Has renting fashion become bigger and better?

When banker-turned-fashion entrepreneur, Chaitali Parmar, 33, was in college, she wanted to carry the same Chanel or Hermès bags she had long admired in glossy magazines. But her shoestring student budget did not allow her to buy these luxury brands. Years later, when Parmar started working in commodity investment, she realised how the fashion rental space was booming around the world, and how she, too, could make luxury brands accessible for everyone.

In 2015, she launched her first start-up, Closeted Couture. “It did not work because we were offering niche luxury brands like Stella McCartney, and the Indian market did not understand that type of luxury. But, two years later, it became a great starting point for my next venture, Rent at Tali. This is where we wanted to offer contemporary Indian designer clothing that you can wear every day or even carry to your next vacation,” Parmar says.

Parmar, next, started working with fashion insiders like Nidhi Jacob, who has worked with publications like ELLE and Vogue, and celebrity stylist Aastha Sharma. “They were consulting as merchandisers for Tali, and helped us curate designers like Dhruv Kapoor, Shivan & Narresh, Shriya Som, Nishka Lulla, and Nachiket Barve, among many others for our rental business model.”

Soon, Rent at Tali also started a subscription service, which worked as a monthly model. Just when it was picking up, the pandemic hit, and people had stopped stepping out. “We did not have enough funds to continue bearing losses so we put everything on hold. Currently, we’re selling our inventory through a sample sale. However, there is a surge in requests from our customers, and I am planning to relaunch the website. I also plan to expand to the USA, as the rental market is huge there. There are many talented designers in India, and I think they would benefit a lot from this additional revenue stream.”

Parmar’s observation is on-point. According to Business Wire’s website, the global rental industry reached the value of $1.26 billion in 2019, and is estimated to become $2.8 billion by 2025. In 2019, US-based Rent the Runway, known for lending designer brands like Diane Von Furstenberg, Hervé Léger, and Proenza Schouler for almost one-tenth of the retail price, received an investment that increased its valuation to $1 billion.

In 2018, London’s biggest department store for high-end fashion, Selfridges, launched the Project Earth initiative, which offered rental services in collaboration with the platform Hurr. Retail giant H&M debuted clothing rentals in its Stockholm flagship store in 2019. So did the Danish designer label, which has received a cult status around the globe—Ganni. In China, fashion rental pioneer YCloset, which shut down this year, had claimed to reach as many as 20 million users over five years.

In India, Aanchal Saini, CEO of Flyrobe and founder of Rent It Bae, used to work as a lawyer before she turned to fashion rentals in 2015. Reason: She wanted to capture tech-enabled rental fashion services. Over seven years, Flyrobe expanded exponentially with three stores in Delhi, one in Mumbai, and a recently-opened franchise in Bengaluru. “Due to the pandemic, we had to shut our Mumbai store and two of the stores in Delhi. But, we are planning to roll out more franchise stores in other cities soon,” says Saini.

“We also had to brutally cut down other costs, lay off people and cut salaries,” she adds, “However, once we commenced business, the order numbers were less but the order sizes became better. We were getting orders for as many as 200 products from a single wedding in Udaipur. And, the business grew organically. Our stores are still profitable, and we’ve had a steady growth graph.”

But are men renting as much? According to Saini, men have been switching to rental fashion services at a much higher rate. With Flyrobe alone, she reveals how 55 per cent of its revenue is driven by men. She explains, “Product categories are smaller. Men also are early adopters of technology. They mostly don’t have any emotional attachment to clothing. Within our store, only 1/3rd of the store space is for men. Product category, as well, goes through lesser changes. Only 20 per cent of the inventory changes every couple of months.”

However, Harsh Agarwal, founder and creative director of textile-focused menswear label Harago, believes that men are reluctant to rent because they don’t want to wear secondhand clothes. “I do not see it working for ready-to-wear, but it can work for haute couture or wedding clothes as those clothes hardly have any use after that special day. It just sits in our wardrobes for years to come. I, personally, also do not prefer renting clothes. I would love to buy or get something made if it’s for a special day. And I prefer passing it on within the family if I am not using it,” he opines.

Sanchit Bajwa, the founder of Stage3 that offers designers and brands like Marc by Marc Jacobs, Anju Modi, Anamika Khanna, Sabyasachi, Raw Mango, and Payal Singhal, among others, adds, “At Stage3, we first started the renting model for men with our in-house brand called Waris. For other brands or designers, we started with working on a referral system, where you could be a consumer, designer, or influencer, and you could use Stage3 to monetise your clothing. Now, we’ve turned it into a social media app that can be used to sell clothes.”

The reason for the rise in the consumption of rented fashion, Saini points out, is that “People are looking to consume mindfully. We’ve become more conscious as buyers. Furthermore, since our lives are still limited to our homes, a lot of people do not want to clutter their living spaces with things. Renting then becomes a great solution for this.”

She says, “A Sabyasachi lehenga, for instance, might come at Rs. 5,00,000. However, with a company like ours, you can wear it for Rs. 15,000.” Additionally, Flyrobe also offers a C2C (consumer to consumer) model that allows any user to rent out clothing they no longer wear, and make money while at it. “Earlier we would see traditional bridal wear on rent from three years ago. Now younger brides or grooms are putting their clothes on rent three days after the event. They know they won’t wear it again,” she discloses.

Nachiket Barve, who was one of the first Indian designers to join Rent the Runway, explains how the renting model democratises the luxury space, “For designers, renting clothes help them in catering to a new demographic. Gone are the days when it was available to a select few. That mentality doesn’t work anymore.”

Ashri Jaiswal, 32, co-founder of Ziniosa, which carries brands like Sabyasachi, Gucci, Louis Vuitton, Burberry, and Tarun Tahiliani among others, believes rental fashion is one of the greenest ways to shop. “Each time a garment is rented, it reduces the carbon, water, and waste footprint by 8 per cent. This is great to create a sustainable fashion practice.”

On the other hand, Barve notes how the renting model has both pros and cons. “While I subscribe to the policy of buying-less-butbetter, renting fashion is the lesser evil when compared to buying something that’s poorly made and unethically produced. However, I do not think people should consume it at the pace of fast fashion.”

It’s true. Many studies have challenged fashion rentals by revealing how transportation and dry-cleaning have hidden environmental impacts and in turn make renting less green. However, many still believe borrowing is better than buying.

Jaiswal concludes, “Circular fashion is the future of fashion. Millennials and Gen-Z have started taking pride in accepting that they prefer to rent and rewear rather than buying something new, which is a huge win for us. This space is booming around the world, with brands like Gucci and Burberry partnering with circular fashion companies to promote sustainable fashion. It’s only a matter of time this industry booms in India.”

To a greener future.