Consumers have a newfound interest in access versus ownership, and the industry has trailblazers like Rent the Runway and Airbnb to thank for fueling an explosion of sharing economy startups hoping to capitalize on the shift.
Today, consumers can seemingly have it all without paying for it all, thanks to companies seizing on the opportunity to serve consumers who came out on the other side of the Great Recession with a new appreciation for the ability to share things without the hassle and permanence of “mine.” Data from Statista pegs the sharing economy market at $35 billion by 2025, $20 billion more than its estimated value in 2014.
As consumers have gotten cozy with the idea of sharing—choosing Zipcar over buying a Ford and peddling a Citi Bike versus investing in a 10-speed, for example—innovators are finding even more ways to entice consumers to bring this democratic and economical mindset into still more areas of their lives. If you’re comfortable donning the Rent the Runway (RTR) dress worn by dozens of women before you, maybe you’d be open to “borrowing” fashion from the gal just like you whose chock-full closet overflows with stunning pieces languishing unworn.
Perhaps just as important as the mainstreaming of access-based businesses, is the rise of “circular fashion” that’s gaining traction in some of the more eco-minded fashion circles, and that’s where companies like Rebag, The RealReal and Vestiaire Collective deserve credit for making high-end resale and luxury consignment cool.
In some senses, peer-to-peer wardrobe rental services are a movement whose time has come, capturing consumer interest in not just owning the best but also offering access to it, too. Startups including HURR Collective, Tulerie and Wardrobe all have their spin on the idea of incentivizing well-heeled, style savvy women to open up their wardrobes and earn a little money along the way.
London-based, invite-only HURR Collective takes its name from the Afrikaans word for “rent” and plays on the word “her” as well, co-founder Victoria Prew, who spent part of her formative years in South Africa, told Sourcing Journal.
Never a fan of throwaway, fast-fashion clothing, Prew had a strong hunch that fashion was the next industry ripe for disruption at the hands of the runaway freight train that is the sharing economy. Though the rental concept is well established in places like the U.S. and Australia, the U.K. presents a “massive opportunity,” Prew noted. Especially when you consider that 23 percent of Londoners’ clothing goes unworn.
Women on the HURR platform have access to high-end and vintage apparel, handbags and jewelry in seven-day increments for up to a month. Items are dry-cleaned at eco-friendly outfits, Prew said. The startup is targeting the millennial generation for whom “access is prized over ownership.” Notably, renters tend to be true millennials in the 25-35-year-old age range, while lenders straddle the millennial and Gen X divide at 35-45 years of age, Prew said.
According to Prew, items can be rented out an estimated 17 to 20 times before they’re retired from HURR. So far, vintage handbags and contemporary labels are performing well and people are starting to rent items like ski wear, a smart move considering how infrequently such occasion-specific apparel is typically utilized. HURR is building a live search feature into its e-commerce platform so that if users can’t find what they’re looking for, the company can notify them when it becomes available. But those search insights also help lenders understand opportunities to satisfy untapped demand.
HURR launched with 500 items spanning the “middle market” up through Gucci, Prada and Hèrmes, though Prew was quick to point out that “we don’t want to be too exclusive.” The typical rental price hovers at 150 pounds ($190).
Prew described a partnership with German startup Intellistyle, which draws on artificial intelligence to helps fashion businesses provide “complete the look” outfitting suggestions and recommend visually or stylistically similar products, taking on the role of a human stylist.
For now, HURR Collective is focused solely on London with a view to scaling out to other U.K. cities and beyond. People can meet up in person to hand off a rental, send it through the mail or dispatch a bike courier to deliver the goods, the most attractive logistics option for last-minute renters. The company doesn’t charge a membership or listing fee. “We make money when members do,” Prew said, noting the 15 percent commission charged to the lender and renter.
Prew acknowledged the speed at which sustainability has caught on with the court of public opinion. A year people didn’t really understand sustainable fashion and today the issue is being debated at the highest level of the U.K. government, she explained. As an answer to the “massive pushback against fast fashion, we’re offering a solution,” Prew added.
Merri Smith and Violet Gross named their startup Tulerie after the famous French gardens where they met during Paris Fashion Week. They launched the wardrobe rental business after hearing story after story from women who’d tried Rent the Runway but were left longing for something more “fashion forward.”
Then there’s the overwhelming guilt women feel for spending big money on fashion they absolutely love, but just don’t wear often enough to justify the high prices. Renting out those rarely-used pieces is one way to see buying fashion as a true investment.
Like HURR Collective, Tulerie takes the invite-only approach to keep things intimate and give members the feeling that they are renting to or from “people they’d be friends with off the platform,” Smith and Gross said. They look for women interested in both borrowing and lending so they have “some skin in the game,” they added, noting that roughly 80 percent of members are active on both sides of rental equation.
