The Case For Renting Your Clothes

I love experimenting with style, but hate how much clothing I end up getting rid of. By renting and returning a few things each month, I think I can have it both ways.

Growing up, I went through a lot of clothing phases. One year I’d feel most comfortable in a pair of denim jorts, a bucket hat, and an oversized basketball tee; the next, in a hot pink velvet minidress. At 14, I worked full time over the summer at a beachside snack bar so I could blow my paychecks at the mall on Juicy Couture wallets and long-sleeved Ed Hardy T-shirts. By the following summer, I favored emo-chic selections from Hot Topic: studded belts, heavy eye makeup, and colorful extensions clipped into the mullet I’d dyed black with a kit from the drugstore. A couple years later, I graduated from high school having once again pivoted back to whimsical prep. For my first day of college, I wore a pastel purple knee-length skirt and a white ribbon in my hair.

Looking back now, I can attribute my constant style-shuffling at least in part to latent queerness; I knew I was different, but I wasn’t yet quite sure how, and so I spent a lot of time searching for a self-image that made sense. Coming out in college only complicated the whole process, since I became acquainted with identities like “soft butch” and “hard femme” and “chapstick lesbian.” Where did I belong?

After blundering my way through a few requisite gay rites of passage — chopping off my hair and growing it all out again, buying a bunch of menswear that just ended up languishing in my closet — I’ve reached a point in my life where I’m no longer concerned about whether or not I look “gay enough.” Getting dressed these days doesn’t feel so fraught. I’ll probably always have the occasional morning when everything I put on my body feels wrong, but for the most part, I love trying new things and having fun with the act of gender performance by jazzing up my flesh sack every day.

My lust for endless reinvention may well be an important part of the queer experience, but I don’t think anyone should feel entitled to mindless or unlimited consumption.

Of course, that raises the question of where all those new clothes come from. My lust for endless reinvention may well be an important part of the queer experience, but I don’t think anyone should feel entitled to mindless or unlimited consumption. I’m also all too aware that unethically produced fast fashion is exploiting its underpaid laborers and helping destroy the planet.

As a teenager, I was scrappier by necessity — DIYing band tees with Sharpie and felt; trawling for Abercrombie jeans on eBay — but now that I have a grown-up job, it’s gotten a lot easier for me to justify a $300 Anthropologie order here, a $200 Everlane order there. I do almost all of my shopping online, which conveniently alienates me from the physical fact of the things I buy, the cash I spend. I revel in the dopamine hit from smashing that “complete order” button; it’s only a few days later, when a pile of new packages shows up on my stoop, that I’m faced with the sheer amount of stuff I’m accumulating.

Ultimately, most of the clothing I buy — as much as I’d like to think or hope otherwise — will eventually bore me, or no longer fit me, or get stained or torn. Whenever I pack up a big seasonal sack of old stuff to sell at Beacon’s Closet or donate to Goodwill, I feel a twinge of guilt, because I know that about 80% of donated clothing is eventually incinerated or destined to languish in a landfill, where the cheaply made kind will remain for hundreds of years.

A couple months ago, at the end of a particularly nihilistic summer, I decided to try to curb my shopping for the sake of both the planet and my wallet. I didn’t want to abstain completely. For one thing, I’d tried that before and always caved; for another, I take too much pleasure in style to deprive myself of the chance to change. I wish I was the kind of person who felt great in their own version of a uniform, but I’m just not a minimalist at heart. I like flair; I like color; I like shapes and patterns; I like getting weird with earrings and shoes. Most of all, I like having the opportunity to surprise myself.

It was an August post on the Cut by Sarah Spellings about her Rent the Runway subscription that inspired me to finally try renting, rather than buying, my clothes. Spellings references the 100 billion items of clothing made each year, half of which are discarded before the year is out. She wrote that she’s been working hard to make her wardrobe more minimal and sustainable, like I have, but that means “trying to rewire [your] brain to stop craving new things. With renting, that shift isn’t necessary. (Whether that’s healthy is a discussion for another day.)”

I, too, wish I wasn’t so susceptible to the thrill of the new; by definition, those thrills will only dull with time. But until I figure out how to simply be satisfied with who I am and what I already have, I figured I could give renting my clothes a try.

At the end of September, fast-fashion juggernaut Forever 21 filed for bankruptcy, in what many read as a sign that consumers are no longer quite so enamored with trendy style on the cheap. The past few years have yielded evidence that younger generations, in particular, are more likely to prioritize sustainability while shopping, and clothing companies have responded in kind.

Giants like H&M, Zara, and Uniqlo are claiming to take environmental impact seriously (though those claims tend to be vague or misleading). Online resale sites like Thredup, Depop, Poshmark, and the RealReal have exploded in recent years, offering old clothes a new life. (These sites aren’t perfect solutions either; they still involve a lot of shipping and packaging, and the RealReal, which sells secondhand and vintage luxury items, has recently come under fire for failing to live up to its “no fakes” promise.)

