Looking for a new frock? Here’s why you should rent, not buy

Clothes rental is a cheaper – and more sustainable – way to boost your style

How often do you wear a new item of clothing? Researchers are divided on the actual number, but it’s thought that many people wear clothes between four and seven times before deeming it as “old”. A UK survey last year intimated that shoppers there own about €13 billion worth of clothes they don’t wear. It’s been argued that the fashion industry is the second most polluting industry in the world, after oil. The business consumes vast volumes of water, chemicals and energy to meet the appetites of the fast fashion industry, worth about $35 billion in the US alone.

Last year, as the conversation around climate change, sustainability and eco-awareness swelled, the fast fashion industry didn’t seem quite so fashionable any more.

A growing number of Irish women are seeking an alternative to the high street. Earlier this month, broadcaster Jennifer Zamparelli announced that she was putting "positive pressure" on herself to embrace sartorial sustainability, wearing a refashioned dress on Dancing With The Stars from a previous season. "I will not buy a single stitch of clothing this year," she tweeted. "I'm gonna re-use, borrow and stay out of Penneys. If you see me skulking around Zara, you have full permission to slap me."

Similarly, Kate Middleton was hailed at the 2020 Bafta Awards for "recycling" an Alexander McQueen dress that she wore during a 2012 visit to Malaysia. One newspaper dubbed her the "queen of recycling" after wearing her outfits more than once.

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It’s a curious state of affairs when celebrities are noted for wearing an outfit more than once, but it’s a mindset that has trickled down, and helped to propel the rise of the clothing rental industry.

Designer brands

Kelly Cosgrave, a 26-year-old property developer from Sandycove, started renting clothing back in college: “I used Borrower Boutique for nights out. When you’re in college, you’re going to buy stuff for the bigger nights, like college balls. With my job now, I’m always going to different work events, and usually the same people are there. This way, I can wear a new dress every time. Renting makes the designer brands accessible to people my age. It’s not worth the money to buy them, unless you resell them on Depop.”

Johanna Dooley co-founded Borrower Boutique (BorrowerBoutique.com) with friends Chloe Best and Sarah Monahan. Dooley, a dedicated lover of fashion, spent her teenage years lending her coveted designer pieces to friends and family.

"The idea for Borrower Boutique stemmed from going to nights like Wes [the disco at Old Wesley in Donnybrook], when my friends would borrow my clothes and my mum was like, 'you should start charging for these'," Dooley recalls. "In college, I set up an Instagram page, took pictures of my own wardrobe and basically drove items to people's houses. Throughout college it was a bit of fun, or more like a hobby, but when we finished college, we decided to put more time into it."

Borrower Boutique offers a holiday shop, evening wear, a wedding edit, and an array of Insta-friendly designers from Rixo and Realisation Par to Rotate and Alice + Olivia. Dresses can be rented from €45 to €150.

Dooley’s predominantly young client base like to be “seen to be borrowing”, she says.

“People thought it was strange when we started, but now borrowing is cool. People’s perceptions have changed from ‘I don’t want to wear something someone else has worn’ to ‘look, I’ve actually borrowed this dress’.”

Cost-effective

As chief people officer for Ding.com, having also worked as vice-president of HR at Facebook, Fiona Mullan regularly attends black tie events and charity lunches. Using Designer Room (DesignerRoom.ie), a company that rents high-end designer dresses and outfits for four days at a time, is a no-brainer.

“I’ve used it for three reasons,” Mullan says. “The first is access to a variety of different kinds of dresswear that are suited to events, without having to go through the effort of visiting multiple shops and spending lots of money. I find it a cost-effective way to add variety to my wardrobe, but the time-saving aspect to it really appeals. I don’t have the time to do the legwork otherwise. It actually made me braver to try things I wouldn’t necessarily have done when I’m spending my own money. It’s like I get a personal shopping experience where stuff is laid out that suits my shape.”

The growing awareness around sustainability is also a factor. “I’ve grown up on the high street, so to speak, so I’m learning all the time on how to change my behaviours. We’re all learning.”

A marketing professional by trade, Rhoda McDonagh quit her banking job to open the Designer Room in Sandymount in Dublin 4 in April 2018. Clients rent an outfit for anything from €60 to €200. McDonagh hires out up to 20 outfits a week. Labels such as Victoria Beckham, Ann Su, Marc Jacobs, Self-Portrait, Preen, Temperley and Stella McCartney are among the most popular.