About 2,000 women are on the waitlist to gain access to Tulerie and its iPhone app, and the co-founders conduct interviews on a rolling basis to baptize newbies into a curated, style-savvy community. The Tulerie woman is between 30 and 35, just starting to climb her career ladder and hungry to show she’s doing well “not just by owning but by being able to change it up,” they said. “She buys, but buys better and can earn a return.”
Members live in cities like New York, Miami and Los Angeles, but Tulerie has been getting requests to hop across the pond to the U.K. The bootstrapped startup likely wouldn’t expand internationally for another five years as finetuning operations is the priority, Smith and Gross said. During a six-month beta test, members asked for features like shipment tracking. Today, Tulerie is “unofficially” accommodating same-day requests on a case-by-case- basis, largely for high-value power users, women who typically rent six or seven items every single month. Average users rent about twice monthly.
“We’re not a space for one-time rentals,” the co-founders said. “We look for users who want to supplement their wardrobes regularly.”
For now, members mail their rentals through repurposed e-commerce boxes they already have (read: Amazon Prime) or decide on a meeting place where the borrower and lender exchange the goods, though Smith and Gross said they’re considering hiring a messenger service. The person who owns the rental foots the dry cleaning bill and lists that fee right up front in the product description. Tulerie has access to a network of specialists who can mend items banged up a bit beyond normal wear and tear, and it replaces items damaged past the point of repair or offers current selling value for irreplaceable items.
As members ask for it, Tulerie is building out an option to purchase items that women love past the rental stage. The firm carries Philip Lim, Celine, Chanel, Hèrmes—“all the brands you’d find at Saks and Net-a-Porter,” the co-founders said, plus Reformation because “we want to support what they’re doing.” If a brand’s demand is waning, they reserve the right to remove it from the platform and keep things fresh and current.
Tulerie not only helps members rent and earn money on their wardrobes but it gives them a way to offload items that no longer have any place in their closets. The startup has an ongoing partnership with Long Island, N.Y.-based Rewearable, a company that employs people with disabilities and picks up and recycles castoff clothing.
“Even the greatest Chanel will need to be donated after hundreds of wear,” the co-founders said.
Smith and Gross don’t necessarily believe the rental movement is a seismic threat to legacy luxury brands. People will always want to purchase certain things, they said, though they’re keeping a close eye on brands like Louis Vuitton, Chanel and Gucci that strive to “protect their brand from dilution.”
“I’m not sure what the shift will be and I’m not sure they’ll have a say in that,” Gross said. “They’re always trying to reach the aspirational customers.”
And rather than being competition to established companies, the co-founders expressed an interest in partnering with retailers. “We need to funnel our active user base somewhere,” they said.
Whereas Smith, Gross and Prew focus on fashion, Wardrobe founder Adarsh Alphons is more likely to talk about the logistics of making this kind of business model not just possible but successful and scalable. In public beta since December 2018, Wardrobe has set a goal to keep the customer at the center of the experience, Alphons said, and give her convenience, quality and value through a selection of luxury, vintage and fashion rental pieces “from individuals you admire.”
Alphons believes people have struggled to get peer-to-peer wardrobe rentals off the ground because logistics, a “very hard problem to solve,” is at the very heart of a platform like Wardrobe.” The cost of getting an item from the lender to the renter and back again has to be factored in somewhere, he explained, “and those costs would still have to be cheaper than buying.”
After honing the hyperlocal concept with his first company ProjectArt, Alphons realized that Wardrobe’s approach to peer-to-peer renting could really take off by tapping into a readily available resource: drycleaners. You can’t barely go two blocks without walking past one, he said, so why not take advantage of a business that inherently stands to gain from this kind of partnership?
Today Wardrobe, which features an iPhone app, has 40 drycleaners designated as “hubs” across Manhattan and parts of Brooklyn and is just starting to expand to Harlem in the upper end of the island. The startup plans to have more than 100 cleaners onboarded as hubs by the year’s end, Alphons noted. Eligible drycleaners use eco-friendly techniques, “speak good English” and feature changing rooms to offer “an incredibly different experience,” he added.
That last part could be the ultimate differentiator. Women picking up a rental can try it on on the spot and walk away without charge if it doesn’t fit properly or isn’t fully as described. Plus, drycleaners are a natural touchpoint in the peer-to-peer fashion supply chain; if a high-end garment’s being worn, it’ll have to be professionally cleaned when it changes hands in order to address the “hygiene issue” that’s part of renting, Alphons explained.
Wardrobe users have uploaded more than $1 million worth of fashion so far, inventory is growing nearly 100 percent from month to month, and rentals are increasing as much as 80 percent in the same timeframe. Repeat users are turning out in high numbers, Alphons pointed out, a good sign that the concept is resonating. Orders are fulfilled as soon as the next day or users can book items three months in advance. There’s no limit to how many items someone can rent and the average user has nine items, worth about $5,000, on offer, while the typical order size stands at 1.1 items, Alphons noted.
The startup is raising a seed round to fuel growth as the sustainable fashion rental business catches on.
“We’re creating a whole new retail experience,” Alphons said.