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Will Going Public Restore RTR’s Billion-Dollar Unicorn Crown?

Halfway through 2021, Rent the Runway is angling to take its status as the OG of fashion rentals to the next level.

On Monday, the New York-based “closet in the cloud” company said it confidentially filed S-1 paperwork with the Securities and Exchange Commission, outlining plans to go public. The onetime fashion unicorn, which didn’t didn’t reveal any information on how many shares it plans to offer or what the pricing range would be, seems to be jockeying for a larger slice of a global clothing rental market estimated at $2.08 billion by 2025, prognosticated last year.

The development comes just months after America started tentatively tiptoeing toward resuming normal life—and arrives amid renewed fears that the Delta variant of the Covid-19 virus could squelch the nation’s reopening, and with it the need for an influx of Instagram-ready outfits. The more highly contagious strain now totals a stunning 83 percent of the U.S. Covid caseload, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported Tuesday in news that could chill what has been growing heat in fashion retail.

Still, Rent the Runway’s go-public plans confirm not just the IPO market’s ongoing strength—with Dr. Martens, ThredUp and Torrid among those flirting with the markets—but also the firm’s ability to come out on the other side of controversy and coronavirus chaos. A lot has transpired since RTR’s valuation reached $1 billion in 2019. Not quite two years ago, Rent the Runway was left with egg on its face (and angry customers a-Twittering) when an infamous supply-chain meltdown left members hanging and orders MIA. Then the pandemic rendered a Marriott partnership virtually useless, as last year’s widespread travel bans and cancellations left consumers with little need for fashion-stuffed RTR garment bags ready and waiting in their hotel chambers.

Like others in retail, RTR closed down its stores during the height of Covid’s worst—in a move that proved permanent. Brick-and-mortar associates got the axe, and warehouse workers got up in arms over what they denounced as an unsafe environment. “Who needs to rent luxury clothing during a global health emergency?” they queried.

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Perhaps the most head-swiveling move, however, came late last summer when the curtain fell on RTR’s beloved Unlimited subscription plan. Gone are the days when busy women could fully embrace the wear-it-once lifestyle and access a virtually limitless closet suiting their every mood, whim and occasion. RTR’s subscription revamp rankled a rash of members. An army of “unhappy” Twitter users described the decision as a “slap in the face” and a “huge problem” for those using Unlimited to “take fashion risks.” “Please grandfather us in,” another begged, while a “devastated” user claimed RTR’s 16-item-a-month replacement plan “def won’t cut it” for her professional and special event needs.

Despite upsetting an apple cart of longtime loyalists, RTR has steadily soldiered on, replacing what it took from its customer base with an array of new offerings. As temperatures were warming up in May, the company announced plans to let Hamptons revelers return their rentals at a terminal-station drop-off box before boarding the destination’s famed Jitney for the trek back into New York City. A limited-time program let members in certain New York City, Dallas and Washington, D.C., zip codes elect to have returns picked up at their doorstep, perhaps an effort to placate customers cut off from shuttered stores.

And early last month, RTR launched a full-blown resale program after long dabbling in selling secondhand fashion. Anyone can now shop the pre-worn items on its website, it said—no membership required.

Nuuly said renters flocked to colorful prints
Nuuly said renters flocked to colorful prints. Courtesy

“We have all been staring at closets full of clothes that went unworn for the past year, which has created a paradigm shift in how consumers are thinking about shopping and getting dressed,” co-founding CEO Jennifer Hyman wrote in a blog post. “Resale is a natural complement to renting, and a logical next step as we continue to expand Rent the Runway’s value proposition.”

Though the chief executive described “[c]omplete flexibility” as the “future of fashion,” the truth might be more nuanced. Cracking into the $77 billion fashion resale market could fortify RTR’s bottom line with a new revenue stream (and against future disruption) as it looks to shift from private to public.

Installing Gwyneth Paltrow on the RTR board could also appease investors looking for an established vote of confidence. The actor, Goop founder and business backer has used her clout to support maverick brands like Universal Standard, the unconventionally size-inclusive label that’s also part of the RTR assortment.

Forrester retail analyst Sucharita Kodali questions whether RTR’s financials will live up to the hype. With weddings, proms and other dress-up occasions cancelled last year, the omnichannel expert suspects RTR slogged through a “disastrous 2020.”

At the end of the day, RTR is little more than a “formwalwear rental business,” she said. “I know they are trying to flex into other categories but I’m [not] confident that’s a big market.” And despite the company’s eco-friendly messaging and mantra, Kodali believes the “sustainability angle is also suspect with all the shipping and dry cleaning they do.”

