‘Sew long’ fast fashion, tech-supported rental is here

30 May 2024

Rent the Runway celebrates five years in Galway. From left: Sarah Lynch, Becky Case, Jennifer Hyman, Stephanus Meiring and Ronan Conlon. Image: Sean McConaghy

Rent the Runway founder and CEO Jennifer Hyman on how tech innovation has made rental an easy sell in the fashion business.

The year is 2009. You’re getting ready for a night out. Your iPhone 3G pings. It’s a Facebook notification. Your best friend has just uploaded a new album of photos. You start scrolling. And there it is. The dress you were going to wear tonight. She has tagged you and people have already liked it. Now, what are you going to wear? Do you have time to buy something new?

It was on this late-noughties conveyor belt of fast-fashion excess and social media scrutiny that Jennifer Hyman and her co-founder Jennifer Fleiss spotted an opportunity. Why not turn that conveyor belt into a sustainable aisle of designer brands, they thought. Rent the Runway was born.

The US-based online service has been renting out designer clothes at affordable prices for 15 years now. For Hyman, the idea wasn’t that radical because, as she sees it, the fast fashion market is a rental market. “People pay an affordable price for an item they will only wear two or three times,” she tells SiliconRepublic.com.

Of course, fast fashion was a growing industry long before 2009. It emerged in the 1970s when companies began moving their factories to regions where they could pay lower wages, particularly Asia. By the 1990s, the output from these companies had accelerated to keep pace with the latest trends. However, in the 2000s, the growth of social media gave fast fashion a new force. The ability to photograph and upload every moment of our lives to social media has created huge pressure to have a different outfit for every event. Between 2000 and 2014, clothing production doubled, and research in 2021 found that the average number of times a person wears a garment has reduced by more than a third in the last 15 years.

Selling rental

In this context, Rent the Runway not only offers an affordable option for customers, it’s also better for the planet.

As a whole, the fashion industry contributes 8-10pc of global carbon emissions (4-5bn tonnes annually) and if it continues its current trajectory, this will likely double by 2030. It’s estimated that 100bn clothing items are produced each year, 40pc more than could be bought and actually worn, according to Greenpeace. As a result, 92m tonnes of waste clothing ends up in landfill in places such as the Atacama Desert.

Hyman says that sustainability is important to Rent the Runway. The company repairs garments as much as possible and tries to donate or upcycle items no longer suitable for rental or resale. By renting hundreds of millions of times since it’s been in business, Hyman says the company has prevented millions of potential fast-fashion purchases.

Aside from environmental benefits, the point of any business is to provide a product people want. For Hyman, the major selling point of Rent the Runway is that customers get access to high-quality items for a fraction of their purchase price.

Hyman has spoken previously about meeting with designer Diane von Furstenberg at a very early stage in the venture. Von Furstenberg wasn’t convinced by the idea at first, but Hyman listened to her concerns and was able to show her that this model would be beneficial for designers. “The market for designers is mostly people who are 50 or over,” Hyman says. “Whereas fast fashion and the rental proposition is aimed at younger people.” By introducing younger people to a brand through the rental market, Hyman believes designers can build brand loyalty.

She also thinks that, even though more and more people are climate conscious, very few people are really that keen on a capsule wardrobe, that is, buying a few expensive items and wearing them over and over. A view that holds up when you see the Wedding Guest Dress trend on TikTok and the dozens of dresses and accessories people buy when trying to find the right look for an event. Though Hyman herself is not against people buying special items to wear a lot. “Buy the black cashmere sweater and wear it for years,” she says, but instead of buying something you’ll wear once, rent a designer dress for a party.

Hyman’s knowledge of the fashion market is key to her success. She says that her “understanding of the consumer” and “a deep passion for this concept” is what encouraged people to back her and her business in the early stages.

Other key attributes for success, according to Hyman, are to be likeable and inspirational. “Influential leadership is more powerful than authoritative,” she says.

“Great leaders recognise that while you can have authority over some portion of the organisation, influence is what you really need in order to build something and get from an idea to actual execution.

“No one is going to do anything for you if you’re not likeable or if you can’t inspire them with what you’re trying to create.”

After a decade in business, Hyman featured on the 2019 Time 100 most influential people in the world list. Writing about her for the magazine, von Furstenberg recalled their first meeting. “As soon as Jennifer Hyman began to deliver her pitch with passion and confidence, I knew she would go far,” von Furstenberg wrote. “And go far she has.”

10 years after expressing reservations, von Furstenberg showed herself to be a passionate supporter of Hyman’s concept. “Its highly successful introduction of a sharing economy for fashion is completely transforming our industry,” she wrote.

Emerald aisle

Also in 2019, the company opened a software and technology office in Galway, its first office outside the US. It was going through a downturn and in an effort to cut costs, it moved the back-end software team from New York to the west of Ireland. In the five years since, the site has grown into an innovation hub with 70 employees.

Hyman was in Galway this week to celebrate the fifth anniversary of operations there. She says opening the Irish office was one of the best decisions the company has made. She’s really impressed with the culture of the team and their “can-do attitude”.

The Galway team develops AI and machine learning algorithms to offer customers personalised recommendations, which Hyman says has been hugely important to the recent success of the business. The team used 18m data points to train the curation algorithm for diverse use cases. She gives the example of being able to search for what to wear to a Beyoncé concert in Texas and getting tailored suggestions.

A big issue when shopping for clothes online, Hyman notes, is sizing and fit. By collecting customer feedback and including those data points on the site, shoppers can get more detailed information about how garments fit.

These innovations have improved the usability of the Rent the Runway service and have increased customer loyalty, Hyman says.

“Good leaders respond to the reality on the ground,” she says. The company has had setbacks in recent years, with the obvious example being the Covid-19 pandemic when everyone had to stay at home and had nothing to dress up for. But Hyman says that the business has responded to difficulties with successful cost-cutting measures and exciting tech innovations to improve its service.

Rent the Runway has now entered an exciting period of growth, she says, and is focusing on further tech innovation. She’s open to expanding to Europe in the future and is inspired by the “copycats” she has seen cropping up. For now, however, only US-based customers can rent the runway and strut sustainably to their next event.

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Rebecca Graham is production editor at Silicon Republic