Rent the Runway Wants to Lend You Your Look
Excerpts from the article by Alexandra Schwartz on The New Yorker
At the back of my narrow New York City closet, squished between a thick sweater that has gone ignored since last winter and a long-retired pair of floral-print jeans, is a dress that I have never worn. I bought it at Zara last April, in a flush of springtime optimism. The dress is a hundred per cent cotton, midi length, and belted at the waist. It is also bright yellow, somewhere between ripe banana and free-range egg yolk. In the dressing room, I thought that it made me look cheerful, like a modest yet sexy daffodil. At home, my unsparing mirror told the truth: I was Big Bird with pockets. The return window closed long ago; that’s seventy-nine dollars added to my open tab of sartorial bets made and lost, joining the expensive brocade palazzo pants I wore to a fancy function and then forgot about, and the mom jeans that I got on a trip to Stockholm, where they seemed safely on the hip side of hideous. I have plenty of clothes that I love. Even so, the weeds are starting to choke the garden.
According to Jennifer Hyman, the C.E.O. of Rent the Runway, I am not alone. “Every woman has the feeling of opening up her closet and seeing the dozens of dead dresses that she’s worn only once,” she told me recently. Each year, as Hyman is fond of pointing out, the average American buys sixty-eight items of clothing, eighty per cent of which are seldom worn; twenty per cent of what the $2.4-trillion global fashion industry generates is thrown away.
Chief among the culprits here are fast-fashion businesses like Zara and H&M, which flood their stores with a constantly renewed selection of cheaply manufactured styles cribbed from high-end designers. Inditex, the Spanish company that owns Zara, is the biggest clothing retailer in the world, and produces 1.5 billion items a year. Its business relies on both the fact of surplus and the impression of scarcity. If you take a few days to mull over a possible purchase, it may well be gone by the time you return. Prices are low enough to nudge customers to buy that bedazzled leopard-print cape to wear out on Saturday night, even if it ends up at Goodwill on Sunday morning.
Hyman founded Rent the Runway in 2008 with Jenny Fleiss, while both were in their second year at Harvard Business School. The idea was simple. Men have long been able to rent tuxedos for black-tie events. Why should a woman spend a fortune on a gown that she’ll probably never wear again? Rent the Runway gave women access to designer dresses for a fraction of the sticker price. A dress was delivered in two sizes, returned by prepaid shipping label to the company’s warehouse, dry-cleaned, and sent out to the next wearer.
A few years ago, Hyman thought hard about how to expand the business. The company tried offering a subscription service for handbags and accessories, but it fell flat. At a focus group held in Washington, D.C., Hyman spoke with a customer who compared Rent the Runway to an ice-cream sundae. “It’s delicious. It makes me feel awesome,” the woman said. “But after I eat the sundae I feel really fat, and I don’t want to have another one.” Hyman said, “For me, that was a eureka moment. She was saying that Rent the Runway was a nice-to-have, not a need-to-have. If I’m going to be an analogy to food, I want to be your meat and potatoes.”
Read the full article on The New Yorker