Unlike a bag of vegetables, good fashion has no sell-by date. Well-made garments are created to withstand the test of time. But how often do yours get worn before they get dumped into the “out” pile?
Research by ScienceDirect in February estimates that in the last two decades, global annual consumption of textiles has nearly doubled from 7kg to 13kg per person, culminating in some 100 million tonnes of textile consumption every year. That’s not all; over two-thirds is destined for the landfill while a measly 15 percent gets recycled.
The boom in rental and resale businesses in fashion, hence, is a cause for celebration. Finally, the industry is acknowledging its transgressions on the environment — and showing some semblance of repentance. Advances in e-commerce logistics, coupled with diminished stigma around renting or buying pre-loved items, have led clothing rental services and resale platforms to emerge as ostensible competitors to traditional retailers.
And figures are backing up the trend. The global online fashion rental market is estimated to fetch US$1.96 billion (S$2.84 billion) by 2023, according to a 2019 report by financial portal Marketwatch. Meanwhile, the luxury resale business is looking at a US$36 billion turnover — or nine percent of the personal luxury goods market — by 2021, revealed Boston Consulting Group late last year.
Last June, US online luxury reseller The RealReal made headlines when it raised an impressive US$300-million IPO. Over in Singapore, Style Theory secured US$15 million in Series B funding last December, while Hermes Birkin and Kelly bags reseller LuxLexicon reported S$49.7 million in sales for 2019, up 46 percent from 2018 and its highest ever since inception in 2016.
“Asians are warming up to buying pre-owned luxury, though a good portion of our business also depends on new and unused items,” points out Florence Low, founder of LuxLexicon.
“Younger and savvier buyers appreciate that there are sometimes bargains to be had for pre-owned handbags; when sellers grow tired of a particular look, they are eager to offload older items at better prices. For older buyers, meanwhile, acquiring pre-owned allows them to ‘test drive’ a style before deciding to commit to a brand new Hermes handbag.”
Low also owns LuxCollate, which resells other European luxury brands like Chanel and Louis Vuitton. By riding on Facebook’s Live video capabilities, it has organised live bidding sessions on rare items, a strategy commonly employed by the resale community.
Traditional retailers, meanwhile, are increasingly hopping on the resale-rental bandwagon by launching pop-ups and dedicated in-house services, among others.
Last May, Gen Z lifestyle store Urban Outfitters introduced Nuuly, a women’s clothing subscription service where for just US$88 a month, you can choose six items from an assortment of over 3,000 styles. Described as a response to millennials’ desire for value-for-money fashion and environmental sustainability, Nuuly has earned buzz for allowing consumers to experiment with new trends, brands and fits.
In February, Hurr Collective, UK’s leading clothing and accessories rental platform, set up its first in-store pop-up at Selfridges. In its six months there, it will also host sustainable fashion panel discussions and styling sessions.
In the same month, American department store Nordstrom unveiled its resale site, See You Tomorrow. Available online as well as in its flagship store in New York City, customers can purchase returned and damaged designer merchandise. They can even sell their lightly worn clothing through See You Tomorrow in exchange for a gift card.
But the question remains: why buy an item previously owned by someone else or rent something that you can’t actually call your own?
As Anna Bance, founder of UK-based Girl Meets Dress, says: “Sometimes, you want to take an Uber, sometimes you want to drive your car.” With her clothing rental company, every customer can try up to three dresses but pay only for the one picked. There’s no subscription fee and rental ranges between £19 and £119 depending on retail value and the popularity of the piece.
“Rental is a way for consumers to extract all the value without any of the headache, and women can now easily wear more relevant, trend-led, time-sensitive fashion,” she adds, “while continuing to invest and buy only those classic pieces which will stand the test of time.”
Authenticity of the pieces are also assured by rental and resale companies such as Vestiaire Collective, whose inventory includes items such as hard-to-procure Prada shirts and jewellery from Van Cleef & Arpels.
Besides having a team of experts to properly authenticate products, Vestiaire Collective signed a Fight Against Online Counterfeiting Charter in 2012, which co-founder Fanny Moizant says “allows us to work closely with luxury brands to ensure zero tolerance to counterfeit goods. This is key to guaranteeing trust with our customers.”
Potential resellers must submit a list of photos and declare each item’s condition (or defects, if any). Then the item gets carted off to one of Vestiaire Collective’s inspection centres, where it has to pass stringent authentication and quality inspections before it is listed on the site. Any red flags — from suspicious origins to undeclared defects — can affect not just the product listing but your reputation as a seller. Payment is also escrowed through the site in order to prevent shady dealings.
Trust is especially crucial in this relationship, given that many companies have no glitzy big-budget ad campaigns and rely largely on word of mouth to grow their business. Take the case of Rent the Runway, where word of mouth accounts for more than 90 percent of its clientele, reveals co-founder Jennifer Hyman. In March 2019, the New York-based service hit unicorn status when it hit a valuation of US$1 billion.
With Rent The Runway, clothing goes through a thorough round of cleaning before and after it is rented, and is even insured. Reusable garment bags are used and customers are encouraged to use them for returns, thus doing away with packaging waste.
It’s such a straightforward pitch: you access an expansive closet and save the earth at the same time. With that, a promising future for fashion’s circular economy has instantly opened up, yes? Well, not just yet.
Clearly, there’s legwork to be done before rental and resale companies become the silver bullets to curb fashion’s sizable carbon footprint.
While shopping resale ensures that existing clothing don’t go to waste, it doesn’t necessarily indicate that manufacturers are dialling down production. And with new items being made and bought via these sites, those left on the rack may end up as waste. Thought also needs to be put into making transportation and dry-cleaning of rented wares more sustainable.
Nonetheless, by supporting the concerted shift towards decreased and discerning consumption, the circular economy seeks to empower consumers to change their mindset and use their sartorial power to help bring about positive change.
This story first appeared in the April 2020 issue of A Magazine.