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What happened when I wore rented clothes to fashion week

Emily Cronin, senior fashion editor,
Emily wears her rented Molly Goddard dress at London Fashion Week Credit: John Nguyen/JNVisuals

Compliments from strangers: is there a better kind? You would think I’m fishing for praise based on the number of passers-by who tell me, as I wait for colleagues outside a show venue during London Fashion Week, that my red Molly Goddard dress is “just gorgeous”. By the third time it happens, I begin to wonder if I should note it down and pass it on to its owner.

You see, the dress in question is but a guest star in my wardrobe. I rented it – and nearly everything else I wore to the recent round of London shows – from a like-minded, and -sized, stranger on a rental platform.

I turned to rentals to head off the last-minute panic-shopping that usually precedes fashion show season. “Just popping to Zara” increasingly looks like a form of madness when considered against a backdrop of depressing statistics about the fast-fashion industry. In the UK, we buy more new clothes per person than citizens of any other country in Europe, leading to an estimated 1.2 billion tons of carbon emissions annually; we also throw away more than 300,000 tons of clothes each year.

My red dress came from HURR Collective, a peer-to-peer rental platform with ambitions to become the Airbnb of fashion.

“The number one reason people sign up with us is sustainability,” says Victoria Prew, its co-founder. Since launching in March, HURR has invited users to borrow, not buy, from lenders with wardrobes rich in contemporary and luxury fashion items. It’s not just clothing – shoes, bags, jewellery and other accessories are all available to rent, though nothing too personal, like swimwear. Rixo London, Ganni and Kitri are well-represented, but you’ll also find Christian Dior saddle bags and Gucci belts, available to rent for a week at a time for 15 to 20 per cent of the retail price. The 6,000-strong waiting list proves that plenty of reformed shoppers want in.

Credit: John Nguyen/JNVisuals

Emily Cronin wears a blue printed dress, £69 for four weeks with one other item instead of full price of £370, Poustovit at Onloan

“People are really conscious of how they’re consuming,” Prew says. “That doesn’t mean they don’t still crave that feeling of newness or want to wear the latest clothes.” When we meet, Prew is wearing a buttercup-yellow Ganni dress (original price: £750) that she bought on resale site Vestiaire Collective (for £175), and that she’s since rented out once on HURR, earning £75. “I’m pretty thrilled about that. And why not? We all have pieces in our wardrobes that we want to keep, but don’t wear often. It’s madness to have things sitting there doing nothing.”

She’s got company – recent months have seen a proliferation of launches in the rental sector. Besides HURR, there’s By Rotation, occasionwear-focused Hirestreet, Oprent, Higher Studio, Front Row, My Wardrobe HQ and Onloan.

The glossiest of the bunch, Onloan is a subscription-based rental platform that officially launched in summer 2019. After I choose a package (the most popular covers four weeks’ hire of two items with a typical value of £500 for £69 a month) and complete a style survey, Onloan sends me a link to an edit of fashion-forward pieces in my size. It’s stylish and slick and features ethically minded brands that anyone interested in fashion will find compelling – some because they’re sustainability leaders (Mother of Pearl, Maggie Marilyn), others because they’re lesser-known. The floral dress and vinyl skirt I choose (from emerging Ukrainian brand Poustovit and Serbian slow-fashion brand Mykke Hofmann, respectively) arrive cosseted in tissue paper in reusable packaging, feeling more like a luxury e-tail purchase than someone else’s clothes.

“What’s great about the clothes and designers we buy into is that they invite the question ‘Where did you get that?’ ” says Natalie Hasseck, Onloan’s co-founder. (True. Never have I ever had to spell out a brand name as often as “Poustovit”.) “Rental is all the fun without the waste. You still get the thrill and dopamine hit without having to lug bin liners full of clothes to the charity shop at the end of each season.”

“It’s a guilt-free way of keeping the fun in fashion,” agrees Sacha Newall, co-founder and CEO of My Wardrobe HQ, which rents out Prada cocktail dresses and Amanda Wakeley blazers on behalf of luxury owners who don’t need their finery within arm’s reach. Fashion publicist Liz Matthews, ex-Vogue editor-at-large Fiona Golfar and Cash & Rocket founder Julie Brangstrup are all signed up (model Arizona Muse rented one of Brangstrup’s Alexander McQueen gowns for the Green Carpet Awards in September). In Newall’s previous career, consulting to the motoring industry, she learnt that in neighbourhoods where car sharing is more developed, for every car shared, 11 come off the road. “If you agree that we can’t continue consuming the way we are now, then it’s incomprehensible to say that doesn’t apply to fashion. It makes perfect sense.”

