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Screenshot: Designer Wardrobe. Additional design: Tina Tiller.
Screenshot: Designer Wardrobe. Additional design: Tina Tiller.

BusinessFebruary 1, 2022

What New Zealand designers really think about Designer Wardrobe

Screenshot: Designer Wardrobe. Additional design: Tina Tiller.
Screenshot: Designer Wardrobe. Additional design: Tina Tiller.

Renting is the hottest trend in fashion, promising access to designer garments without the high price tag. For designers, platforms like Designer Wardrobe offer a chance to boost both branding and sales – and labels like what they see.

The closest I’ve come to renting clothes was a suit for my school ball during my final year at Whanganui High School. I didn’t baulk at the suggestion that I rent instead of buy – the thought of my parents forking out hundreds of dollars on a suit, shirt and tie that I probably would never wear again made a trip to Hallensteins a lot less appealing. Even though, unlike girls and women, males aren’t pressured to find a new outfit for every new event or special occasion, the options available to rent still proved you could win best dressed at your school ball in an outfit that wasn’t yours.

Fast-forward over a decade, and renting has become an increasingly popular way to consume fashion – and local platforms like Designer Wardrobe are taking advantage of the hype. Founded on Facebook by Donielle Brooke in 2012, the company began as a place for her to sell her own designer clothes to pay rent when she fell seriously ill with cancer. Later, she turned to friend Aidan Bartlett to help transform it into an e-commerce startup. With the help of a business accelerator programme in 2015 and investors’ money, Designer Wardrobe grew into a company with over 200,000 members and 4,000 garments available for rent, an online marketplace where individuals can buy and sell pre-loved clothes worth a combined $60 million each year, and a retail presence in Australia. The business relied on a younger, social-media-crazed customer base at the start, but Bartlett, now Designer Wardrobe’s chief executive, says their customers’ average age has risen in the last six years, as fashion fans become more used to the idea of renting. 

New Zealanders might be hard-pressed to find events to attend at the moment – a raft of omicron-prompted cancellations has hit the events sector, and even the prime minister has been forced to postpone her wedding in Gisborne this summer – but fashion labels are still seeing customers “desperate” to feel joy through clothes, says local fashion designer Juliette Hogan.

“A couple of years ago, you wouldn’t contemplate what you’d wear to [Auckland bakery chain] Daily Bread to pick up fresh bread on the weekend,” she notes. During the pandemic, though, “it became such a treat for me and my social outings, and therefore, I was going to make that outfit count.”

A dress by Juliette Hogan on Designer Wardrobe’s website. (Photo: Supplied)

Hogan’s namesake brand closed its bridal arm at the start of the first Covid-19 outbreak, but women losing access to its “amazingly designed, beautiful clothes” wasn’t an option, she says. The label hooked up with Designer Wardrobe, and a partnership was born. Juliette Hogan offers its bridal collection exclusively for rent through the company’s website, alongside stock from its main collection’s previous seasons. The label retains ownership and takes a share of the renting revenue.

Why is renting taking off right now? There’s the obvious appeal – rental platforms plug the gap between owning clothes and borrowing from friends – but renting also fits the interests of a new kind of consumer. It’s a business model that speaks to young consumers who are conscious of their image – and also concerned about retail fashion’s massive impact on the environment

The industry may still be something of an unknown quantity in New Zealand – most platforms have only been around for five or six years – but it’s booming in the US and UK. It’s a legitimate way to consume fashion there, so much so that investors since October 2021 have been able to trade shares in Rent the Runway, a US company that pioneered the belief that money could be made from people sharing their closets like they do their houses or their vehicles. The sector is not without its issues, particularly over the green credentials claimed by some companies; from shipping to dry-cleaning, there are questions about how environmentally detrimental rental fashion is. But it’s a valuable line of business for the global fashion industry – renting’s value pre-pandemic was about $2 billion and is expected to exceed $3.2 billion by 2025. 

New Zealand designers are catching on. Hogan says Designer Wardrobe gives the brand access to customers it wouldn’t normally see shopping in its stores, and the chance to establish a relationship that may evolve into full-fledged custom one day. On the flip side, the label decided that Designer Wardrobe wouldn’t have access to current, in-season pieces, so that customers who purchase at full price don’t feel undercut by renting’s target market.

