Rental Fashion: A Year In Review and the Road Ahead

Image: Hurr Collective x Selfridges

In partnership with The Junior Network, Martha Ngatchu reviews how the Covid-19 pandemic has impacted the fashion rental market this year, and looks at what’s next for this fast-growing sector.

Fuelled by stateside success, 2020 was set to be a big year for rental fashion; then Covid-19 hit. The global pandemic turned our whole world upside down, and of course caused unprecedented levels of disruption to the fashion industry. Nonetheless, shifts in consumer behaviour towards more sustainable methods of consuming fashion indicate pandemic-related slow-downs are only minor flaws in the sector’s glittering future.

Arguably, during the pandemic, consumers have become increasingly aware of fashion’s environmental consequences. A 2020 consumer study conducted by McKinsey and Company found that two thirds of respondents felt it had become even more important to limit fashion’s impact on the environment and 60% would cut back on their fashion spending. However, the desire for novelty and self-expression remains a constant; as Jane Shepherdson, chairperson of My Wardrobe HQ pointed out during a recent FashMash Pioneers discussion: “rental allows us to be more responsible, but also enjoy the creativity of fashion that we love.” Moreover, consumers are starting to realise the appeal of rental fashion with 41% believing rental would become an increasingly important shopping channel in the future.

Eshita Kabra-Davies, Founder By Rotation

Despite national lockdowns and social distancing restrictions, the shift in consumer preferences towards rental is palpable. Eshita Kabra-Davies, founder of By Rotation, the UK’s first social rental fashion app, highlights that the app’s user base grew by 170% and rental volumes saw significant lifts during the “Eat Out to Help Out Scheme” in August. Victoria Prew, founder of HURR Collective, a luxury fashion rental website, echoes this adding that “activity across the HURR platform is at an all-time high’ and “ 73% of users [rented] casual outfits for lower-key events such as picnics in the park, small gatherings and staycations” during the month of September. Whilst Natalie Hasseck, co-founder of Onloan – a membership based rental company that specialises in versatile daywear pieces, was able to observe a “remarkable shift from status-dressing to pleasure-dressing.” Onloan saw user rental habits naturally move from cozy knitwear through to “zoom-ready” tops as the nation experienced the highs and lows of post-pandemic life.

However, the challenge of communicating rental as a mainstream way of consuming fashion persists. “Rental fashion needs to move quickly from a niche, nice to have option,” emphasises Prew. HURR Collective has tried to bridge this gap through physical pop ups. The company launched its first bricks and mortar pop up in Belgravia towards the end of 2019, which provided the highest user engagement the company has seen to date. The HURR x Selfridges rental collaboration, which launched at the beginning February 2020, was also a smash hit achieving the rental equivalent of a sell out launch. For Prew the physical experience has been vital to the growth of HURR Collective, allowing potential renters to effectively try before they rent, ask questions and engage with the experience before committing to their rental period.

Victoria Prew - founder of HURR Collective

Awareness and accessibility will also play a major role in challenging existing perceptions of rental fashion and transforming it into a mainstream method of consumption. “It’s key to have price points that really allow people to experiment with renting,” notes Kabra-Davies,  adding that the company is committed to ensuring price points are accessible to a wide range of people. The app also has a built-in messaging service and encourages price negotiations between rotators. Over the past year, By Rotation has launched a series of partnerships with a diverse range of brands and influencers. Bumble’s date night edit and opportunities to rent from the wardrobes of Camille Charriere and Lady Amelia Windsor have really helped to bring the rental concept to a wider audience.

Additionally, creating a holistic user experience will continue to be an important factor in the future of rental fashion. A 2020 consumer study found that 75% of shoppers expected physical retail to transform into a dynamic and immersive experience by 2027 and 42% hoped for shopping experiences with some sort of community-driven focus. Today’s rental platforms have embedded community and experience from the outset. Peer-to-Peer models such as that of HURR Collective and By Rotation, foster a sense of community. HURR Girls and Rotators can often be found exchanging styling tips via the platforms’ messaging services. Both companies also host in-person events for their communities; By Rotation regularly hosts free panel discussions for Rotators, organising three before in the first few months of the year and HURR hosted a series of events during their first Pop Up, including Book Swaps and clothing repair workshops – something Prew would like to see return once it is safe to do so.

Image: HURR Collective x Selfridges pop-up

Rental platforms can also build a sense of community and experience through their partnerships. Onloan has built a curation of brands, underpinned by a dedication to sustainable innovation, that focuses on brands led by female founders and creative directors. Hasseck adds that whilst it wasn’t the initial intention, they “felt the most excited by supporting the vision of independent female designers.” On the other hand, HURR Collective chose a partnership that improves user experience through end-to-end operations by recently launching an exclusive partnership with Oxwash, an eco-friendly dry cleaning start-up also used by the National Health Service.

Looking to the future of the fashion industry as a whole, the attitude shared by rental fashion players is all about challenging established brands to produce better and build more circularity within the industry. “We hope there will be a shift away from the make, sell, never think of again model” comments Hasseck whose company supports brands by taking on past season stock as well as current. Forbes have already dubbed By Rotation as “The fashion rental app that wants to end fast fashion” and experts advocate that the rental industry has the potential to replace fast fashion in as little as 10 years time. In the meantime, Kabra-Davies hopes that rental can encourage fast fashion to “produce less quantity, higher quality and therefore pay their garment workers better.”

Image: Onloan

Brands have already started to recognise rental’s disruptive power and with good reason. The potential of the British fashion rental sector is currently valued at £923 million and it is estimated that this value could reach £2.3 billion by 2029. Hasseck highlights that, in the last year, brands have really deepened their partnerships with Onloan. “A year ago most saw rental as an interesting experiment, now many see it as a fundamental part of future-proofing their business.” Kabra-Davies suggests that increased partnerships with rental platforms like By Rotation would not only give brands access to a wider audience but would enable them to make better decisions when building ranges thus helping to reduce waste. Although some brands have already made tentative forays into the rental market, Prew notes that she would like to see more brands partnering with tech-first business like HURR, building a collaborative industry that gives existing brands the opportunity to power their own rental platforms.

It’s clear that shifts in consumer preferences and priorities have accelerated the opportunities for the rental industry. Furthermore, post-lockdown activity indicates that the sector is only going to go from strength to strength. Ultimately, rental is an exciting and dynamic space that will continue to form a big part of the future of fashion; the rest of industry better take note.