All the founders credit Rent the Runway (RtR) with inspiring their start-ups. The 10-year-old American company boasts a billion-dollar valuation and 11 million users. (Trivia: it is also the single largest dry cleaner in the USA, as measured by pounds per hour.) RtR hasn’t reached the UK yet, but they say it will, and that’s not necessarily a threat. “We anticipate that customers might have multiple rental accounts,” Hasseck says. “That’s a good thing.”

She’s on to something. Wearing rented clothes confers the thrill of newness with a frisson of a minor secret – or it would, if I could resist answering every compliment with, “Thanks, it’s rented!” And it’s fun. I’m more liberal when it comes to rentals than with items I bring into my wardrobe in a more permanent way.

Credit:  John Nguyen/JNVisuals

Rosemary dress, £44 for seven days instead of full price of £190, Franks London at My Wardrobe HQ; M2Malletier handbag, 
also rented from My Wardrobe HQ

Gone is the multi-point mental checklist before I buy (Does it fit? Can I think of at least three outfits using pieces I already own that I can wear it with? Will it look silly on the school run?). Initially, when I tried on the red Molly Goddard dress, I wondered if it wasn’t a touch pirate-wenchy – then decided I enjoyed the colour and sheer vim of the dress so much, I didn’t mind if anyone thought it would look better with a parrot on my shoulder. If I changed my mind, I’d send it back anyway.

Nowhere is this sense of experimentation stronger than during an appointment with Alessia Farnesi, My Wardrobe HQ’s lead stylist. For £9.99 a month, My Wardrobe HQ’s VIP membership gets you two styling sessions a year – rental fees apply to individual items, but they’re much easier to pick after these sessions. Based on my measurements and a little light Instagram stalking, Farnesi arrives at our styling session heaving two wardrobe bags filled with … nothing I would ever wear. Or so I think, as I help her unload hanger after hanger of dresses, jackets and jumpsuits, only to find that actually, the full-length, long-sleeved, mustard crêpe maxi-dress in the style of Ossie Clark is just what’s missing from my wardrobe. And to think I’d never heard of Franks – the London-based sustainable brand behind the dress and the double-thigh-split satin number I end up wearing on the fashion week party circuit – before my session with Farnesi.

“When we shop online for ourselves, we shop safe and stay in our comfort zone,” Newall says. “But when you’re at home and you’ve got a garment in front of you to try on, at that point you don’t really care what the brand is. You just want to know what looks great. It’s an amazing opportunity for discovery.”

My Wardrobe HQ stocks pieces from emerging brands alongside its luxe loans for this very purpose.

The sector is in its infancy, so there are still a few wrinkles. Namely sizing. If you’re a Rixo-mad size 10 based in central London, you’ll have dozens of options of dresses to rent: fewer if you wear a size 16, the UK average. I deliberately trialled the platforms that offer more sizes (I had to, if I wanted anything to fit). Newall says she’d like to have up to size 20 on the site and Prew acknowledges that size diversity can be difficult to foster in a peer-to-peer model. “Rentals have been geared towards the smaller end of the market, but I think we’re making good headway.”

One downside I didn’t anticipate was the premeditation inherent in renting – with the need to plan ahead, can renting truly replace the immediacy and buzz of impulse shopping? Even if you’re organised, some items just don’t work out. A number of coats and blazers I rented went unworn when the weather turned unseasonably hot just before fashion week.

Then there’s the issue of price tolerance. Onloan’s monthly £69 seems in line with payday shopping dashes, but I wonder how willing women will be to drop £90 on items like HURR’s Molly Goddard dress, knowing they’ll only get to keep them for a week (and could buy something similar on the high street to keep). Prew says it’s a matter of mindset. “Getting people over that first hurdle of renting is our main challenge. Once they understand how easy it is, they do it time and time again.”

First there was straightforward ecommerce, then there was resale … rentals, then, are the third wave of fashion online. Considering how quickly we got used to waves one and two, renting rather than buying might seem very normal sooner than you’d imagine.

I already have my eye on another Molly Goddard dress on HURR – one that wasn’t available during fashion week, because (how fab) its owner wanted to wear it to the designer’s show. When I do get to wear it, I’ll tell everyone who comments that it’s rented. Or I might just say thank you. After all, the clothes may be borrowed, but the compliments are mine to keep.