The partnership contributes to the brand’s annual turnover but it’s a small percentage of revenue, says Hogan. The more important aspects to the arrangement include marketing, branding and ensuring well-made garments aren’t left to waste away in closets.

For Emily Miller-Sharma, general manager of Ruby – one of the rental company’s partners since its early years – it’s a no-brainer. “People out there want to rent, [Designer Wardrobe has] worked really hard to develop a platform so people can rent, we have clothes and we believe in renting, so it’s not a huge question mark.”

Renting is part of Ruby’s efforts to figure out how alternative revenue streams can eventually replace the production and sale of new clothes as the bulk of its income. It’s profitable, says Miller-Sharma, although it makes up a tiny portion of the label’s bottom line. “Regardless, it’s important that we do it so it’s just understanding, from our end, what works the best and just being smart about what we put up for rent.”

Like many of her peers, Miller-Sharma, who helped found clothing and textiles collective Mindful Fashion NZ, an advocacy group working toward a more circular industry, is clued up on issues around sustainability in the fashion business. Natural-fibre clothes don’t withstand the amount of dry-cleaning that renting demands as well as garments made from synthetic fibres, like nylon or polyester. That raises more issues, including whether synthetic-fibre fabrics are manufactured responsibly, she says. “You have to consider a lot of things.”

Fashion labels like Ruby have partnered up with Designer Wardrobe, allowing it access to older season stock for renting. (Photo: Supplied)

For Kristine Crabb, the designer behind much-loved brand Miss Crabb, which closed its retail business in 2019, renting is a trickier proposition; she says she remains undecided about it.

Miss Crabb was one of Designer Wardrobe’s early designer partners, and the platform later approached the brand for a more targetted partnership. Crabb says she didn’t pursue the opportunity, deciding it would involve too much work for the income and future sales generated. The rental company continued buying Miss Crabb stock in any event.

Crabb could see the benefits of renting. “[Our] most powerful marketing was by word of mouth so the more people were out wearing our stuff, talking about it, loving it, it increased our brand awareness and sales long-term,” she says. But staff also felt renting was “cannibalising” sales in the short-term. “We found that we had a lot of renting customers come into our store and try on all the things and get all the customer service, only to rent it.” Still, those kinds of shoppers would eventually become loyalists, the brand believed. “We wanted to know that, when the time came, they would feel welcome and want to buy their own piece.”

In early 2021 Crabb returned with new label Gloria, and she’s contemplated doing her own version of renting the garments she creates under that label. But again, finding the time to run a rental scheme and reconciling it with her desire to sell beautiful clothes that people treasure has made her reluctant to take the plunge. “[Fashion] is not a cheap thing. It’s not a throwaway thing either…I want it to become a part of your life.”

Brand hesitancy is understandable, says Bartlett, Designer Wardrobe’s CEO. “For brands that aren’t quite ready, we respect that. Often they’ve come back after they’ve learned a bit more and we go from there.”

Separate to the peer-to-peer marketplace, brands participate in the Designer Wardrobe platform through rental consignments (like Juliette Hogan) or through the more traditional route of wholesale (like Miss Crabb). Going consignment is a “no-touch” policy for brands, meaning they can enjoy the benefits of the sharing economy without having to deal with the logistics. The revenue generated and shared is recurring, which has typically ended up being significantly more per item over time than if it was sold upfront, says Bartlett.

Nobody wants to buy an expensive, statement-making piece for an event only for another person to have rented it for a fifth of its retail price, and yet rental platforms have made a business out of lending out those very garments. But co-founder Brooke emphasises that she started the company to help shift the perception of second-hand designer garments. “It’s about being conscious of, when you are going to shop, ‘is that going to be a one-off wear? And if so, should I rent? And if not, should I buy?’”

Hogan, for one, remains a fan. She says entering the rental market “hasn’t been detrimental at all on our business model”. It seems designers, and consumers, are doubling down on fashion’s latest trend.

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