The Business of Fashion
Agenda-setting intelligence, analysis and advice for the global fashion community.
Agenda-setting intelligence, analysis and advice for the global fashion community.
NEW YORK, United States — Renting clothes is trendy. But is it worth your time?
Over the last few years, fashion rental services have popped up to tempt every conceivable type of consumer. The concept was pioneered by Rent the Runway a decade ago, and that start-up's success has inspired brands as diverse as Ann Taylor, Bloomingdale's and Scotch & Soda to give it a go.
Every subscription claims to provide a bottomless closet. But do any actually live up to that promise? I was eager to find out, both as a fashion reporter and the target customer for many of these services: a Millennial New Yorker who loves clothes but tries to avoid fast fashion. Two years after having my son, most of my clothes still didn’t fit, so I was looking forward to experimenting with new styles and sizes, especially on BoF’s dime.
I signed up for five services to see whether the reality of fashion rentals matched the hype. I chose Rent the Runway and Le Tote, the two market leaders. Banana Republic and Vince use the same white-label rental platform to rent out clothes at vastly different price points. Finally, there was Urban Outfitters Inc.'s Nuuly, one of the few instances where a brand built its own rental service from scratch, even opening a new warehouse. I signed up to these services as a regular subscriber to ensure I received the standard customer experience. I later reached out to each company in my capacity as a reporter to better understand what went right — and wrong.
A few months into the experiment, it is clear that the fashion rental market has a long way to go before it fulfils its promise of the infinite closet. With service after service, I encountered the same issues: underwhelming selection, slow shipping and confusing charges to my credit card. I spent plenty of time on the phone with customer service.
Service: Rent the Runway
The Terms: $159/month for unlimited clothes, 4 items at a time
Pros: Easy-to-navigate website, smooth logistics and fast shipping
Cons: Hard to find desirable items in my size, confusing subscription practices
I signed up for Rent the Runway for September and October. The platform carries over 500 designers and I was excited to rent from ones that are out of my budget like Rebecca Taylor, Zimmermann, Jason Wu, Tibi and Ulla Johnson.
Rent the Runway has had some supply chain difficulties, but I found the rental process to be seamless. Its site is easy to navigate and the clothes always arrived clean and ironed. Shipping was fast and reliable, and I received emails and texts when items were sent out or received back.
As for the clothes themselves, Rent the Runway has a seemingly endless supply of peplum dresses, ruffle tops, statement jeans, off-the-shoulder tops and other trendy items. Muted, elevated basics were harder to find. There were definitely items I loved, including a fun dress from The Kooples I wore to an office dinner. But overall it was hard to find clothes in my style for my everyday wardrobe.
Other subscribers recommended I keep “liking” clothing on the site and filling out my wishlist. The algorithm is supposed to get better at serving up the right styles with more interactions. But I was spending hours on the app — more time than I would to shop for the same clothes online.
Toward the end of my second month, I put my subscription on hold and received an email confirmation. I only read the subject line; what I missed was a message informing me that my membership would be automatically renewed in a month. After my card was charged, I called customer service, which gave me a refund.
Other subscribers have complained about this practice to the Better Business Bureau, where Rent the Runway has a D-minus rating.
A Rent the Runway spokesperson told me that the company is “constantly innovating our service.” In July, it debuted separate email addresses that subscribers could contact to pause or cancel their membership. Most of the BBB complaints were made before this change.
The Verdict: Now that I know how to cancel my subscription, I would resubscribe when I need outfits for special occasions.
Service: Vince Unfold
The Terms: $160/ month for unlimited clothes, 4 items at a time
Pros: Great selection of inventory
Cons: Can't select the exact items to receive, slow logistics, unclear rules
With the chic, minimalist Vince, I was at least spared having to sort through more ruffle tops. The service, launched in November 2018, promises “access to endless styles.” That promise proved largely theoretical.
After signing up, I was instructed to make a list of items I liked. I eagerly added beautiful silk blouses, cashmere sweaters, shift dresses and fun peacoats to my wishlist. Vince then selects four of the 10 items to send me. I’ve read and reread Vince Unfold’s “How it Works” page, and it’s not obvious that the service operates under a “mystery box” model.