“I was going to a wedding down in Adare Manor and I wanted to see if I could rent high-end designer like Roksanda or Victoria Beckham,” she says. “I couldn’t find anything, and that’s when I went, ‘That’s it. There must be a market here.’ Others were targeting the bridal market, or younger shoppers, but Designer Room is for women over 30 who like high-end designers; women who don’t have time to go shopping.”

Debs season

Dubliner Aleana O'Shea took over Covet (covet.ie) – a rental company based out of Dublin's Powerscourt Centre – in 2015, after spending time working in the fashion industry in New York.

“The business model always worked for us specialising in evening designer dresses, but our bread and butter was debs season in the past three years,” she explains. “We have expanded our shop into two units and our product offering has doubled.

“We have brides renting wedding dresses, brides renting bridesmaids’ dresses, mother of the bride or groom renting outfits, wedding guests, black-tie functions and the debs season,” O’Shea explains. “We also have that customer who loves the odd vintage piece, who might come in and borrow a beaded top to throw on with her skinny jeans for date night.”

Have any items come back to her in less-than-pristine condition from these glamorous events?

“Yes!” she says emphatically. “We have at least three casualties a debs season, but, relative to the volume that goes out, it’s okay. We have a studio with the most amazing seamstresses that will re-skirt, re-bead and re-panel to make it close to perfect for the next wearer. Every dress goes through a maintenance phase in advance of going out. The dress will be cleaned, then altered if needed.”

Similarly, the onus is on McDonagh to provide not just bespoke fashion advice, but high-quality and clean rental items to her clients. Luckily, she has never had too many cleaning catastrophes: “If you get a drink spilled on it, I sort the dry cleaning, but if the dress gets lost or destroyed, the client is liable for the full retail value. But that really doesn’t happen often,” she says.

The conversation around sustainable fashion has helped business; so, too, has the rebounding Irish economy.

“Black ties have really come back in fashion; they had ebbed away a bit during the recession,” says McDonagh.

“As you get older, your social circle gets smaller, and especially with social media, it’s harder to get away with wearing the same dress twice.”

This echoes comments made by Anushka Salinas, chief operating officer of US clothing rental giant Rent the Runway (renttherunway.com).

“When we launched our business in 2009, social media and Facebook were becoming very popular, and that catapulted our business early on,” she says. “We launched with occasional wear and cocktail and evening dresses, and women posting pictures [of these] did not want to be seen wearing the same outfit twice. From there we had a two-way conversation with the women in our community, and they were so delighted by the experience of being able to wear a different dress every single time.”

Subscription models

Rent the Runway, which opened an office in Galway with 40 staff in 2019 (they still operate only in the US for now), have since moved into a subscription model, whereby users can access a wide variety of outfits and accessories for about $139 a month. Workwear, maternity and weekend outfits are among its most popular items.

Similar subscription models operate in the UK, from StitchFix and Lookiero to Style Lyrical and the bespoke Style Service. Each mails its subscribers a capsule wardrobe each month; subscribers return the clothes in order to get a new batch.

They’re a good way for people to experiment with looks, without too much financial outlay.

“The beauty of a Rent the Runway subscription is that [the wardrobe] grows and changes with you,” Salinas explains. “It meets the changing needs of your life, from your first job, then your more high-powered job, then getting married, becoming pregnant . . .”

Peer-to-peer rental platforms like MyWardrobe and HURR Collective allow people to monetise their own wardrobes. It's only a matter of time before a company like the UK's Swap Rebellion, which hosts good old-fashioned clothes swaps, is established in Ireland.

"Our whole lifestyle is moving towards that 'cloud' space," says McDonagh. "We rent movies on Netflix, we have Spotify – if we can crack the mindset of consumerism from buying to hiring with clothing, there's no reason we can't approach the subscription model [in Ireland]."

Salinas adds: “We envision a world in the not-so-distant future where half of a woman’s wardrobe is rented, and half is owned. Over time, we certainly think that over half of our [overall] possessions will be rented. Home products, canoes, skis . . . the sky’s the limit.”