Before the pandemic struck, renting clothes was seen as the ultimate solution to the damaging buy-once wear-once culture so many of us had become trapped in. Instead of purchasing a new dress for a wedding or holiday, you could borrow one instead (thereby preventing it from ending up in landfill once you no longer had use for it). The clothing rental market was also starting to change the high street. H&M and Ganni were among the first retailers to begin trialling a rental model back in 2019, while several new platforms including Hurr Collective and My Wardrobe HQ have launched pop-ups in department stores over the past year.
But now that weddings have been put on hold and holidays seem like a distant dream, the future of rental—which was projected to be worth $2.5bn by 2023—looks far from certain. In the US, Rent the Runway, the poster child for the fashion rental model, has already announced lay-offs, temporary pay cuts and furloughed staff in response to the pandemic. “Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, RTR’s sales have dropped significantly,” the company said in a statement on Twitter. “We therefore have had to make difficult decisions to sustain the business by cutting costs across the board.”
The company has also faced allegations that it has not properly protected warehouse employees from coronavirus—claims that it has since strongly refuted in both a statement online and a letter from CEO Jennifer Hyman to staff. The brand says it has enacted a series of safety measures in its warehouses, as well as giving employees the option of choosing not to work, staying home and using paid benefits. “This pandemic is far from over,” the company added in its statement. “We know that we will have to continue to make difficult decisions as we navigate forward, but we will always act with our values first.”
No events? No renting
Rent the Runway is by no means the only rental company facing challenges as a result of the pandemic. Other platforms, including UK-based, peer-to-peer site Hurr Collective, have also seen a dramatic fall in the number of people renting. “The demand side has definitely been impacted for the simple reason of people not having events to go to,” co-founder and CEO Victoria Prew tells Vogue.
While some sites have encouraged people to continue renting items for all those Zoom meetings we’ve been having, it’s a difficult sell considering the price point. It costs up to £170 to rent a Ganni dress for one week for example, and £72 to rent four items a month from Rent the Runway. “A lot of the items are still fairly expensive even though you rent them, but the idea would be you’re going to a wedding or event,” says Chana Baram, senior retail analyst at market research firm Mintel. “Why would anyone be renting clothes right now?”
Tackling hygiene concerns
Hygiene is also another major concern during the current pandemic. Clear health and safety guidelines are essential, particularly when it comes to peer-to-peer platforms such as Hurr, where lenders send clothes directly to renters. “It’s a requirement for any item that’s listed on Hurr to be dry cleaned professionally by the lender,” Prew explains, adding that Hurr directly manages the dry cleaning for items rented through its concierge service. “We are doing everything that we can [from a health and safety perspective] in tandem with government guidelines.”
While it is not currently known what temperature kills coronavirus, the CDC says that flu viruses are killed by temperatures above 75C; it recommends clothes are laundered at the highest-appropriate temperature setting.
The long-term future of rental
While rental has been hit hard during international lockdowns, there are already positive signs that the sector is recovering. YCloset in China has seen the numbers of people renting increase since lockdown measures were eased at the end of March. “With the gradual return to work, [renting] is also gradually picking up,” says founder and executive director Mengyuan Liu.
Some rental companies may also look at shifting their current models following the pandemic. YCloset, which is backed by e-commerce giant Alibaba, added resale to its services in September 2019, for example. “At present, the secondhand luxury trade is developing rapidly,” Liu comments. Resale saw a huge uptick following the 2008 recession, as shoppers who were short on cash looked for more value for money—and the same is predicted amid the economic downturn caused by Covid-19.
It’s hoped that rental could also become increasingly popular post-pandemic, particularly as it could provide an additional source of income for some users. Hurr Collective has already started encouraging people to list their garments online, considering so many of us are sorting through our closets right now. “People now have the time to detox their wardrobes,” Prew explains. “For the past few weeks, we’ve financially incentivised people to list their wardrobes, where if you list three items you’re given £15 credit, and if you list five verified items you’re given £20 credit.”
The stripped-back lifestyle we’ve all become accustomed to since the pandemic began is likely to have a long-term effect on our shopping habits. Sustainability is expected to remain a huge concern—meaning the rental model, as an alternative to buying new clothes outright, is unlikely to disappear anytime soon. “My personal view is that people are going to be more conscious than ever about their fashion footprint,” Prew adds. “I’m hopeful rental will do well [after] this.”