Designing for fashion’s new normal; fashion rental on the rise

Rent the Runway is a typical American success story. Being the ultimate frontrunner, they started renting out exclusive designer dresses in 2009. Because who wants to pay an incredible amount of money for a dress you only wear once? Renting sounded like the perfect solution. Ten years later, they have 10 million users, they’ve raised $125 million in investments and more fashion rental services are popping up all over the world. We wondered: If fashion rental is becoming the new norm, how will it influence fashion design? Since rental is identified as one of the strategies within a circular economy, we decided to ask Gwen Cunningham and Yassine Salihine, both of whom are fashion designers and experts on circular design.

Reading time 15 minutes

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Photo event ‘The Rise of Circular Business Models – #1 Fashion Rental‘. The event is part of this editorial series and was organised by OW. Magazine in collaboration with The Student Hotel Amsterdam City.

About the editorial series: The Rise of Fashion Rental Servies

Whether it’s climate impact, working conditions or the lack of model diversity, the fashion industry has been under fire for several years now. A growing group of consumers – and even people within the industry itself – have been increasingly pushing for change. The big question is “How?”. This editorial series explores the rise of fashion rental services. It isn’t a new phenomenon, but the “new” rental businesses are internet savvy. They know how to use online tools to scale-up and make use of data, which results in profitable businesses. Rental services have also been identified as a circular strategy, linking to one of the five business models in the circular economy.

💡 If you’re curious, learn more about the circular economy and the five circular business models as identified by Accenture:

About the circular economy 
The circular economy means rethinking how we can use our resources to create a sustainable economy without waste and emissions. This implies a shift from the current linear model of “take, make, waste” to an economy in which we “reduce, reuse, recycle”. This circular way of thinking has also implications for how we work. Based on research into circular companies, Accenture has developed five circular business models that bring circularity and reducing waste to the core of a business.

Circular supplies (1/5)
Raw materials that can be recovered after use. An example is Dutch aWEARness, clothing that is made in such a way that it can be recycled into new clothing at least eight times.

Resource recovery (2/5)
Technological innovations that enable us to reuse resources. Think of products in which waste materials are processed into new resources. An example is Mud Jeans, which recycles consumers’ discarded jeans into new ones.

Sharing platforms (3/6)
By sharing products among peers, we prevent unused capacity. Some examples are Über and, in fashion, United Wardrobe.

Product life extension (4/5)
The first step in preventing waste, is to ensure that a product remains in use for as long as possible. Think of second-hand sales, or today’s fancier term: “re-commerce”. In fashion, an example could be United Wardrobe or Zipper. Product life extension is also about creating products that are easy to repair, like the Fairphone – and in fashion, you could think of the start-up brand House of Rezai. They make modular knitwear garments.

Product as a service 5/5
This is about the actual function of a product. For example: you don’t necessarily want to own a washing machine, but you want to be able to wash your clothes. Applying this to fashion: you don’t necessarily want to own a fancy dress, but you want to look and feel good at a special event. For this purpose, you can rent a dress at Rent the Runway.

Q:

In fashion, we currently see a rise in rental services. In this context, design for circularity is an frequently-heard term, but what does it mean?

A:

Yassine: “For me it’s, on the one hand, about the circular principle, which is all about no waste and the exchange of material flows. On the other hand, it’s about how we’re going to apply this principle in our ways of working, designing solutions for today’s complex environmental and social issues. I believe that such complex problems need complex solutions. That doesn’t mean they’re unsolvable, but the solutions will have multiple layers which you’ll have to connect with each other. There’s no ‘one size fits all’. I think it’s important to keep an open mind wherein the circular principle upholds and our ways of working can take different forms. It’s about designing the best possible solutions for complex problems. And these solutions may not always be circular.”

Gwen: “I can only echo that. Also, I believe we need more research and experience to really understand what circular design means. At Circle Economy, we work with our ‘DISRUPT’ framework, which outlines the seven key elements of the circular economy, one of which is ‘Design for the Future’, and within that, we specify three key strategies that brands can apply: Design out waste, Design for Cyclability and Design for Durability. Yet, we still need to learn more. One strategy where more research is needed is ‘design for emotional durability’. We all have garments in our closets that have emotional value, whether it once belonged to our mother, or because of an experience we had in it. From experience, we know that we are probably less likely to throw out or give away these garments. How can we design garments that become valuable and indispensable because of the consumers’ emotional resonance with them?”

💡If you’re curious, learn about design strategies that fall under design for circularity:

Design for the future
Circle Economy has formulated four design strategies that fall under design for the future. They account for the systems perspective during the design process, to use the right materials, to design for appropriate lifetime and to design for extended future use.

