NEW YORK, United States — Elizabeth Monson, 33, used to shop at Zara almost every week. It was the early 2010s, and the Spanish retailer was every fashion lover’s dream, offering styles right off the runway at a fraction of the price.
Today, Monson doesn’t shop nearly as much. When she does make a purchase, it’s often a used item she’s thoroughly researched first (she currently has her eye on a Proenza Schouler bag on Poshmark.) And for part of last year, Rent the Runway filled out the rest of her closet.
“I would 100 percent replace fast fashion with rental,” said Monson, the head of marketing at Colugo, a direct-to-consumer stroller company. She cancelled the service because of her casual work environment recently but is open to trying others. “That’s the purpose it serves: having something novel that you wear a few times and then move on.”
The rapid rise of rental and resale services has come at fast fashion’s expense. H&M has struggled with sluggish sales, while Forever 21 is closing dozens of stores after filing for bankruptcy last year. Mass retailers like Old Navy that mimicked fast fashion’s speed-to-market and affordable prices have also seen sales decline.
Showing off outfit after outfit on Instagram 'will no longer be cool, it will be gauche and garish to participate in something that is knowingly destroying the planet.'
Some experts sense a shift away from binge buying, with discounted designer pieces sourced from platforms like The RealReal and Rent the Runway replacing cheap Zara dresses and H&M pants. In surveys, consumers say they want to shop in a more environmentally friendly way, and are growing tired of the outfit-of-the-day culture of social media. Instagram is hiding likes on users’ posts, and global brands like H&M and Nike are engaging with the secondhand market and investing in sustainable manufacturing.
“We’re in the latter stages of our honeymoon with social media,” said retail consultant Doug Stephens. Showing off outfit after outfit on Instagram “will no longer be cool, it will be gauche and garish to participate in something that is knowingly destroying the planet.”
To be sure, few expect rental or resale to fully replace traditional retail anytime soon. Plenty of mass-market retailers are still growing, including Zara, and Forever 21’s bankruptcy had more to do with its pricey real estate and late adoption of e-commerce than the rise of rental. Instagram’s never-ending feed is more popular than ever. Many consumers sell their old clothes not to help the planet but so they can afford to buy new ones. Rental has barely penetrated massive categories such as shoes, outerwear and menswear.
Still, the savviest consumers are shopping differently, and if the masses follow, it will point to a closet of the future that contains fewer pieces, with a small number of durable garments supplemented by an ever-changing mix of rentals and items cycled through secondhand marketplaces. People will always want to look fashionable, but how they achieve that goal — and where they buy their clothes — is changing fast.
“Since I was a kid, it was always like if you need a shirt for this party, you go to H&M and you buy a new shirt,” said Jamie Gallagher, 28, a nanny and musician in Philadelphia. “We were always told more is better and more makes you cooler … and I’m starting to realise that that’s just not the case.”
The Rented Closet
Gabriella Martinez, a 27-year-old grad student living in Chicago, has not bought a single item of clothing since last summer, when she signed up for Rent the Runway’s unlimited subscription. Likewise for Julie Short, a working mother of two in Muncie, Ind., who shopped frequently at Zara, Madewell and Target until she signed up for Ann Taylor’s rental service, Infinite Style.
Rent the Runway and Ann Taylor are just two of a growing number of rental platforms that enable consumers to try out trendy pieces without having to purchase them. Retailers like Vince, Bloomingdale’s, Express, Banana Republic and Urban Outfitters all launched rental services in the past 18 months.
Meanwhile, peer-to-peer apps are also hoping to become viable alternatives to buying new clothes, though both are still small.
It’s not about training women to rent rather than buy but to shape consumer behaviour to shop better.
No single rental player has hit on a seamless formula: Rent the Runway faced customer outrage last year after a botched inventory system upgrade left orders mixed up and delayed. Single-brand platforms like Vince and Express offer limited selections; it’s not hard to find customers of any rental service who say they struggled to find desirable pieces in their size.
But many of these services are growing fast, and pitch themselves explicitly as an alternative to fast fashion and rampant consumption.
“For us, it’s not about training women to rent rather than buy but to shape consumer behaviour to shop better,” said Julia Gudish Krieger, founder of Villageluxe, an app where users can borrow clothes from on another. “Don’t buy fast fashion. Invest more thoughtfully in luxury brands that have the profit margins to be thoughtful about sustainability.”
The Transient Closet
Since the popularisation of Marie Kondo’s minimalist philosophy in 2015, the resale market has seen a boom in supply as millions of consumers sought to declutter their homes. Although consignment stores have existed for decades, the timing overlap of Kondo and burgeoning resale websites made it easier than ever to dispose of unwanted clothes.
When people buy clothes nowadays, “they tend to think about an exit strategy,” said Manish Chandra, chief executive of Poshmark, where a sale takes place every second. “What you’re seeing at the intersection of resale and social media is the increasing velocity of consumption.”
