Meeting customers on their terms … Country Road’s managing director, Elle Roseby.Credit:Justin McManus
It was only a few years ago that rental services were considered the "wild west" of sustainable fashion. At their inception, there were so many questions, not least of which: Will they finally kill off Australian retail once and for all?
The rationale for this skepticism was as follows: If people no longer had to buy clothes, would they just … stop buying clothes?
Of course, from the rental companies' side, there were questions, too: Which brands did customers covet but not necessarily have the means or measure to own? Would people get over the "ick" of wearing something someone else had danced/worked/travelled/sweat in (we've been doing it for fancy dress for eons but somehow, this just felt "different")? And for what occasions, and how often, would people seek out these services?
Fashion retail, while its struggles have been well documented, has not collapsed in the face of rental services, which continue to grow at a staggering pace. An estimate from Research and Markets recently projected the online clothing rental industry would reach $US1.96 billion ($2.9 billion) by 2023.
Australia's biggest player, GlamCorner, has evolved since 2012 from a mainly special occasion site to meeting demand from "everyday" women who love new clothes but want to save space and minimise their environmental footprint.
Last week, it announced a partnership with Country Road, which would see current styles from the fashion brand added to GlamCorner's new subscription model. Customers can have three garments a month for $99, or unlimited "swaps" for $149.
Country Road's managing director, Elle Roseby, said it made perfect sense for the company to get in bed with a rental service. She said it offered customers a chance to "access our brand on their terms".
But while a growing number of Australian fashion brands are selling direct to rental sites, treating them as wholesale clients as they would boutiques or department stores, others are more hesitant, still fearing they will cannibalise their businesses. These labels need to wake up and drink some of Roseby's tonic: there is room for both.
You only have to look overseas to see how the synergy between retail and rental is gathering steam. US department store Bloomingdale's has its My List subscription service and Banana Republic has Style Passport, signalling the next phase will be brands launching their own, in-house rental services to sit alongside traditional retail.
The rationale for businesses offering rentals themselves or partnering with third parties such as GlamCorner is clear: if a consumer isn't wearing our clothes, they're wearing someone else's; it's better they rent our clothes than don't wear them at all; and if they're wearing it and someone sees them, that person may end up buying or renting the garment as well.
By offering rentals, Country Road has tapped into an opportunity to "surprise and delight" (those retail buzzwords!) potential or existing customers with a carousel of seasonal pieces, which many people would love to wear a few times but possibly not own. In its newest season range, the $299 orange linen blazer could fall into this category, as could the $699 leather dress or the $349 one-shoulder puff sleeve dress.
In turn, these people may decide to make Country Road their home for basics such as tees, shirts and weekend wear, which at this stage people are still much more likely to buy than rent. And that all adds to its bottom line. Brands that are still seeing rentals as a threat rather than an opportunity are simply going to be left behind.
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