This time last year, Rent the Runway’s fate seemed uncertain. How could a rental business built on dressing women for parties and their 9-to-5 jobs possibly survive when we were all stuck at home? But even as lockdowns extended past the one-year mark and headlines predicted “sweatpants forever,” RTR’s cofounder Jennifer Hyman believed her company wouldn’t just survive the pandemic—it would emerge stronger than ever.
COVID accelerated the value shifts Hyman has preached since Rent the Runway’s inception: that experiences and access would become more important than ownership; that sustainability would become a core consumer value; and that secondhand would quickly become a mainstream way to consume fashion, whether it’s via rental or resale. We don’t tend to think of RTR as a “resale site” or as a “secondhand fashion” purveyor, perhaps because the clothes are borrowed, not kept for years and years. But most of its garments have likely had second, third, or fourth “lives” (in contrast with the “secondhand” dress I scored on a consignment site with its tags still attached).
Subscribers have always had the option to keep items they’ve rented once they’re in their possession, usually for a fraction of the retail price. But Hyman was surprised to see that behavior double in 2020: Women who’d formerly rented a few outfits a week were now choosing select items they intended to keep forever.
That’s where she saw RTR’s pandemic opportunity. Starting today, everything on its site is available for resale, whether you’re an RTR subscriber or not. “Our goal is to be a fully circular platform where the customer has the flexibility to choose how she wants to consume our products,” Hyman says. “This is another way for customers to engage with us for the first time. There’s a very broad audience of people who want to consume secondhand, but potentially didn’t come to our platform in the past because they weren’t ready to subscribe, or they didn’t have an upcoming party or event. Now they have the opportunity to experience the quality of our assortment, the diversity of our brands, and the incredible fashion on our platform.”
A recent survey found that 74% of Rent the Runway customers said they will likely buy secondhand in the next 12 months; when asked specifically about buying secondhand from Rent the Runway, that number jumped to 90%. What will really set Rent the Runway’s resale business apart from consignment sites and vintage stores is that its products are sourced directly from brands, not customers. Rent the Runway functions like a retailer, buying collections every season and introducing new products every month. Most important, it offers a full range of sizes, often with hundreds or thousands of units each. (In contrast, a consignment site is more like a treasure hunt, which is appealing in an entirely different way.) “Our customer can really have the same luxury shopping experience [as any other retailer’s site], but now she’s doing it with secondhand.”
The service will introduce a new level of competition on price for e-tailers and boutiques. If you’re eyeing a new-season dress and don’t mind if it’s been worn a couple times, you might buy it from RTR for a lower price rather than at the designer’s store. “Because we monetize the product through subscription, by the time we’re selling something, we may have already rented it a few times and made money on it,” Hyman explains. “So we don’t have to charge as much as some of our competitors, who only have one opportunity to make their margin. There’s a value to the customer that she’s likely going to find better pricing on our platform.”
Still, the vast diversity of new and past-season options is the bigger takeaway. Customers will be excited to see Altuzarra bubble skirts, puffed-sleeve Patou dresses, and sparkling Cecilie Bahnsen blouses on RTR for the first time, plus dozens more new brands. Maybe they’ll buy them outright, or they’ll rent them for a summer of “re-emerging”; rental is expected to remain RTR’s core business. Hyman reported a major uptick in Unlimited subscribers, who can rent as many garments as they want each month.
“We’re already seeing people rent the most fashion-forward, optimistic, bright clothing we’ve seen in our 13 years of business,” she says. “People are really starting to wear their feelings, and those feelings are of joy, of celebration, and of exuberance.”
This article originally appeared on Vogue.
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