Like many brands that have launched rental services, Vince Unfold is operated by New York-based Caastle. Caastle's Chief Executive, Christine Hunsicker, told me that "members prefer being able to set up a closet and have shipments flow without the added work needed to manage each and every box," comparing the system to Netflix's DVD queue.
Looks from the Vince Unfold service. | Courtesy
Hunsicker has a point — I did spend hours on Rent the Runway, choosing my shipments — but I wasn’t thrilled about paying to rent clothes I couldn’t even choose. Hunsicker said the company doesn’t assume subscribers are expecting to choose their own clothes, so it doesn’t spell out that the service ultimately picks which items to send. The system has a prioritization tool, where you can request to move items up the queue, but even those items are not guaranteed. She said Caastle will roll out a new feature this year for subscribers who do want to choose their own items. A spokesperson for Vince told me in an email that it is “actively working with the Caastle team to identify opportunities to help improve the Unfold experience.”
I compiled my wishlist on a Sunday and received an email that night that my package was being prepared. My package didn’t ship until that Thursday, and the clothes arrived the following Monday. Caastle technically met its goal to ship out boxes within three days, but the logistics felt slow in the age of Amazon. Plus, I was paying for Vince Unfold by the month, so every day counted.
Of the four items I received — a white silk button-down, black cargo pants, a maroon t-shirt and a camel cashmere sweater — only the sweater fit. I sent back the others but never received a new box. Hunsicker informed me that unlike Rent the Runway, all four Vince items had to be returned together. I also could have clicked a “Return Notify” button on the service’s site to prompt Caastle to send out a new box. Hunsicker said Caastle needs to “tighten its language on the Return Notify.”
In the end, I had paid $160 to rent one item. To be fair, I did love the Vince sweater — I wore it five times — but could have spent a similar amount to buy a sweater from another brand.
The Verdict: My experience might have turned out differently if I'd understood the service's rules from the outset. However, the process could be more user-friendly and it seems unlikely I am the only confused customer, given that we are trained to expect easy, one-click shopping.
The Terms: $88 / month for 6 items
The Pros: Access to clothes from Urban Outfitters, Anthropologie, Free People and some third-party brands; fast shipping; excellent value.
The Cons: Selection was more limited than it first appeared, some clothing smelled off, can't return items that don't fit
In its ads on Facebook, Nuuly says I can rent “$1000s worth of amazing party dresses, going out tops, premium denim for only $88/month from 100s of brands.” Urban Outfitters Inc. built its own rental service and operates its own warehouse; it stocks clothes from its flagship brand, plus Free People, and Anthropologie, as well as brands like Levi’s and Paige.
On paper, it sounded like a budget version of Rent the Runway. And that’s more or less how it played out.
An outfit from Nuuly. | Source: Courtesy
Much of Nuuly’s selection appeared to draw from Anthropologie. I rented two fun, colourful dresses from that brand, perfect for a weekend trip to Miami, plus a black cashmere sweater (also from Anthropologie) and a tweed dress from Gal Meets Glam, an influencer fashion line, which looked perfect to wear to my synagogue.
However, a pair of plaid Ralph Lauren pants didn't fit, and a pair of jeans smelled like lighter fluid. Nuuly doesn't accept exchanges, however; unlike other services, the six items a month are a hard cap.
When asked about my odd-smelling jeans, a Nuuly spokesperson told me clothes are inspected before they ship, including a smell test. However, “this does occasionally happen with garments that come directly from warehouses and manufacturers due to dyes, packaging and other factors.”
She added that allowing customers to exchange items that don’t fit “increases overall business expense, and we wanted to launch with a model that created opportunity for long-term health and continued growth of our brand.”
The Verdict: Nuuly offers the best bang for your buck, especially when taking into account that, given the slow turnaround at some of the other services, six items a month isn't so limiting. I would consider resubscribing, although not being able to exchange an item is a drawback. Nuuly's customer service was excellent; though I had used my shipping label to return the two pairs of pants, the company sent me a second one for free.
Service: Le Tote
The Terms: $89/month for 2 Totes, 4 items at a time
The pros: Fast shipping, good value
The cons: Poor inventory selection, confusing credit card charges
I’d heard great things from friends who use Le Tote for maternity clothes and was eager to find a few workwear options.
