Here at Who What Wear UK, we're all about delivering the latest and greatest shopping edits, as approved by our team. That's why we've created The Joy of Shopping, a shopping column that will see me, Joy Montgomery, discussing the brands, buys and ideas that are preoccupying my mind this month—think homewares, outerwear and everything in between. Is there something you'd like me to cover? Be sure to tweet or Instagram me your requests!
"I just have one more question," Carrie Bradshaw says, her perfectly undone hair swept over her shoulder. "How does an unemployed girl with three room mates afford the patchwork denim Bowly Louis Vuitton bag?"
"It's rented," replies Louise from St. Louis. "Bag Borrow or Steal. It's like Netflix for purses."
It's 2008, and this scene from the first Sex and the City film is my first exposure to fashion rental. It's presented as a niche concept, a closely guarded secret of budget-savvy fashion lovers, and it could not be more alien to Bradshaw and her insatiable appetite for freshly unboxed, crystal-clad Manolo Blahniks.
The idea that you would borrow something for a limited period of time, only to then give it back a month later was, and still is, at odds with the fast-paced fashion cycle and the culture of ownership that tells us we deserve to accumulate a museum's worth of clothing over our lifetime. Yet fast-forward to 2021, and experts predict that the UK rental market will be worth £23 billion by 2029, a huge increase from 2019's comparatively modest figure of £400 million. I doubt even Louise from St. Louis could have seen that coming. The rumblings of a rental revolution are underway, and it's about time we took notice.
A Rental Revolution
Once a market populated by a select few—most notably Rent the Runway in the U.S.—the last five years have seen countless start-ups launching smart rental platforms that disrupt the prevailing open-loop fashion model and in turn presenting a more sustainable future for the industry. In the UK, this has manifested in platforms such as Hurr, Onloan, By Rotation, Rotaro, Endless Wardrobe and My Wardrobe HQ, and more are springing up every day.
Despite the ongoing pandemic sending tremors through all sectors of society, the "circular economy" business continues to boom, and the world of fashion rental is starting to see the pay-off. For example, only last year, Hurr secured substantial investment from New Look's founder Tom Singh. Even fashion heavyweights such as Selfridges are jumping on the bandwagon. After seeing huge success with its Hurr pop-up, the store announced that it was launching its own rental platform, which would be managed by Hurr and allow shoppers to rent hot-off-the-runway pieces for four, eight, 10 or 20 days.
"For Selfridges Rental, the goal is to create an edit of the most desirable items to fit today's ever-evolving lifestyle," says Head of Womenswear Buying Jeannie Lee. "The service gives customers the opportunity to get their hands on that standout piece without being hindered by budget, or even try product with their current wardrobe before making the final purchase decision."
Thandi Maqubela wearing a Jacquemus dress rented from By Rotation.
While I, of course, applaud the innovation on display and the promise of a more eco-conscious future, I have remained somewhat dubious about rental's practical applications for the average consumer. Author and activist Emma Slade Edmondson is a vocal champion of the fashion rental model and uses the subscription-based platform Onloan. I asked her what inspired her to start renting and what her experiences have been.
"I've long had quite a thoughtful approach to how I interact with clothing, and I follow what I call a hierarchy of need," she says. "1) I shop my own wardrobe first. 2) I borrow or buy second-hand, or 3) I buy from a sustainable brand," she explains. "When renting became an option, 3 got swapped out for rental, and buying new was pushed into option 4. It just made sense to keep clothes in circulation for as long as possible given the colossal amount of clothing that heads to landfills each year (11 million garments each week, according to Oxfam).
"I find that with rental, you get all the perks of 'newness' without contributing unnecessarily to waste and overproduction. You support new models that keep clothes in circulation for longer and cared for for longer. This is the future in my mind."
Georgie Hyatt, co-founder of rental platform Rotaro.
Putting It to the Test
As helpful as anecdotes can be, I thought it was about time that I put the system to the test. While I have enjoyed renting one-off pieces for big events, I decided that Onloan's subscriber-based model (i.e., paying a fixed amount per month for a few pieces rather than loaning one-off items) was the set-up that would integrate most seamlessly into my day-to-day wardrobe.
