Renting clothes is a silver bullet for fashion tragics – if I could find some I wanted to wear

Grace O'Neill
·5-min read

Is owning clothes obsolete? Or rather, is owning a lot of clothes going to be obsolete in the near future? Many fashion pundits are arguing it might be.

David Jones, a brand that has seen first-hand the decimation Covid-19 wrought on the retail industry, is among the growing number of companies looking to capitalise on the rise of renting, by partnering with rental company Glam Corner to stock for-rent occasion-wear in their stores and online, beginning with the Elizabeth Street flagship in Sydney. There are plans to expand to every capital in the country.

Their timing is good. As most Australian states return to something resembling normalcy, the possibility of wearing something other than trackpants is back on the horizon. This has created a social paradox (a population facing an economic recession but keen to return to socialising) that makes renting rather than buying an attractive proposition.

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But even with the addition of new players like David Jones, the Australian rental market is, by global standards, surprisingly small, and dominated by an event-dressing model. Glam Corner is the most popular player; The Volte, which exclusively deals in dress rentals, is another. The recently launched Fashion Alta Moda is the most premium in the country, offering new-season gowns by Valentino, Oscar de la Renta and Prada for upwards of $500 a weekend.

These brands do what the rental market has always done: provide outfits for weddings, birthdays and other social events where a nice-dress-you’ll-never-wear-again is required.

Including postage, Glam Corner charges $59 to rent a $280 dress for four days. The dress will be second-hand, the renter will only wear it once, and they will be liable for retail cost should they spill a glass of wine down the front. Considering the rental cost is just over 20% of the product’s retail value, you can see how shoppers might still be more tempted to buy outright.

There’s another issue: with weddings’ guest lists winnowed, and many other major formal occasions cancelled, “event dressing” remains a precarious concept.

Getting rental right is a potential lifeline for businesses and the planet.

Impulsive consumption creates an ungodly amount of waste. The fashion industry is responsible for 10% of the world’s carbon emissions and is the second-largest consumer of water (the average pair of jeans takes around 7,500 litres of water to create).

More than 500,000 tonnes of textiles and leather are thrown into landfill in Australia annually, and a YouGov survey found three in 10 Australians have thrown away clothes after wearing them once. Renting clothing is a simple way for individuals to own less stuff; while companies capitalise on the stuff they’ve already made.

The possibilities for expanding the rental market are endless. We could rent clothes for long periods of time, or rent clothing to wear for more minor life events such as business meetings, job interviews and dates. But we’re not there yet. The most fundamental change we need to see to make renting a truly appealing proposition is more modern, diverse and dynamically updated stock. A more competitive pricing model would help too.

Related: Landfill becomes the latest fashion victim in Australia's throwaway clothes culture

As something of a fashion tragic myself, I can testify that many young fashion-obsessed women would spend triple the money to rent a new-season dress by brands such as Khaite, Vita Kin and Batsheva, over a three-season-old dress by Zimmermann or Alice McCall. And they’d spend silly money to rent a genuinely on-trend piece, like a Bottega Veneta pouch bag or a chunky Chanel sandal.

Social media has normalised dropping serious coin on a fashion items simply for the digital clout – but fashion obsessives are also savvy, and are reluctant to spend thousands of dollars on an item they’re liable to think is tragically uncool in two months’ time. The true value of renting, as far as I see it, is to get out of the wedding market and start filling this gap.

Granted this idea contradicts the rules that govern how these services traditionally choose their stock – the idea being that the more trendy a piece is, the less time you can rent it, and the less valuable it is as an investment. But we are seeing the exact opposite work elsewhere. In the UK and US, companies such as Rent the Runway, Front Row, By Rotation and My Wardrobe HQ all offer the kind of cult-status items I’ve mentioned (on MyWardrobeHQ a £1,215 Bottega Veneta shoulder bag can be rented for £21 a day). They use the whims of Instagram popularity to dictate their stock, and defying logic, they thrived during the pandemic.

There are signs this could happen in Australia. Glam Corner offer a monthly subscription service, starting at $99 per month for a box of three “everyday” garments that you can keep for as long as you like. Their maternity range also shows promise.

Liking fashion and being concerned about the impending doom of our planet often feels like an inescapable moral contradiction. The best-case scenario would of course be for us to stop buying things altogether.

But there’s still a thrill to wearing something for the first time. While we still live in a capitalist, profit-driven society – and while we still adhere to the belief that clothing is a shorthand for identity – rental seems like a viable solution that we should be trying on for size.

Renting at scale could drastically reduce the amount of fashion waste we generate per year, good news to anyone with even a passing understanding of our current global crisis.

Businesses just need to meet us halfway by making it cheaper and easier. And by stocking better stuff.

  • Grace O’Neill is a freelance journalist and former fashion features director of Harper’s Bazaar Australia