can receive tailored recommendations for each stage of your pregnancy!

Everyday renting

What was once a luxury service is beginning to transcend fashion, with high street favourites Urban Outfitters announcing their plans to launch a rental service in the US this summer for the reasonable price of $88 (£69) per month for six items, compared with sites like Front Row offering a single Missoni dress at £250 for 5 days.

UK based Hirestreet are already cornering the market in accessible occasionwear: with the slogan ‘for that “I’m only going to wear it once” moment’ and dresses starting at £6 for a four day rental, they stock popular high street brands including Topshop, Zara and French Connection appealing to a much broader demographic. The priciest item on the site is a statement Jarlo maxi dress for £48, still highly affordable compared with some of their designer competitors. Companies like Hirestreet and urban Outfitters are opening up the world of fashion rentals to a lower budget and youth-centric taste, aiming to capture an emerging spending power and influence their habits to include rentals.

Is rental the future of eCommerce?

Fashion rentals are still far from the norm, and perhaps they will never become so, but we are certainly seeing a sizable shift away from the purchasing of occasionwear which will be worn once and then packed away. A move towards high street and fast fashion rentals appeals to a younger demographic of Millennials and Gen Z, who already view renting as the norm. For several reasons, home ownership is harder to attain than ever, and borrowing a strangers apartment via Airbnb is becoming the go-to holiday choice. For ‘Generation Rent’ hiring clothes and accessories seems logical, and indulges the social media based desire to never repeat a look: as soon as you have a new event to attend, you simply choose a new outfit.