The end result, backers of these sites hope, is that consumers embrace the “endless closet,” using secondhand marketplaces, rather than fast fashion, to pay for an ever-changing wardrobe.
Luxury handbag resale website Rebag launched its “Infinity” program last year, in which shoppers can purchase an item and within six months, exchange it for store credit equivalent to at least 70 percent of the original price tag. Items on Poshmark are often sold multiple times, Chandra said.
I remember going to H&M in Germany when I was studying abroad. Now I go to H&M and I'm like 'No!'
Jillian Lange, a 37-year-old nurse in Nashville, Tenn., has shopped exclusively on The RealReal and Poshmark since 2014, and plans to sign up for Rent the Runway soon. She can find some of her go-to brands — Tibi, Tome and Ulla Johnson — on both rental and resale services.
“Renting and secondhand consignment are 100 percent the future,” she said. “I remember going to H&M in Germany when I was studying abroad. Now I go to H&M and I'm like 'No!' It’s funny how much my shopping habits and mindset has changed in 15 years.”
But while Lange may never shop fast fashion again, it’s a stretch to say that resale and rental will overtake the industry.
“Rental and resale will continue to be a growing piece of the puzzle but it won’t be a replacement to the traditional retail business overall,” said Rod Sides, vice chairman and US leader in retail, wholesale and distribution at Deloitte.
The Sustainable Closet
According to an August Edited study, the use of the term “recycled” in brand emails to consumers increased 173 percent between summer 2018 and 2019. While many of these efforts are just marketing tactics, brands are experimenting with recycled materials like cork and pineapple as well as 3D printing machines.
Ministry of Supply develops textiles for its clothes that minimises its carbon footprint and offers practical benefits. The direct-to-consumer brand has developed wrinkle-free synthetic silk made from recycled materials, for instance.
The start-up works with mills and manufacturers to develop its fabrics, and according to co-founder Gihan Amarasiriwardena, durable and eco-conscious manufacturing techniques are becoming more common that ever.
We’re seeing a massive shift [among] manufacturers toward thinking about garment life cycles.
“Before, supply chain innovation was focused on lead times and what’s fast and cheap,” he said. “Today, we’re seeing a massive shift [among] manufacturers toward thinking about garment life cycles," from razor cutting techniques that don’t use stitches to stretch yarns created to be as sturdy as spandex.
For Days is another brand that built recycling into its business model. It offers customers a lifetime subscription to its T-shirts; they pay $28 for a cotton crewneck, wear it out, return it and buy a new one for $12. For Days is responsible for recycling the worn shirt.
Mass-market brands are pursuing their own strategies to minimise waste. Uniqlo sells 3D-printed sweaters and dresses for under $50, with machines that use exactly the required amount of yarn to knit a product. J.Crew to Levi’s are among the brands using Tencel, a new sustainable material made from processed trees.
“We’re seeing a next generation of performance materials that are better suited for the environment and will be shared and used and still retain their premium quality,” said Steve Barr, consumer markets leader at PwC.
Retailers with rental services are even more incentivised to use better, built-to-last materials. Nuuly, Urban Outfitter’s in-house rental platform, is sharing quality control information with the brands it offers, identifying categories to improve in durability.
“We’re already seeing some trends in what products have higher-than-average failed inspection rates [and how to solve them],” said Sky Pollard, Nuuly’s head of product. “Some of these are low-hanging fruit, like reinforcing button stitching.”
The Eternal Closet
Short, the working mom in Indiana, said she’ll always own some high-quality go-to pieces.
“In my mind, I’d have a capsule closet of black pants, a good pair of jeans, a great cardigan, and then for other pieces I’ll layer in from rental programs because that will allow me to have nicer items for that capsule,” she said.
The necessity — and joy — of owning clothes will never go away. And because of this, cheap and accessible fashion will always exist. The fast fashion giants of the 2010s aren’t dying any time soon, said Stephens, “but over the next decade, they will lose market share as the culture of consumption changes.”
Alice Yu, a biostatistics masters student in the Bay Area, used to aspire to be an influencer. She’d buy new clothes from fast-fashion retailers every week.
“I was always thinking about what to buy next and what outfit to wear next to the extent where I couldn’t focus on other things, like what to cook or what friend to meet next,” said Yu, 26. “So suddenly, I stopped.”
Today, Yu still shares her outfits with her 10.5K followers on Instagram. But she’s shopping far less, and instead of Zara, she’s spending her money on Poshmark, ThredUp and For Days.
Much of her base from her fast fashion days have unfollowed her, she said, but she’s gained about the same number in new followers who are interested in her new focus: sustainability.
“I have a document of everything I get each month," she said. "If I’m going to buy something new, I always ask myself now, 'How long will this last?'"