Is renting the future for fashion and luxury?
The co-founders of Chinese web giant Alibaba, Jack Ma and Joe Tsai, recently invested $20 million in the designer dress and accessory rental service Rent The Runway, which raised $60 million in funding just over a year ago. A few weeks ago, François-Henri Pinault said that Kering is currently testing its own rental service on a subscription basis. And these aren't the only signs of the buzz generated by this new consumption mode, several years after it first surfaced on the web.
Rent the Runway was launched in 2009 and now claims six million members in the USA. Its founder, Jennifer Hyman, said that initially, while consumers were hard to please, it was the labels which were the toughest to convince. Their scepticism gradually faded, seeing how successful the idea was, a success which was seemingly linked to the simultaneous explosion of fast fashion.
"When you buy in a store a blouse for $20 that will soon fall to pieces, that's actually a form of rental," said Jennifer Hyman. "It was [the brands] themselves which taught consumers worldwide to buy into this idea of disposable fashion," she added.
The vintage clothes business had already tapped into this growing consumption trend. Its aficionados, people who aren't put off by the idea that clothes have been worn before, are naturally the primary target market for apparel rental, as well as for subscription services, a solution which the market seems increasingly keen on.
It is, therefore, not surprising to see some event sales players now making a move toward this kind of temporary transaction. For example, the InstantLuxe website, launched in 2009 and bought in 2016 by French department store group Galeries Lafayette, which in November 2017 deployed its own rental service, initially limited to leather goods.
"We simply wanted to respond to a new kind of habit," said the CEO of InstantLuxe, Yann Le Floc’h, according to whom vintage clothing was instrumental in paving the way to this evolution. "When we launched [the site], many people were suspicious of this solution. Nowadays, it's regarded as a smart, contemporary one. We also observed that some customers rent a product to test it, and eventually buy it. In 2008, luxury products were chiefly bought with the idea of handing them down. Now, the purchase is seen more as an investment. Renting shows exactly how the concept of 'possession' is disappearing, in favour of 'usage'."
This transformation could eventually lead to profound changes in the luxury goods business model, according to Julie El Ghouzzi, Director of the Centre du Luxe et de la Création, a strategy consulting firm in Paris, who thinks this evolution can be regarded as the pinnacle of consumerism.
"It is consumption freed from the notion of possession," she said. "The yearning to possess something is what drives collectors, who form an attachment to specific objects. But there are a number of women who often overhaul their wardrobe, while in the past many of them simply accumulated clothes. Sales among private consumers are increasing, dedicated sites are cropping up. Renting could, therefore, become a powerful tool to promote loyalty: if from being a Saint Laurent buyer I become a Saint Laurent subscriber, this changes my relationship with the brand. We will not end up with a possession or renting dichotomy but, in my opinion, with a hybrid model," she added.
New models, which also lead to new consumer behaviour: renting is less influenced by the need to choose basic, evergreen items. This is, at any rate, what some operators are noting.
"When you buy in a store, you are more conservative, more rational, you may love that flower-print coat but eventually you'll go for the more classic navy blue," said Ingrid Brochard, the co-founder of French website Panoply City, currently engaged in another funding round and soon to be featured at Galeries Lafayette. "Renting needs less of a commitment, and when they rent, women tend to go for a more directional style, they step out of their comfort zone. In this, they are encouraged by social media, where the name of the game is constant make-over," she added.
Renting could, therefore, allow fashion labels to tap new consumer segments, and also offer a new outlet for their collections' most daring items. However, in order to do so, it is necessary to set up expensive technology tools. Both in logistics terms, to satisfy customers, who are used to hassle-free deliveries and returns, and in terms of consumer data, which is "essential to fully understand customer expectations and to be relevant to the specific requirements of renting," said Yann le Floc’h.
"Many labels aren't going down this route owing to the significant investment needed in logistics," said Ingrid Brochard, who explained she has been contacted by several brands to operate a renting service on a white-label basis.
At any rate, the interest in renting shown by the Kering group and Alibaba foreshadows a strong expansion phase for the sector. The main issue will be the balance of power between labels and pure players, knowing that the former now sell more clothes online than the latter.
"[For pure players], this could lead to closer relationships among competitors, whether in Europe, China or the USA," added Brochard, who is happy about the boost the Kering group could give to the concept.
"The more businesses operate in a sector, the more alive it is," said Yann Le Floc’h. The only near-certainty is that the subscription approach will very likely be the most popular, at least once there are enough potential renters on the market.
In the longer term, the increasing popularity of renting also raises questions about the future of box subscriptions which, though using the same principle, potentially imply a more expensive and less satisfying selection of products than straight renting.
In fact, the renting formula itself, in France for example, is featured in a number of versions, as show by Dressing Avenue and Les Cachotières (renting among private consumers), Le Closet (clothes-box renting), L'Habibliothèque (targeting the young), Sac de Luxe (for leather goods) and 1 Robe pour 1 Soir (event-based).
Another factor to watch is the evolution of the idea of a luxury product itself, once renting makes what was previously unattainable a little more accessible. The very idea of luxury has indeed been upended in the last decade.
"Luxury has been disrupted by fashion, which pushes the former to change endlessly," said Julie El Ghouzzi. "This makes luxury much more ephemeral, rather paradoxically. It will be this kind of luxury, rather than high luxury, which will shift more naturally towards a renting model. Depending on whether consumers covet a brand or an object, the perspective will be different. Unlocking the potential of pure consumption would open up huge possibilities, notably for luxury labels," she added.
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