Design for minimal waste (1/3)
Designing products in such a way that as little waste as possible is generated during the production and/or designing products using textile waste and left over materials

Design for cyclability

Design for repair
Designing products with eventual repair en refurbishment in mind.

Design for versatility
Designing products that can adapt and change according to gender, style, size, activity and purpose.

Design for disassembly
Designing products of multiple components that can be easily assembled and disassembled.

Design for recycling – mono-materials
Designing products in such a way that the materials can be recycled as a mono-fibre stream.

Design for reuse
Designing products to be reused for the same or different purpose in multiple lifecycles.

Design for recycling – product trimmings and construction
Designing products in such a way that any barriers to recycling related to product trimmings and construction (eg. buttons, embellishments, stitching) are designed out of the product from the outset.

Design for bio-degradability
Designing products to be safely discarded into the environment and biodegrade.

Design for durability (3/3)

Design for product attachment, emotional durability
Designing products to become invaluable (and more importantly, indispensable) because of a consumer’s emotional resonance with it.

Design for physical durability
Designing products so that they can resist damage and wear, and serve a long and useful life.

“I believe complex problems need complex solutions, but that doesn’t mean they’re unsolvable”

– Yassine Salihine, industrial designer

About industrial designer Yassine Salihine

Yassine Salihine rented a tuxedo once for a wedding. He’s an industrial designer and works for clients like Philips, but he also worked in the footwear industry for quite some time. In his career he worked on circular design projects and was one of the experts involved with the Circular Fashion Games. He also teaches design research for the Master of Industrial Design at the Royal Academy of Art in The Hague.

Q:

What do you think are some crucial design features that could make fashion rental services a success?

A:

Gwen: “Here you can make a difference between product types and design features. Some product types are ripe for the picking, like kidswear, maternity wear and high performance sportswear, such as ski gear. A classic example is renting a tuxedo for a wedding; men have already been doing this for years. Women are increasingly more open to renting designer dresses for special occasions. If we see rental as a circular strategy for scale, I believe it cannot only be fit for these specific product types. We must also think about how brands that provide your day-to-day wardrobe can step into this rental space.”

Yassine: “In other industries, it’s often the day-to-day items people rent or lease. The incentive is convenience and an added level of service. The successful start-up Swapfiets offers simple bikes you can rent for a few euros per month. If you have a flat tire, you call them and within a couple of hours, either the tire is fixed or they’ve given you a new bike. You’re on the road again without additional cost, hassle or losing time. I think fashion can learn from these types of best practices in other industries. Maybe we should own that very special Chanel jacket and rent more day-to-day clothing items, which can be easily fixed or replaced when needed.”

Gwen: “I think the start-up For Days shows this could be a successful approach. They have built an organic and closed loop t-shirt line, based on a lifelong membership model. You pay between $38 – $340 per year for 1-10 tees in your closet, and if your t-shirt is worn out, you can send it back for recycling, and you’ll receive a new one for 8 euros. The demand is so high they had to stop taking orders. If we look at more established brands, Filippa K has a natural fit for rental because of its timeless, high quality and durable designs. Due to the quality, trend-sensitivity and price, fast fashion retailers will have a much greater challenge to make their business fit for rental – not to say that it won’t ever work, Rental is part of the long term strategy of companies like H&M, and therefore, their product will need to change to accommodate this opportunity.”

“Rental is part of the long term strategy of companies like H&M”

– Gwen Cunningham, lead of the Circle Textile Program of Circle Economy

About Gwen Cunningham, lead of the Circle Textile Program of Circle Economy

As a long-standing member of the clothing library LENA, Gwen Cunningham is an early adopter of rental models in fashion. Trained as a fashion designer, she’s now the lead of the Circle Textile Program of Circle Economy, as well as Coordinator and Lecturer of Sustainability at Amsterdam Fashion Institute. At Circle Economy, one of Gwen’s projects is “Switching Gear’, in which they’ll support eight apparel brands as they design and launch fashion rental and re-commerce business models by 2021.

Q:

Is renting clothes really that sustainable?

A:

Gwen: “Extending the active service life of garments is considered one of the most effective ways to reduce the overall impact of the clothing industry. Rental should be curbing the need to produce and consume new clothing as we’re increasingly circulating the same items, which are made to last. Additionally, it should reduce the volumes of textile waste being generated every year. Today, the clothing we own is massively underutilized – up to 70% of our garments in our closets go unworn, and 33% of women wear items less than five times before discarding. Meanwhile, we know that using a garment only three months longer can lower its water, carbon and waste footprint by 5 – 10%. However, rental is a complex system of inventory, laundry and logistics; and we must also take the impact of the entire system into account, not only the increased utilisation of the product. If rental models are created without positive impact in mind, we could create a monster – we must be very cautious and deliberate in designing these models.”

