Renting clothes: Fabulous or foolish?

Thanks to Alexandra Schwartz' tart New Yorker article (October 22, 2018), "Costume Change" about the rise of Rent the Runway, I wondered, Am I out of it?

A certain population have essentially stopped buying clothes, and rent everything except underwear and shoes. I'm running through pros and cons—and may be influenced by some recent soirées for which I scrambled to pull something together.

Cons: Why Not to Rent

1. Lousy value proposition
Despite what the RTR co-founder Jennifer Hyman says, rental is not "value" in investment terms, it is the incurring of fixed cost. She says a subscriber spends just under $2k and get $40k worth of value, meaning you get to temporarily wear 40k worth of clothes. Like a gym membership, this is a fixed cost which turns into a sunk cost if you do not max the allowed limit of pieces for your plan.

Let's say you do use the full benefits of your plan, and receive four items every week, or even more frequently. There's zero equity in your closet. Almost all clothing depreciates, but not immediately.

2. Mistakes follow you
Jennifer Hyman says, "Every woman has the feeling of opening up her closet and seeing the dozens of dead dresses that she's worn only once." (Dozens? Who are these women?) Rental services mean you're not staring at your mistakes, but Schwartz tried the service and still selected a number of dogs.

Maybe there's some learning from a flop, but geez Louise, if you read The Vivienne Files, you will learn how to make wise choices—for free.

3. Ick factor
You are wearing used clothes; RTR endeavours to get many rentals out of each garment. Renters say they can sometimes smell a previous wearer once the item (drycleaned before being sent out) comes to them.

4. Environmental evil
Ten thousand boxes go in and out each day at RTR's New Jersey facility and the volume is growing. (They operate a few storefront locations, but the vast majority of rentals are fulfilled by shipping.) The drycleaning plant is the largest in North America and maybe the world.

5. Clothes hold memory and meaning
In 2012, I posted about the elderly cashmere I still wear. Six years later, I continue to do so— and the makers are still producing these styles. I don't want to dispose of what makes me feel good and holds memories.

Pros: Why Rent?
Carven coat

1. To wear clothes you can't afford
In marketing terms it's called "badge value": you're off to work in a Marni skirt. It would be a blast to wear this Carven fake fur coat, channel my inner Debbie Harry for a month, and then say toodles without guilt or fuss.

$2k a year to dress way above your pay grade is a done deal for many subscribers; it's fun to play dress-up in an endlessly-refreshed closet.

2. To dress for a special occasion or situation
The RTR origin story involves Hyman's sister's purchase of a $2, 000 Marchesa dress to wear to a wedding. She thought, There has to be a better way.

RTR (and similar companies) do offer a one-time option, used mostly for formal-occasion wear, but also handy for job interviews, maternity clothes and those annoying events when someone demands that guests wear a specific colour and it's one you've never bought.

3. Renting equals ease
I thought of other subscription rental services I've used that never existed when I began to earn a living: music (Spotify), magazines (Texture) and movies (Netflix). I am not even discussing the Japanese company from whom you can rent mock relatives.

Renting a wardrobe offers the same benefits: choice, access and convenience. Is this service much different from hiring regular house-cleaning? Leasing a car? How about a vacation time share? And let's not forget that some women hate shopping more than scrubbing shower tile. What is one's time worth?

4. Bonding: Sisters of the travelling dress
Monique Lhullier dress
Whether the item is "curated" (which in this era means "someone chooses it for you") or you scroll through enticing options and pick, the process is super-sticky. Previous wearers leave feedback, and best of all, photos. Sometimes, women who wore a dress 'followed' successive wearers like a cheering squad.

Even I, who avoid user comments like a termite avoids plastic, got sucked into photos of the same cocktail dress worn (in different sizes) by fifty or sixty women.

A pricey privilege

Renting is antithetical to building wealth. As the frugality bloggers counsel, clean your own house, cook instead of eating takeout, learn to do simple repairs, use the library. But we live in a materialistic culture and technology now enables a fabulous wardrobe you don't have to buy.

I remember a dream I had when a teen: that my closet was stuffed with new, alluring clothes. The dream was so vivid that I could stroke a soft blue dress. But at dawn, there hung my grey flannel school uniform, my Levis, my same comfy terry robe. What seemed a dream, now entirely possible!

What to do? Shake hands with a devil in that Monique Lhullier red dress or continue buying? If I needed a one-time special dress, I would definitely do it.

If the service were available here, I'd love to try it for a month or two, to zhuzh with abandon and release myself from being so damn practical—and could well imagine getting hooked. But I'd only rent the high end clobber, that's the point.

For now I am still a buyer, and the next post is my 2018 Spend Report, in which I analyze how I did.


LauraH said…
Very interesting. I had vaguely heard of these services but didn't know anything concrete so thanks for keeping me in the loop:-)

On a daily wear level, this seems like a lot of work. Essentially you would be constantly shopping, deciding, choosing. Since I'm not a shopper, it sounds exhausting. I agree it would be handy for a special event when you don't have the right clothes.
I knew about this from another article, perhaps in the Guardian or the NYT?

