Jane Shepherdson was once named the most powerful woman in British fashion. As the boss of Topshop when it ruled the high street and delivered £100m in profit a year for Philip Green’s Arcadia retail empire, she was the high priestess of fast fashion. But times have changed: Shepherdson now wants us to ditch the shopping bags and get our style fix by renting everything from dresses to sunglasses and shoes instead.
Shepherdson, who revamped the Whistles fashion chain after leaving Topshop in 2006, is now chair of My Wardrobe HQ, a designer fashion rental and resale website, which next month opens a pop-up in London department store Liberty.
The tie-up is part of an emerging trend for secondhand and rented clothing which is becoming not only acceptable but desirable.
Liberty claims to be the first UK department store to host a peer-to-peer fashion rental pop-up, following a partnership between Nordstrum and Rent the Runway in the US. But the idea is in the same vein as Selfridges hosting pop-ups by fast-growing vintage vendors Depop and Vestiaire Collective and online designer store Farfetch testing Second Life, a handbag resale service.
“People are becoming more comfortable with wearing things other people have worn and not necessarily seeing it as second rate,” says Shepherdson.
Concerns about the environmental impact of fashion, which contributes more to climate change than the aviation and shipping industries combined, are expected to drive a boom in rentals. The UK market is expected to grow more than fivefold to £2.3bn by 2029 from an estimated £400m last year, according to analysts GlobalData.
Peer-to-peer lenders such as My Wardrobe HQ and Hurr, where those with an over-stuffed wardrobe rent out items to those on a budget, are expected to lead the way, outstripping traditional players such as Moss Bros or newer online platforms such as Girl Meets Dress or Hire Street.
On My Wardrobe HQ at present, fashion lovers might choose a floral satin dress from The Vampire’s Wife label for £110, a Gucci military coat for £295, a pair of Michael Kors biker boots for £40 or a Herve Leger sequinned bodycon mini for £215. All rentals last a week and customers who fall in the love with their items can buy them outright.
Shepherdson says she got into the idea of peer-to-peer rental after taking nearly a year off living out of Airbnb homes in the US after quitting Whistles in 2016.
“I came back at the moment when it was suddenly becoming more and more apparent about what a massive polluter fashion is. I thought I’ve filled all my life with making fashion more compelling and there’s some massive back-peddling required.”
“I thought about peer-to-peer renting and why couldn’t it be exactly like Airbnb, where people could attract each other and buy into someone’s lifestyle.
“I’m not a hypocrite. I want people to enjoy fashion. Rental is a totally guilt-free way to wear the most beautiful dress and it’s not out of reach for people.”
A £1,000 dress might rent for £100, which is not exactly cheap, but accessible to anyone who can afford a big night out with cocktails, dinner and a cab home, she says.
Shepherdson began by trying to start her own site but then met Sacha Newall and Tina Lake, who founded My Wardrobe HQ in June 2018, combining their experience in online fashion, car sharing, online marketplaces and women’s magazines: “It felt like a business that could scale.”
My Wardrobe HQ works by managing the whole rental process, including photography, delivery, cleaning and payment, for its clients. About half the items on offer come from individuals, half from brands.
Shepherdson says she is now in discussions with brands about producing collections specifically for rental. “Why not? It’s obviously a change but it’s just sharing a bit more, making sure you get away from that thing of buying something, wearing it once and moving on.”
She says the idea is particularly appropriate for luxury womenswear. Ski-wear, occasion wear, maternity clothing and childrenswear are other areas Shepherdson thinks are ripe for rental.
High street closures in 2019
Thousands of high street jobs have been lost in the last 12 months as a result of high profile retail administrations, and thousands more are at risk as Mothercare, Debenhams and Forever 21 prepare for closures. Here are some of the key industry names that have been affected.
Mothercare: Has 79 stores and 2,500 UK retail staff as its British arm prepares to go into administration.
Regis/Supercuts: Had 220 salons and 1,200 staff when it went into administration in October 2019.
Bonmarché: Had 318 stores and 2,887 employees when it went into administration in October 2019. It is still trading as it seeks a buyer.
Watt Brothers: The Scottish department chain had 11 stores and 306 employees when it went into administration in October 2019. All the stores closed and the majority of jobs have gone.
Links of London: With 35 stores and 350 staff, the jewellery chain went into administration on 8 October 2019 but its sites are still trading.
Forever 21: Had three stores and about 290 employees in the UK when it went into administration in September 2019. Stores are staying open in order to clear stock.
Albemarle & Bond: Suddenly shut all its 116 stores in September 2019 with the loss of about 400 jobs, even though it did not call in administrators. It sold its pledge books to rival H&T in the same month.
Karen Millen and Coast: Had 32 stores and 177 concessions, employing 1,100 people, when it went into administration in August 2019. All sites were closed and the vast majority of staff made redundant after the brands were bought out by online specialist Boohoo.com.
Jack Wills: Had about 100 stores and 1,700 staff in the UK when went into administration in August 2019. Bought by Sports Direct and 98 stores are still trading in the UK and Ireland.
Spudulike: Closed all 37 stores with the loss of about 300 jobs when it went into administration in August.
Bathstore: Had 132 stores and 529 staff when it went into administration in June 2019. Homebase bought 44 stores saving 154 jobs and the brand now trades from 28 stores.
Select: Had 180 stores and 2,000 employees when the fashion retailer went into administration in May 2019. In June administrators at advisory firm Quantuma carried out a CVA closing 11 stores with the loss of about 200 jobs.
Debenhams: Had 166 department stores and more than 25,000 employees when went into administration in April 2019. No store closed immediately and the chain is now owned by its lenders but two closed before Christmas with another 20 due to shut in January when the group completes a rescue restructure expected to result in the loss of 1,200 jobs.
Pretty Green: Had 12 stores and about 170 employees when Liam Gallagher’s fashion outlet went into administration in March 2019. All but one store and 33 concessions closed with 100 jobs lost but 67 saved as the brand was bought by JD Sports in April.
Office Outlet: All 94 stores have closed with the loss of 1,170 jobs after the stationery retailer went into administration in March 2019.
LK Bennett: Had 41 stores and 500 employees when it went into administration in March 2019. The brand was bought by its Chinese franchise partner, Rebecca Feng, saving 21 stores, all the group’s concessions and 325 jobs. But more than 100 jobs lost with the closure of 15 stores.
Patisserie Valerie: Had 200 cafes employing nearly 3,000 people when an accounting scandal prompted the chain to call in administrators in January 2019. About 70 of the group’s 200 stores closed immediately with the loss of 900 jobs. About 2,000 jobs were saved when about 100 Patisserie Valerie cafes were rescued by Causeway Capital, more than 20 of which have since closed. 21 Philpotts sandwich shops were bought by AF Blakemore & Son. and four Baker & Spice cafes a were bought by the Department of Coffee & Social Affairs.
While Shepherdson says it’s unlikely she’ll go back to leading a fashion chain unless it’s one with strong sustainability credentials, she rues the troubles at Topshop and its fellow fast-fashion chains, particularly the loss of good jobs for young women.
“It’s sad but there is a certain inevitability to it. Everything has changed, the whole approach to shopping. If you look at the retailers having a difficult time, most are based on bricks and mortar shops.
“I still love going shopping but you have to create theatre, something worth coming in for, to get people off the sofa.”