Direct-to-consumer brands like Everlane, sustainability-minded companies for hot skinny people like Reformation, and small, ethically produced indie pieces from places like my personal favorite, Lucy & Yak, are increasingly popular too — though as Elizabeth Segran wrote for Fast Company, they’ve yet to come anywhere close to eclipsing fast fashion. (She noted that Forever 21’s demise can more likely be attributed to the death of mall culture and the rise of online shopping; consumers are still happily gobbling up fast fashion from Amazon, Walmart, and Costco.)

And then there’s renting, another fast-growing market. Rental startup Le Tote has been successful enough that it just bought Lord & Taylor, and just this year, plenty of other fashion brands — including Banana Republic, Scotch & Soda, and Ann Taylor Loft — have started spinning out their own rental services.

I’ve tried renting my clothes before, briefly. I was curious about Rent the Runway, the company that started it all, and about a year ago a friend offered me a code for a free monthly trial. The service, founded in 2009, originally offered one-off dress rentals for special occasions, but now more than 70% of its revenue comes from a monthly subscription service called Unlimited. I found I was too lazy to really take advantage of the Unlimited plan — four items of clothing at a time, swapped out as often you want, for $159/month — since it involved packing things up and sending them back multiple times a week. I also found the task of sorting through 650-plus designer brands in pursuit of the real gems overwhelming. According to Spellings at the Cut, Rent the Runway’s offerings have recently become less mainstream, but at the time, the selection felt too businesswear-forward for my more casual office.

Looking for a better match, I decided to check out some of the other clothing companies attempting to find their way in the new sharing economy. That’s how I found Nuuly, a rental service launched this past July by URBN, which owns Anthropologie (one of my go-tos) and Urban Outfitters (where I still end up from time to time when I’m looking for something funky). The only URBN brand I actively dislike is Free People, which I’ve always found to be that winning combination of expensive and mediocre; plus, I can’t even fit into most of its stuff — I’m a US 12/14, or XL. But I figured two out of three ain’t bad, especially since Nuuly claimed to curate pieces from “hundreds of designers” beyond its own brands. I sent an email saying I was interested in testing out the service for a story and got set up with a free monthlong trial.

After that, should I decide to continue with the service, I’d be paying $88 for 6 items per month. The plan is similar to Rent the Runway’s Update option (4 items at a time, swapped once a month, for $89), which appeals to those who don’t want the price or commitment of Unlimited. I would have a lot fewer options than I’d get with RTR, but I liked the idea of only having to mail something back once a month, rather than feeling the pressure to constantly swap out my options in order to make the most of the service.

As of this writing, there are a little over 2,800 pieces available to rent on Nuuly’s site — a solid number of options, but not a crazy amount. If I filter items by my size range (10, 12, and 14) and select only to see items available now, the number drops to around 2,000. I’d heard from a friend who tried (and canceled) Nuuly before me that nearly everything she wanted tended to be unavailable in her size, but I haven’t had the same problem. I have noticed, though, that whenever new items are added (approximately once a week or so), popular items often sell out in all sizes.

Kim Gallagher, Nuuly’s director of marketing and customer success, told me that “the nature of rental is that the inventory is constantly changing,” and “we are constantly adding new styles” — hundreds each month. Between launch and the end of the year, Nuuly plans to increase the assortment to well over 3,000 items. She said they prioritize variety over quantity, “so by not buying too deeply into specific styles, you can be sure you won’t see the dress you’re wearing on anyone else on the subway.”

Frustratingly, though, my size cuts my options down by more than half. If I get rid of the 10 and 12 in my filter and just stick with 14, available pieces drop down to 859. Worse, there are only a little over 300 items available in sizes 16–24, and about the same in the 26–30 range. From sizes 30–40 you’ll find just 33 things. Here’s where Rent the Runway has the competition beat, and why I might end up eventually giving it another shot (assuming it resolves its customer service woes): It stocks thousands of plus-size options. RTR wasn’t always size-inclusive, though, and hopefully newer brands like Nuuly can get with the program and catch up.

I can still get my dopamine rush without that sinking feeling later on.

“We are constantly on the look-out for brands that offer inclusive sizing,” Gallagher told me. “Currently, 40% of our assortment is offered in XL. When an item is offered in XL or plus sizes by the brand, we always carry it.”

Since I hover between straight and plus sizes, I found that Nuuly’s current options were enough for me. Even if something was unavailable in my size at first, I could add it to my “closet” and check back later. I found that scrolling through the website and favoriting items while watching TV after work felt just as satisfying as mindlessly filling up shopping carts at the online stores I used to browse. It’d be nice if you could filter out certain brands — don’t make me accidentally click on something from Free People!!! — but for the most part, the Nuuly site is easy and pleasant to use. I can still get my dopamine rush without that sinking feeling later on.

I’m big on checking reviews, especially for fit, and since Nuuly is so new, most items tend to have just a few, if any, reviews. If I really wanted a lot of feedback on something, I could cross-check the item where it was being sold on the Anthro or Urban site, but I decided that to get the most out of renting, I’d rent the items most likely to fit me comfortably: dresses, tops, jackets, and the occasional skirt. Pants and jeans are my nemeses; I would stick to buying those when I needed them, from brands I’d already exhaustively tried.