Launched by Natalie-Anne Hasseck and Tamsin Chislett in 2019, Onloan was born from a frustration with the lack of innovation within the industry. "I'd worked in fashion for many years and had started to fall out of love with the industry. I was really ready to walk away from fashion, but Tamsin presented me with the idea of building Onloan, and it became all I could think about," explains Hasseck. "It was a way to help solve a lot of the issues I was seeing at an industry and consumer level."
Lucy Williams wearing pieces that she now rents out on Hurr.
"The perception of rental has changed rapidly," she continues. "Customers used to see it as a solution for event-wear only, but now they use it much more frequently as a way to switch up their style and for everyday use. We see trends as a marker of culture moving forward, and although we pride ourselves in avoiding 'hype trends,' we also recognise that our customers really enjoy using Onloan to road-test new styles that they might want to later invest in."
With my first fashion rental experience ahead of me, I ask Natalie what her top tips were for newbies such as myself.
She responds, "I'd say try the clothes you've told yourself you'd never wear. Last week, I took my sassy alter ego out for a spin in this Ciao Lucia top, which is the sexiest item of clothing I had worn in a while, and I felt amazing. It's about wardrobe freedom without the consumer guilt and being able to explore different versions of you. It's a wardrobe of infinite possibilities."
One rental site, four items, one month. Challenge accepted.
Bianca Foley in a Ciao Luca dress rented from Onloan.
How much does it cost?
At Onloan, you rent items on a monthly basis using a personal subscription service. There are a couple of different tiers: You can get two items a month for £69 or four for £99, which works out at just under £25 each. I decided to try the four-item plan for my road test.
How does it work?
First, I signed up to the service and chose my subscription. Then, I was able to select my items out of the 25 brands currently on-site, some of which include AlexaChung, Stine Goya, Joseph and Kitri Studio. I simply added to my basket, and my package arrived 48 hours later in reusable packaging that I later used to return my items.
Jo-Ann Alari in a Shrimps dress rented from Onloan.
What did you choose?
You'd think that being a fashion editor would prime me for moments like this, but I actually found picking my four items to be surprisingly tricky. My limited edit meant I was forced to think carefully about what I would wear the most that month and what had the most versatility. I suppose if I did this on a regular basis, I could be more adventurous, but for the purposes of reviewing the service, I wanted to ensure maximum wear from my selection.
I ended up choosing a vivid-green Kitri suit, which I figured could be worn together or mixed and matched with other items in my wardrobe; a floaty Stine Goya checked midi skirt, which ticked the print box; a throw-on black Kitri dress, which could be adapted for both smart and casual occasions; and finally, an amazing silk Maggie Marilyn short-sleeve shirt because, well, it was pretty.
What if I change my mind?
One of my favourite parts of the service is that you can easily swap items if you change your mind or require a different size. I believe that for rental to work en masse, it needs to be adaptable to the consumers' needs, and the ability to try things on is an important part of the shopping process. Case in point: The trousers on my Kitri suit had a small mark on them, so I contacted the site, and they allowed me to pick an additional item—a fab AlexaChung denim jumpsuit. Simple.
Overall, I found the whole process to be much smoother than I anticipated, and picking, ordering and returning my pieces (I dropped them off at the nearest DPD checkpoint using the prepaid shopping label) required very little effort.
I like the fact that rental allowed me to embrace the excitement of newness without experiencing the dreaded spender's guilt. The idea of using the platform to experiment with my style, try new brands and generally celebrate the creativity that I've always loved about fashion is undeniably appealing. I can also see it being useful for specific occasions or life phases. Think a big summer holiday or even pregnancy. That being said, I don't think rental could replace those big investments, such as classic winter coats or heirloom-worthy jewellery, that are designed to be bought and treasured for many years.
While there is clearly huge potential in this new approach to consumption, I think there is still a way to go before it is a service that is truly available to everyone, regardless of budget, taste or clothing size. As a whole, rental platforms need to ensure that a wide range of sizes is catered for and that an eclectic mix of brands is available to choose from.
I also acknowledge that for many people, £99 a month would not be viable, and currently, these platforms are directed at a consumer base with a high disposable income. I would love to see high-street brands used in the same way: Perhaps you could ask for £40 a month to rent four items from brands such as COS or Arket? I could totally see Gen Zers going for it.
But as with any new business concept, it always takes a while for things to settle, for bugs to be fixed and for the word to spread, and I'm optimistic that it's only a matter of time before rental makes its mark on the mass fashion market. But until then, I'll be cheering it on from the sidelines. Vive la rental revolution.