It was while talking to Mortimer Singer, CEO of Marvin Traub Associates, one of America’s leading retail consultancies, that I first heard that many a fashionable woman living stateside no longer buys her big showstopping gowns – she rents. Singer’s wife [Amy Sykes Singer, head of YouTube News for North and South America] has an annual subscription to US-based Rent the Runway and “has effectively stopped shopping”, he told me. “For $159 a month, Amy can rent four garments, handbags or pieces of jewellery at a time,” says Singer. “She has already worn $10,000 worth of clothing this year, to weddings, receptions and dinners. By the end of 2018, she will probably have rented about $70,000 worth, saving on her annual subscription many times over.”
Now the renting trend is gaining fans in the UK. Two years ago, Shika Bodani launched Front Row, a service that offers designer clothing and accessories (anybody longing to try vintage Chanel skis?) to rent. Bodani was studying in New York when she first noticed the success of Rent the Runway, and when she went on to work in London she saw a gap in the UK market. “Girl Meets Dress was featuring middle-of-the-road clothing, but nobody was offering the latest Chanel or Dolce & Gabbana,” says Bodani. “It seemed to me the moment was ripe. The sharing economy, with companies such as Uber and Airbnb, was growing, and renting clothes was clearly part of the same pattern of thinking. At the same time social media was exploding, and that meant all sorts of people wanted to be photographed in a much wider range of clothing.”
So, if the mantelpiece is awash with invitations and something new is needed for each event (my own small entry into this summer’s party season saw many overlapping guests who would not want to be seen wearing the same outfit twice), it could be worth checking into Front Row. Prices are between five to 20 per cent of the retail value, and the rental periods are typically five days. At the time of writing, most of the big names (Balenciaga, Dolce & Gabbana, Balmain and Alexander McQueen) were on the site. My eye was caught by a navy-blue Alaïa metallic mini (£200), a Victoria Beckham shocking-pink, one-shoulder dress (£180), an embellished blue georgette evening gown (£280) by Emilio Pucci, a Marchesa embellished-lace one-shoulder dress (£399) and a floral crepe tea dress (£199) by Saint Laurent. There were also handbags (about £199 for Prada or Chanel), belts, scarves and sunglasses.
For those happy to rent high-end fashion online, there is now Armarium, a well‑established US rental business that has recently started to ship to Europe as well. It all began in 2015 as a series of pop-ups at The St Regis New York, before moving on to The St Regis in Aspen and other venues in Palm Beach and LA. These days, Armarium is mainly run online and ships to the UK in two days, with prices averaging £300 to £450 for a four‑day rental (plus a £50 shipping payment). The site is brought to life via a personal styling service called The Style Brigade, where experts of the calibre of Armarium’s fashion director Micaela Erlanger (who styles celebrities such as Meryl Streep) advise on shoes, beauty, hair and bags.
Armarium’s CEO and co-founder Trisha Gregory was inspired by her desire to create more access to the runway styles that were otherwise limited to the seriously wealthy and to counteract the “vicious markdown cycle” that exists in the US, where clothes typically go on sale much earlier than in the UK. “Amazingly beautiful dresses are usually delivered quite late because of the timeframe of getting them made,” says Gregory. “As a result, many are only on sale at full retail price for a short period of time. I wanted to extend the life cycle of these dresses, and rental seemed a good answer.” Gregory, like Bodani, had also observed Instagram’s huge impact, along with the increasing importance of the global sharing economy. “By 2025, the sharing economy is predicted to be a $335bn industry, and fashion is a top‑five contributor to that figure.”
Armarium hosted a two-week pop-up in June at Browns’ South Molton Street boutique – its first physical foray overseas. With the Serpentine summer party, Elton John AIDS Foundation party, Ascot and numerous other events all about to happen, the collaboration consisted almost exclusively of what you might call red-carpet gowns, as well as a few vintage numbers. “We felt Browns was the perfect partner for us,” says Gregory. “Their customer understood our inventory, and it was an ideal way to introduce our concept and to do something together.”
Carmen Busquets, an original investor in Armarium (and famously, of course, a founding investor in Net-a-Porter), sees the fashion-hire business as a modern form of consumerism. Busquets also views Armarium as a continuation of the work she started when she launched online store CoutureLab. “I was looking at ways of democratising luxury so that everyone could enjoy things made with integrity. Fashion rental companies are a smart way for millennials and even people my age [early 50s] to experiment with style, and do it in a way that is less costly and doesn’t lead to overconsumption,” explains Busquets. “If you are thinking of buying a Mercedes, you’re allowed to test-drive it; why not offer the chance to experience designers, jewellery or accessories before committing to a purchase?”
Busquets has also invested in US-based Villageluxe, an invitation-only rental site and app that was so popular when it launched in 2015, it boasted a waiting list of more than 12,000. “It’s like an Airbnb for high-end fashion,” she says. “It allows every member to borrow and lend out pieces from their own wardrobes.”
Busquets and other proponents of the rental market are keen to point out that besides allowing easy access to a large designer wardrobe, renting also helps reduce fashion’s carbon footprint. “It’s better than buying stock that is either returned or discounted. Department stores are very inefficient in that way,” she says. “I don’t even want to think about what happens to the discounted stock that doesn’t sell. I am a council member for WWF [World Wide Fund for Nature] and all my life I have cared very much about nature and conservation. Investing in fashion rental companies, which will reduce the industry’s impact on the environment, is a great way for me to reconcile these passions.”
Busquets has a way of seeing where the future lies and it looks as if she’s on the button here. What works in the US has a way of finding its way over to Europe; renting instead of buying could become a regular part of the way we dress in the years to come.