The other benefit to picking things like statement sweaters and coats, I found, is that they’re precisely the sort of pieces I’d rather not splurge on, let alone find space to store in my small New York apartment. I’d love to rock a lime green faux fur or pastel pink peacoat, but I’d never be able to justify spending hundreds of dollars on a jacket I might only wear a few times a season. So I figured this was the perfect opportunity to rent one: I chose a fringed Levi’s denim jacket (retail: $198).

The author in three of the six items of clothing from her Nuuly trial: a skirt, a tunic, and a jacket. 

Shannon Keating / BuzzFeed News

One of the most appealing parts of renting is that you’re not responsible for returning things in pristine condition, which means you can load up on things that are tricky or expensive to clean. I love wearing white, but I’m also a slob who somehow ends up staining anything before I’ve gotten even a few wears out of it, so I made sure to take advantage of Nuuly’s offerings: a white tie-neck tunic from one of my favorite brands, Maeve (retail: $110), and a white ruffle-sleeved midi from ZHU (retail: $146).

Even though I wasn’t planning to use Nuuly for formalwear, which seems more like Rent the Runway’s forte, I was pleasantly surprised by the options: a hot pink Monique Lhuillier gown (retail: $565), Cynthia Rowley wrap dress (retail: $425), and a Batsheva-like silver midi from Paul & Joe (retail: $275) are all now saved in my closet in case I should have an event later in the year when I’d use them. I was excited to check out Nuuly’s vintage section, which includes leather jackets, quilt jackets, and silk kimonos. It’s all gorgeous, but, by nature of the fact that they’re a collection of single unique pieces, they’re virtually always sold out. Congrats to whoever somehow manages to nab them.

The six items I picked out for my trial month arrived just a couple days after I’d pulled them from my closet into my Nuuly basket, in a garment bag made of recycled postconsumer plastic. The package included a tote (to keep) for transporting my bag, a kit with gear to deal with lint and small stains (plus an assurance that the effects of “party fouls, paw prints, and artistic kids with markers” needn’t be dealt with before swapping; they’d handle it), and a prepaid return label. I appreciated that the items were all folded neatly together within the bag itself without any disposable containers or plastic wrapping. Each item was in great condition, ready to wear straight away.

I reminded myself that the point of renting is to send everything back and start anew. 

Over the course of the month, I got tons of compliments on the things I’d rented, particularly the fringe jacket and tunic — so much so that I wondered whether I should keep them. Like most rental services, Nuuly lets you purchase items if you can’t bear to send them back. I was disappointed, however, to see that the Maeve tunic was only discounted to $90 from its retail value of $110 — particularly annoying when I cross-checked it with the regular Anthropologie site, where it was marked down to $60 (but not available in my size). Gallagher told me that Nuuly uses “dynamic pricing,” which means the site “takes into account how many times an item has been worn and what the demand for that item is amongst Nuuly users specifically.”

I was one of the first tunic renters — which is presumably the reason why it wasn’t offered at much of a discount — and according to Gallagher, Nuuly doesn’t yet know the average amount of time a piece will spend in rotation: “Our products haven’t yet hit the retirement phase.” They also don’t have a clear answer about where retired items will end up. “Nuuly is being thoughtful about the most sustainable solution for damaged inventory,” Gallagher said, “and we are currently in active discussions to find the right partners.”

While tempted by both the tunic and fringe jacket, I reminded myself that the point of renting is to send everything back and start anew. If I ended up buying stuff, it would just defeat the purpose. And perhaps I could justify something I’d probably wear at least 30 times — a good ballpark number to keep in mind before buying anything — but there are barely 30 days in New York every year when I can wear the two beloved denim jackets I already own. So back the fringe went, and the tunic too. It felt sort of like progress.

When it came time to renew my Nuuly subscription, and actually start paying for it, I surprised myself by signing on for another month. Why not? You can cancel anytime, and also pause for up to three months, which gave me some peace of mind. I found that the number of items for the price was just at my sweet spot: $88 is what I’d normally spend on buying a couple pieces of clothing that I’d surely grow bored with a year or two down the line. For the same price, I’d get six new things to switch up my wardrobe every few weeks.

For now, I’m happy with Nuuly, though I’m waiting for the brand to have a clearer answer on what happens to damaged and retired inventory. A couple of my friends told me they didn’t see the point of renting clothes from a company that isn’t limited to high-quality and sustainable brands; Anthro, I’ve found, carries some great stuff that lasts, but I’ve bought a number of things from Urban in the past that have barely survived a wash cycle or two. What if a lot of these pieces aren’t cut out for extended rotations? I guess I’m going to find out.

I might consider other rental services in the future. And I’m trying to get into the mindset that, if I really want to buy stuff on the side, I should take the slow fashion movement to heart and only invest in pricier, ethically made, higher-quality pieces I’ll love for years to come.

Especially if renting finds a sustainable and ethical business model long term, I can really see myself committing to borrowing more and buying less. I can still have a sense of adventure and whimsy with my clothes, without the commitment or the high financial and environmental costs. I can still experiment the way I have since I was little: trying on different styles and identities, giving myself the room to grow and change. To slowly, over time, become somebody new. ●

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