Yassine: “I feel fashion rental is about switching fast, like it’s just another type of fast fashion. Leaving the question of whether fashion rental will change the consumer’s mindset to become more conscious about the clothing they buy and wear. Here, I think, lies a danger. People and businesses are often open to circularity, but still operate with a linear mindset. To give an example, I see businesses still looking for that ‘one size fits all’ solution. A concept I believe is part of our linear economy, allowing for standardization and optimization in order to produce as much as possible for as little cost as possible. This has gotten us into trouble in the first place.”

Gwen: “I’ve also noticed there’s sometimes confusion about whether circularity is, per definition, sustainable or not. The core of circularity is sustainability, so if it’s not built to have a net positive impact for people and the planet, it’s not truly circular.”

“I feel fashion rental is about switching fast, like it’s just another type of fast fashion”

– Yassine Salihine, industrial designer

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Photo by Asia Werbel
Make-up artist: Khandiz Joni
Models Maena/Body London and Aldo H.

The otherways[project] 

otherways[project] by fashion designer Sabine Lettmann is a circular collection concept. It offers an alternative way of consumption as it is made to rent only.

Q:

What’s the role of designers in moving fashion towards rental models that are truly circular?

A:

Yassine: “Having the power of imagination, I believe designers are able to support others in seeing a certain future – like a fashion industry where rental has become a new standard. Only, most designers are not trained to convince people like the CEO, CFO and the Head of Marketing of the future they see using data, proof and a business case – all things in which these people are interested. For designers to fulfill this future role, requires a change in their position, responsibilities and skill-set, but it will increase their impact when committed to designing a more sustainable world. Part of the programme we teach at the Royal Academy of Arts in the Hague is about making designers aware of their future role and giving them the tools to act upon it.”

Gwen: “I felt my work as a fashion designer was actually not fulfilling. The work you put into the inception of a garment is immense, and yet, you don’t have control over how your design moves through the world and how its life is lived. There’s an opportunity for designers to have a more fulfilling role in the system, one that moves beyond only creating and launching a product into the world, but also designing the system into which the product will flow – whether that is re-commerce, rental or other new retail models. Designers need to broaden their perspective and responsibility beyond the point of sale.”

Q:

If you were the creative director of a fashion rental company, what would be your approach?

A:

Yassine: “Nice question. I think I would start with doing embedded research. Taking a bit of a design anthropologist approach; be part of the lives of different people who may or may not use fashion rental services and get a better understanding of their needs. And then design something for those people. It’s not an easy question to answer, it involves so many aspects, but the key for me would be this human centric approach – also with the design team I may work with. Use all their ideas and experience together that design is a way of thinking and interlinking ideas to find common ground.”

Gwen: “Actually, I was pretty much going to say the same thing. As for me, apparel designers lack a user-centric approach. I feel that, in other industries, there are more processes in place to really understand the user in all their complexity and test and refine products and services before producing them. Yassine also mentioned he doesn’t believe ‘in one size fits all’. This also applies to how the industry is now adopting rental models – we are already seeing a particular set of archetypes emerging – for instance the Rent the Runway model is upheld and being widely copied – but fashion rental businesses could look very different from this. And in order to understand this opportunity for diversity in delivery, we need to better understand the user that these models hope to serve. As creative director, I would want to create a space where we can think freely, break down barriers and think outside these existing rental archetypes. And above all, do away with the precondition that we necessarily have to produce new clothes as part of our business model.”

“Above all, do away with the precondition that we necessarily have to produce new clothes as part of our business model”

– Gwen Cunningham, lead of the Circle Textile Program of Circle Economy

Visit (Fashion) Design for Circularity during Dutch Design Week

Together with The Student Hotel in Eindhoven we’ll organise during Dutch Design Week, date to be confirmed, an interactive event about (fashion) design for circularity. We’ll focus on design implications when designing for fashion rental services. Find more information about the event programme on our event page. Speakers to be confirmed.

The photos above show our latest event that took place 23 June during the We Make the City Festival in Amsterdam, addressing the Rise of Fashion Rental Services. Four fashion rental start-ups, Borrow a Brand, Spinning Closet, Prêt-à-Fred and Rent My Dress, presented their business. The start-ups also joined a panel discussion about the challenges to have consumers adopt fashion rental on a more regular basis. Find all speakers in this booklet. The event was hosted in collaboration with The Student Hotel Amstedram City.

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