How Are Fashion Rental Companies Surviving When We’re All Staying at Home?

by Freya Drohan

Before the global pandemic put us on a collective pause, a normal week for a fashion-conscious, time-strapped professional involved everything from office presentations to parties. Ever since Rent The Runway entered the game with its so-called ‘closet in the cloud’ concept—a membership to access on-trend garments on-demand—the age old complaint of having a calendar chock full of events and nothing new to impress people in became a thing of the past.

Pretty soon, it was second nature to repetitively rent-and-return almost every element of your wardrobe and it seemed like these companies had cracked the code, finally giving the circular economy a chic appeal. Until, in an entirely unprecedented shift, there wasn’t exactly much to get dressed up for was there? (Not counting FaceTime, that is.)

These days, when it comes to work attire, WFH—and its lack of established dress codes—has negated the need for boardroom power dressing. Now, weddings, soirées, birthday gatherings, and family occasions are increasingly taking place virtually, if at all. Granted, we all maintain on some level that we do like to get dressed for our own pleasure, self esteem, and a sense of internal confidence, the lack of social contact does beg the question: do we really need never-ending clothing options anymore? Furthermore, what is the function of companies who fuel and satiate this desire to never wear the same ‘fit twice?

Refreshingly, Ditte Reffstrup, the creative director of cool girl brand du jour GANNI admitted she’s not altogether that sure.

Last week, GANNI and Levi’s announced a rental-only collaboration; an exclusive capsule of three pieces—a button-down shirt, 501 jeans, and a shirt dress—made from up-cycled and repurposed vintage denim.

GANNI and Levi’s® “Love Letter” (courtesy)

Taking a sustainable approach to a fashion collaboration, the venture is the first rental only collection for both brands, and will be available exclusively via GANNI REPEAT, GANNI’s rental platform. The brands decided to plough ahead with the launch of ‘Love Letter’, which was a year in the making, despite not being fully sure what the affect of people going out less would have on demand.

“I don’t really think the rental market was ready for the pandemic and complete stop of almost all events,” Reffstrup told the Daily. “The idea from the very beginning was to make a product that helped shift the values and patterns of our community in terms of consumerism and ownership towards usership and circularity. The Levi’s vintage jeans have been a cool product to explore this with, because everyone can appreciate the beauty of good denim that has passed hands overtime.”

“We wanted to create a product that was worn by many, but owned by none,” she added.

Over at Rent The Runway, the company similarly strategized about how to grapple with their ‘all dressed up and nowhere to go’ customers. Early on, in addition to their usual pause and cancel options, Rent The Runway implemented an option for people to pause their memberships with pieces still at home.

Rent The Runway outlined that they have made it easy for Unlimited members to opt into 1 Swap or 2 Swaps memberships to adapt to their needs for getting dressed during this time. This option was developed as a direct response to what members were asking for as they called customer experience teams expressing concern about when they would be able to return their pieces. Members are now able to keep four items at home while their membership is paused for $39 a month.

The silver lining that the company is seeing? They state, “The vast majority of our members are pausing their memberships, instead of cancelling”

Interestingly, Rent The Runway has already noticed a shift in the types of inventory that members are edging towards. Call it ‘Zoom dressing’—if you will. Members are seemingly looking for versatility and experimenting with style more than ever.

Styles that can be worn from Zoom calls to small gatherings have reportedly increased in demand. And statement tops have “been performing exceedingly well” during work-from-home as well.

Dresses, easy-to-wear and versatile in nature, remain the number one category too, while jumpsuits have doubled in popularity compared to this time last year. Thanks to real-time data, Rent The Runway has also noticed that members are wearing more color and pattern than ever before (50% more than this time last year) and gravitating towards unique silhouettes and voluminous styles.

On social media, the campaign and associated hashtag #StayingInWithRTR also fostered some creative approaches to dressing up at home, allowing customers to make the most of their rented threads safely and behind closed doors.

Vivrelle, which offers access to luxury handbags and accessories on a membership basis, is also seeing interest pick back up, one Chanel 2.55 at a time. Founder Blake Cohen Geffen praised the startup’s supportive members for sticking by them during the onset of COVID.

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Weekend delivery courtesy of Vivrelle 💌

A post shared by Vivrelle (@vivrelle) on

“When building Vivrelle, we envisioned our membership as a utility to be used in everyday life but of course, during the onset of Covid-19, everyday life changed,” Cohen Geffen told the Daily.

“Thankfully, we saw a relatively low drop in membership due to two reasons. First, our amazing community wanted to support us during this crazy, unprecedented time and second, people were trying to hold on to a sense of normalcy. As every day life slowly reopened, members wanted to retain their membership. Interest has definitely picked back up, especially as the world continues to go back to its new ‘normal.'”

Perhaps another major reason why their fanbase kept voting with their dollars is due to Vivrelle’s charity initiatives and commitment to giving back.

“Vivrelle has always been about community and charity is a fundamental part of Vivrelle’s DNA,” Cohen Geffen agreed. “When the pandemic began, our first instinct was to figure out a way to help. We started on a local level by helping support other small businesses that were donating to frontline workers and providing meals to those working in the hospitals. Following this, we expanded nationally with Americares, a non-profit organization providing PPE, training, and emotional support to frontline health workers.”

Cohen Geffen added that new exclusive partnerships, like one with fine jewelry designer and influencer Stephanie Gottlieb, and support from high profile fans, including tv stars Morgan Stewart and Paige DeSorbo, has also helped with visibility and boosting membership signups post-COVID.

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Ready for the 4th 💙 @paige_desorbo

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Ultimately, Rent The Runway—who arguably still set the tone for all rental companies—are positive that they will overcome COVID-related challenges.

“We know though that coming out of COVID, women are going to care more than ever about financial value, sustainability, and smarter ways to get dressed,” their website states. “We are seeing many slow and steady positive signs of recovery. These include recovering subscriber counts in states opening up as members venture safely and responsibly out of their homes, and customers adapting to the new normal and electing fixed-swap/value based programs.”

Of course, health and safety of customers and employees remains a top priority for all ventures too.

At Rent The Runway, each garment and accessory goes through a rigorous cleaning process using biodegradable detergents and is then inspected by a quality assurance team to make sure they are in like-new condition. Depending on the fabrication, most garments are then sent through a steam tunnel, set at between 248°F and 302°F for additional cleaning.

Meanwhile at Vivrelle, Cohen Geffen explains that all employees will remain working remotely and that being adaptable in order to keep customers safe has been a non-negotiable.

“We plan on continuing to work this way until everyone feels completely comfortable going back into the showroom. We’ve also stayed in close contact with our members and in cases where members were put in a position where they could not return or swap their item, we made sure that their membership fee was the last thing of concern for them.”

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