Rent a dress – the future of fashion or designers’ death knell?

Image: Shutterstock

Outfit hire is the fashion industry trend that in recent years has been dubbed ‘the future of fashion’.

It disrupts how we shop for clothes and makes designer fashion accessible for those bound by tight purse strings

It’s certainly a welcome trend for financially strapped students, environmentally conscious eco-warriors and women with demanding social calendars who refuse to commit the ultimate fashion sin of wearing an outfit more than once.

But while the notion of a minimal strings-attached, one-night stand with a designer dress may seem appealing to these demographics, the reality it represents for the fashion industry may be much more worrying.

The process is simple.

Depending on the platform, people wanting to hire out their clothes pay either a one-off fee or a small membership subscription to upload garments for around 20% of their recommended retail prices (RRP).

The garment then has the potential to be promoted on the platform’s social media accounts where, in some cases, they can be seen by an audience upwards of 50,000. Hirers then coordinate with wannabe renters to determine a rental period.

The garment is worn, and returned, and the cycle begins all over again.

Larissa Walsh, the founder of Australia’s largest peer-to-peer rental platform Rent A Dress, believes that outfit hire will become industry norm and could address growing concerns about the negative impacts of fast fashion.

Larissa Walsh

She says that while more people are aware of the damage fast-moving, disposable fashion is doing to the planet, social media is a factor encouraging mass consumption of clothing among some people, something she says Rent A Dress is working to circumvent.

“In the era of fast fashion and social media, most consumers don’t want to wear the same item more than once,” Walsh said.

“It means we have so many items in perfectly good condition ending up in the op shops and bins.’

And the statistics support Walsh’s claims.

A study by the Hubbub Foundation found that one in five young people say they do not feel able to wear an outfit again once it has appeared on social media, and almost half of young women polled said they felt the need to wear a different look every time they went out.

Walsh says Rent A Dress is about sustainable fashion.

“The same item should be worn 20 to 30 times before it’s in the bin,’ she says.

This is a mentality that Walsh says has helped make her business a success, with more than 4,000 items and 1,000 dress owners listed.

And while Walsh admits that her business model has come under fire for endangering fashion production, she insists this is not the case.

“With Rent a Dress, we don’t want the number of items being produced by the retail industry to reduce, and we don’t want to have any negative effect on that industry,” Walsh says.

“What we do want is the consumer to wear more because they can.”

Sustainability consultant Jane Milburn said Australians are the second-largest consumers of new textiles in the world, with the average person purchasing 27 kilograms worth of new garments a year and discarding 23 kilograms to landfill. Two-thirds of the pieces that are discarded are comprised of fibres that may never break down.

Walsh also justifies her fashion rental model as removing the huge socioeconomic barriers presented by the cost of fashion.

Rentals “cater for a market that would never in a million years have even bought these pieces … making the playing field even for all consumers”, she said.

For Walsh, the opportunity to rent a garment gives consumers “the capacity to wear items that are better quality and designed and made in Australia, because renting allows us to buy and rent these higher price-tag pieces”.

Gabriella Cunningham, a regular user of outfit hire services who uploads her own clothing and hires from other users, is a huge advocate for the practice.

Gabriella Cunningham

She agrees with Walsh that it not only enables her to reduce her carbon footprint but to wear garments she would not otherwise consider unattainable.

“I bought a Zimmermann two-piece set for $700 and have made close to $1,100 hiring it out,” Cunningham says.

“For a uni student like myself, any income streams, especially passive ones like from dress rentals, are hugely helpful.”

Cunningham also agrees that the opportunity to rent outfits provides greater incentive to buy higher-end garments, as she can generate a return on investment on each piece.

However, this begs the question, in what ways has this affected the fashion designers and retail companies, from whom these pieces are bought?

While Effie Kats, whose designs have been worn by the likes of Kelly Rowland, Kylie Jenner and Gigi Hadid, admits there is “some value” in the hire concept in terms of granting “greater exposure” for her business and designs, she believes the negatives far outweigh the positives.

Effie Kats

Instead of hiring out their garment, Kats believes consumers should sell them.

“Resell your garments! That’s fine to do that, but to hire it out, that’s not fair,” Kats said.

“It’s not your product, it’s not your hard work that you should be profiting off.”

As creative director at her own namesake bespoke brand and Bayse brand, Kats is of the belief that there should be regulations restricting the free market in which dress rentals operate, in order to reach a fair outcome for both designer and consumer.

She goes as far as saying the hire practice should be “outlawed”.

“If people are going to rent out a garment, there should be legislation where it has to be agreed upon by both parties,” Kats said.

“I don’t think it’s fair that people make money off other people’s hard work,” Effie Kats said.

Nor is Kats convinced that hiring garments solves the industry’s fast fashion problem.

“I think sustainability is important but that’s up to the designer,” Kats said.

“That’s not up to other people. I think there are much more effective ways of being sustainable; for brands to implement that in their practice rather than a third party coming in and taking it upon themselves.”

And while Kats concedes that there is benefit in one product being recycled and worn a number of times, she warns there are other ramifications.

‘While [garment hire] may be sustainable for the environment, it’s not sustainable to people’s business practices, or even Australian jobs really,” Kats said.

“If retailers are constantly going under, there’s people losing jobs.

“Especially now, in the coronavirus climate.

“The retail industry was extremely volatile as it was, and now it’s even worse. We really need to protect Australian brands and designers,” Kats said.

According to Bloomberg, fashion rental company Rent the Runway reported income of $1billion dollars in 2019.

This kind of revenue makes it difficult not to ask the question: is this profiteering off the hard work of designers?

In attempt to mediate these impacts on income as well as the environmental effects of production, many high-end brands similar to Kats’ have introduced a rental service into their business model.

While Kats says she has considered it, it does present its own issues.

“I think protecting brand image is really important, and rental isn’t as premium of a service,” Kats says.

“It just doesn’t have that prestige that’s linked with it.

“In that way, it can be very damaging to a brand, so that’s definitely been something that’s held me back from offering a rental service for Effie Kats and Bayse.”

In an interview with The Guardian in 2019, the founder of rental service Front Row, Shika Bodani, advocates for education to remove this stigma associated with rental in fashion brands’ eyes.

“A lot [of designers] are still worried that renting will devalue their brand, making their products appear second-hand,” Bodani told The Guardian.

“It’s about changing the brands’ perspective. Once they understand the process, they soon see the attraction of the sharing economy. The rise of the conscious consumer is something fashion brands can’t ignore.”

Walsh agrees.

“I think people need to remember that once you purchase something it should be yours to do what you want with it,” Larissa Walsh said.

“We rent out our houses, we use our cars for Uber, we rent out tools and equipment and we don’t see the manufacturers regulating this or requesting a cut of the income.

“I think it’s just a new way of life that we all need to come to terms with. With the shift to platforms like Airbnb and Uber, people want to be their own boss on their own terms, and I am all for it.”

And while Walsh admits she has “no idea” what the future holds for the fashion rental industry, she does believe that it’s a new way of life that many people will eventually come to embrace.

“For a uni student like myself, any income streams, especially passive ones like from dress rentals, are hugely helpful.”- Gabriella Cunningham

Gabriella Cunningham

With Research and Markets recently projecting the fashion rental industry to reach $2.9 billion by 2023, perhaps garment hire is the ‘future of fashion’.

However, many such as Effie Kats vehemently oppose the idea, as they find it increasingly harder to ignore the fact that the hire model’s key principles capitalise on the futures of designers and the retail firms that support them.