Like many, I laboured under the misapprehension that Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater was the most beautiful house in the world until the day Mariah Carey opened her home to MTV Cribs. From that day onward, there was no contest. Now, that is what I call a palace. Never mind requesting 20 white kittens on your rider, never mind the off-colour penchant for sexy-elf costumes, Mariah will forever be a pop-culture goddess by dint of owning the best walk-in wardrobe the world has ever seen. If you haven’t seen it – and seriously, what have you been doing with your life since 2002? – suffice to say, there is an entire room just for ankle-strap sandals.
The walk-in wardrobe has been an ultimate lifestyle trophy for the living memory of many women. As Carrie Bradshaw once said, “I like my money where I can see it – hanging in my closet.” (Before Carrie had a walk-in wardrobe, she turned her hallway into a walk-through wardrobe.) But the latest fashion trend could one day make your wardrobe as anachronistic as built-in CD shelving. Welcome to the new age of the rented closet.
New York-based Rent the Runway – “a fashion company with a technology soul” – is to the walk-in wardrobe what Netflix is to the DVD shelf, what Spotify is to the record collection, and what iCloud is to the photo album. CEO Jenn Hyman, who founded the company with Jennifer Fleiss eight years ago, calls the subscription-based model, which allows clients access to a “library” of designer fashion, a “closet in the cloud”. The company, which has bucked the trend by which female-led companies lag behind the mainstream in securing venture capital, turned a profit for the first time last year and made a splash this week when it announced a cheaper entry-level subscription plan. For a discounted rate of $89 (£67) a month, a little more than half the price of the full-fat rate that allows unlimited rentals, subscribers have access to four garments each month.
In the UK, Anna Bance founded Girl Meets Dress in 2009, inspired by her previous career as a fashion PR. (Celebrities borrow dresses for events all the time – and in the age of the personal brand, we are all mini-celebrities, no?) In the sharing economy, says Bance, “ownership is becoming more irrelevant than ever before.” You can hire a full-length Amanda Wakeley gown, RRP £895, for £89; if you return it unworn, you don’t pay.
The Girl Meets Dress model is a cross between Lyft and Moss Bros, updating the traditional glad-rags-for-hire idea for the split-fare generation. But there is a gulf to be bridged between the aesthetic of the dresses mostly available for hire, and the aesthetic of the generation who might be most amenable to the idea: the Hypebeast-reading, resale-savvy, limited-drop-obsessed fashion fans who have reinvigorated the market for online resale. In the US, Rent the Runway has ambition on a grand scale, to go head-to-head with fast fashion. “I plan to put Zara out of business,” Hyman told fashion website Glossy. The $89 monthly fee is designed to tempt the shopper who is currently spending that amount each month on quick fixes of cheaper clothes to switch to a more sustainable and high-end alternative.
“Access is the new ownership” is the Rent the Runway motto. That we want experiences rather than possessions may be a millennial cliche, but only because it’s true. We still lust after fashion, but what we want now is the experience of wearing that Prada feathered dress, more than the knowledge that it is languishing on a hanger somewhere. (After all, so long as you make sure you star on all your friends’ social media channels on the night, you only need to wear the dress once for everyone to know that you did.) Trends are faster and more mercurial than ever before. In less than the time it takes you to save up for an elegant pair of J’Adior kitten heels, the fashion dial flips and all you want now is a pair of dancefloor dazzler Saint Laurent sparkly disco boots. Meanwhile, the economy is conspiring with the zeitgeist to make extensive wardrobes obsolete. Most people spend their most dressed-up years living either in rented accommodation, or in a foot-on-the-ladder shoebox, neither of which lend themselves to the Mariah model of clothes storage.
However, there is a barrier to rental replacing ownership, which is that however slick your website, you can’t stream a dress. In a culture where we feel impatient when the ticker tells you the next episode will take 10 seconds to load, the timelag between choosing a dress and having it arrive is problematic, especially when the ease of cancelling and rescheduling has led to social lives rarely being inked in the diary. (Also, no ink and no diary, but that’s another matter.) The ideal scenario would be a cross between a website and Cher Horowitz’s wardrobe in Clueless, a robotic delivery system that selected and extracted outfits. And then, one day, rental may replace retail. After all, these days when you say you owned a look, that means you slayed it on Instagram, right?
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