Rental rebound

Broadly speaking, however, the concept of renting fashion seems to be on the upswing. Though RTR took to the New York Times to herald that “fashion is [expletive] back,” others in the sector have also seen demand climb along with vaccination rates and restored freedoms. Nuuly, the service Urban Outfitters Inc. got off the ground in 2019, first documented a spike in consumer behavior and customers beginning to reactivate their accounts, or subscribe for the first time, in March. The momentum spilled over into April, with traffic to the Nuuly site rising 25 percent from the prior month, the company told Sourcing Journal.

Data shows that Nuuly’s millennial-heavy customer base was eager to cast aside the comfy clothes that served as a security blanket for sheltering in place. Subscribers jumped feet first into fashion-forward trends, snapping up everything from matchy-matchy sets and one-shoulder tops and dresses, to crafty styles channeling the patchwork and paint-splattered aesthetic. Crop tops surged, too, and consumers gravitated to tactile textures—like crochet and smocking—as well as eye-catching ginghams, checkerboards and marble prints.

Denim also played a starring role in the fashion revival, according to Nuuly, which offers third-party brands in addition to URBN’s own labels. Mom and dad jeans, flared silhouettes and bootcut jeans all trended, confirming what executives across the sector have described as denim’s “new cycle” out of a decade-long skinny-jean obsession.

Sky Pollard, head of product for Nuuly, said the rental newbie is “definitely seeing some shifts in our denim business.”

In Nuuly’s first six months out of the gate, “skinny was our biggest silhouette in denim, but over the last year, it has decreased and straight leg has moved into the No. 1 spot,” she told Sourcing Journal. “We are also seeing much more interest in balloon, bootcut and flared legs—proving that the customer is moving away from skinny and into more relaxed and fuller shapes.”

However, Pollard noted that the devil is in the details. “What is very interesting and potentially a leading indicator of this shift is how denim silhouettes are renting by age group,” she added. “We see Gen Z (18-24) has the lowest penetration of skinny compared to the other age groups, straight is by far their No. 1 silhouette and they over-penetrate in flare, crop flare, bootleg and wide-leg compared to millennials (25-39).”

Gen Z is driving demand for relaxed denim silhouettes, according to Nuuly's Sky Pollard
Gen Z is driving demand for relaxed denim silhouettes, according to Nuuly’s Sky Pollard. Courtesy

Date-night fare also outperformed in April from the prior-year period, Nuuly said, climbing from 5 percent to 10 percent and signaling the return of going-out fashion. In tandem, casual garb has dipped; athleisure was down to just 1 percent of April rentals from 3 percent 12 months prior, while casual clothing fell 16 percentage points to 52 percent in the same year-on-year comparison.

Armoire founder Ambika Singh has similarly seen interest in “elevated athleisure” abate. Because the rental startup has focused on the “boss lady” customer, it never had much of a presence in items like sweatpants, she said, but even those kinds of staying-in styles are falling out of favor. Demand for Armoire’s services fluctuated in lockstep with lockdowns, she said, and the Seattle company is leveraging its “reactive buying model” to chase subscribers’ interests.

“We don’t expect to be the trendsetters or the soothsayers of what fashion is going to look like,” Singh said of Armoire’s wares, which span brands like Boden, Adrianna Papell, Of Mercer, Paige and Vince Camuto. “We expect our customers to tell us what they love and for us to go find it.”

And John Donoghue see miles of runway ahead for growth in monobrand rentals, which have seen momentum among brands singed by the pandemic. Though the notion of single-brand rentals has long been plagued by the “cannibalization” question, the CaaStle executive says the data is “overwhelmingly dispositive.”

Brand purchasers who become that brand’s renters grow their overall, cross-channel spend by 150 percent, says Donoghue, who heads up corporate and business development for CaaStle, which has helped Express, Scotch & Soda and others operate their own rental programs.

The finding might seem “counterintuitive,” he said, “until you realize how immersive subscription rental is as a consumer experience.”

In fact, Donoghue says rental helps the younger, “new to file” customer at advanced contemporary brands like Vince and Rebecca Taylor “punch above her weight.” The borrowing business model serves as a great “entryway” for new consumers these brands can “cultivate over time,” he added.

Armoire founder Ambika Singh
Armoire founder Ambika Singh. Courtesy

Some of CaaStle’s clients have seen their subscriber base double or even triple since July last year, despite the pandemic’s disruption in early 2020. “Subscription rental just proved to be a more resilient model during the pandemic…than brick and mortar,” Donoghue said. So much so that CaaStle has plans to create a rental marketplace for a “couple of department stores” before year’s end, he said.

And fashion rental, he added, could become even more relevant as many white-collar workers acclimate to hybrid schedules. Consumers dressing for the office just two or three days a week might find a “better economic value” in subscribing to a rental program that keeps their wardrobe from going stale, Donoghue said.