However, I found Le Tote’s inventory selection to be the most underwhelming of the five services I tested. Jumpsuits featured garish prints and the dresses were matronly.
Eventually, I settled on a black jumpsuit, two sweaters, and a floral skirt. Le Tote mainly carries brands one might find at a mid-priced department store, such as French Connection and Max Studio (this is no coincidence — Le Tote bought Lord & Taylor in August). Two of the four items didn't fit, and I sent them back. The company immediately charged my credit card for the two items I had kept, even though I had another three weeks to return them.
I learned from a customer service representative that all items must be returned together (this information is on Le Tote’s website, but users must click through the site’s Frequently Asked Questions tabs to see it). Le Tote issued a refund, but I had to ship the items back at my own expense, and paid $20 in postage. I cancelled my subscription.
A Le Tote spokesperson said the company operates this way because many subscribers buy their rented clothes, making automatic charges the “easier” option. The spokesperson said the company is considering whether to cover return costs if subscribers find themselves in a similar situation.
The Verdict: Free shipping and returns are major expenses for a start-up. However, it would have been worth eating that cost if it convinced me to stick with the service longer. Le Tote's inventory wasn't compelling, either; for the price of the monthly subscription, I could buy similar clothing at T.J. Maxx or Macy's (or even Lord & Taylor).
Service: Banana Republic Style Passport
The Terms: $85 a month for unlimited clothing, 3 items at a time
Pros: Excellent selection
Cons: Mystery box service, slow logistics, lack of transparency
Banana Republic was a store I religiously shopped at in high school, and then sort of forgot about (like Vince and Ann Taylor, Banana Republic started its rental service while in the middle of a turnaround).
I signed up for the site but immediately cringed when I saw it, too, is managed by Caastle, which meant I couldn’t choose the items I was renting.
Having been through the blind box experience with Vince already, I only added clothing to my wishlist that I knew I would love. My order on Tuesday arrived the following Monday.
Nothing fit from my first box — a black sweater, a checkered blazer, and a velvet blouse. This time, I used the Return Notify button to inform Caastle I was sending back clothing and received a new box less than a week later. This shipment came with a billowing floral dress, a mock turtleneck dress and a knitted pleated skirt. I was pleasantly surprised and made a mental note to start shopping at Banana Republic again. Like other rental services, I had the option to buy the clothes I rented at a discount, and I kept the skirt.
A Banana Republic spokesperson in an email thanked me for my feedback and said the company’s “goal is to make the process... seamless for customers.”
The Verdict: I would consider resubscribing to Banana Republic because its clothing and price point were a good match for me. However, I’ll wait until Caastle allows me to choose specific items to rent.
Renting Made Me Want to Go…. Shopping?
In my adventures in the rental market, I learned that not every company can or should be playing in the space. There are trade-offs when balancing affordability, convenience and selection.
“We’ve taken a bet that people would rather have higher quality clothing with less control,” said Hunsicker, Caastle’s CEO. “It’s a tension of control versus quality.”
Caastle lets Vince and Banana Republic fans rent for a fraction of the price, but their services come with rules that hinder the experience.
After renting jeans from Nuuly that reeked of chemicals, I was reminded of Rent the Runway founder Jennifer Hyman's comments on how being in the rental business essentially means operating as a dry cleaner. Nuuly has only been around for six months, and though it got some things right out of the gate, it clearly has to work out some kinks.
Rent the Runway and Le Tote have been around for years but still don’t provide clothing to match their customers’ diverse tastes.
My expectations for the other four services were built off of my Rent the Runway experience. However, these companies launched following the success of that start-up. So far at least, none can match Rent the Runway's clothes or its convenience.
Ironically, my attempts to use rentals to build my infinite closet left me dying to go shopping — maybe even in a real, brick-and-mortar store. Constantly updating my wishlist, waiting for packages and shipping them back was exhausting.
As Eugene Rabkin, editor of StyleZeitgeist magazine, argued in an Op-Ed for BoF in November, there's a "deep pleasure in ownership, not just the fleeting pleasure of acquisition but also the lasting pleasure of possession."