Except for a special event, this seems very wasteful, not to mention all the dry-cleaning. To be honest, I don't see when I'd need such a special event outfit, as even if I were to win some kind of award, a plain dark "good" outfit would be fine nowadays. Idem for weddings and funerals.

I can see why Representative Ocasio-Cortez might approve, as US politics is more of a "show" than ours; I can't see a young woman candidate here from the NDP or Québec solidaire needing to dress up in the same way.
Duchesse said…
LauraH: I imagine it is some work, but women who like it say they enjoy looking and choosing online and they get pretty fast at it.

lagatta: No, me either, any more ...unless I am invited to a formal wedding, which could happen. I have a friend whose husband was nominated for an Oscar (in one of the technical areas) and suddenly had to have a dress and accessories. Another went on a cruise where you have to dress for dinner, and rented a couple of things to fill out her trusty few dressy tops. Two more examples of occasions to rent.

A family member had a long career in electoral politics here; she needed a number of cocktail or evening ensembles. Though no longer in office, she is still invited to many functions. She has things made for her when she travels to Asia, among other strategies.
Unknown said…
This is an interesting topic. I have wondered about fit. I am quite short and almost always need hemming, and sometimes other alterations as well. I assume you can't hem a rental.
It would be nice to have a way to upgrade for, say, a week of job interviews.
Susan said…
As usual, your pithy commentary says it all. I can see a one time rental of a ball gown, and MAYBE the rental of really special (but out there) coat for a month or so--but my tried and true closet denizens give me some comfort.

I do have a funny story. My precious daughter in law purchased a black tie even dress at a deep discount. She was quite pleased with it and wore it to an event. At the occasion, another woman asked if she had rented the dress. Our dil said no--and the other woman said, "I wondered because I tried to rent it and it was always sent out." So--the Rent the Runway trend affects everyone. You may buy a dress but others may ask it your dress is rented.
Jean Shaw said…
Have to wonder what the next recession will do to this business...
I used to work in the financial district here in Toronto and I noticed recently that one of these rental shops - for formal occasions - has now opened in the shopping concourse. I think it makes sense for occasional cocktail parties or formal events that you wouldn't normally attend but I can't see myself using it for my day to day wardrobe.

I am short & round and have enough trouble finding clothes that fit properly so I would worry about that. I also see this as allowing people to buy into "the Kardashian" factor - it's a fictional life and I just find something off-putting about what it represents.
Susan B said…
I wouldn't rent on a regular basis, but if I had to attend a black tie or other special event, I'd sure consider it. I rented my wedding dress some 24 years ago, and still consider it one of the smartest style decisions I've made.
Duchesse said…
Unknown@4:40: No alterations are permitted, which makes sense, but there are speciality sizes offered by some of these companies (e.g., petite, plus and petite plus.)

Susan: Your daughter did not rent the dress, but the same dress could be on a rental site; however, RTR have some designers make styles exclusively for rental. My friend who rents says she would not be embarrassed to say her dress was a rental, because it shows she is smart enough not to tie up a great deal of money on a dress that will get limited wear (but she is about 38.) I wonder how I would feel, but also I do not think it is very gracious to ask the question.

Margie: The RTR president considers it "recession proof" (you've got to have clothes) but that might be a brave face on it. Certainly discretionary spending takes a hit in a recession.

Margie from Toronto: Slightly surprising as many of those people might go to same events, what do you think? There used to be one on Avenue Road, mainly for quite fabulous evening gowns. I went with a friend who rented as mother-of-the- bride evening dress. When she said the wedding was in NYC the owner said, "Good, you'd be surprised how many Toronto weddings this dress has been to."

une femme: You were so ahead of this! Well done. I have always thought buying a formal wedding gown was a horrible expense, though I see the fun in picking one out. Several young women friends of my sons have rented theirs or bought secondhand.

One of my cousins, a very successful businesswoman (though she has never held me in disdain as a useless academic/artist) wore her mother's wedding gown and looked ab fab in it. There are a lot of secondhand gowns on the market to be altered or funkified.

I've never been formally/legally married and at this point would see no purpose in doing so unless it might be essential for a visa to be with a beau. We'd both be quite recycled at this point in life so there is no question of a formal wedding; just a civil ceremony and after a celebration with friends. This does not preclude the couple wanting something special!
Never say never, but as a woman who sews most of her clothes, I would make something simple and fabulous to wear to a special do. I’d prefer to spend my money on more fabric or accessories. I can see that this would be a useful service for certain people and events. I wonder what happens to the clothes when they’ve exceeded their lifespan.
You always write interesting blogs. Thank you.
Vancouver Barbara, I hate to think of that but also fear that those people never get the joy "sparked" by well-worn but beloved clothes. Along with a new pullover, a new "base layer" (AKA thermal top) and jeans I bought a year ago, I'm also wearing a black pinwale corduroy shirt I must have bought at least 20 years ago (it is from Cotton Ginny, which closed a long time ago). That is obviously to wear around the house (it is bloody cold out here).

One thing I do regret is most everything I've bought at Joe Fresh (in the same building as a nearby supermarket). Fortunately not much. The things that looked nice and were natural fibres soon turned to ... not quite rags, but in the pile of housework-only garments, and I have too many of those. Unfortunately, I don't sew except for mending.

The posts with the most