At the back of my narrow New York City closet, squished between a thick sweater that has gone ignored since last winter and a long-retired pair of floral-print jeans, is a dress that I have never worn. I bought it at Zara last April, in a flush of springtime optimism. The dress is a hundred per cent cotton, midi length, and belted at the waist. It is also bright yellow, somewhere between ripe banana and free-range egg yolk. In the dressing room, I thought that it made me look cheerful, like a modest yet sexy daffodil. At home, my unsparing mirror told the truth: I was Big Bird with pockets. The return window closed long ago; that’s seventy-nine dollars added to my open tab of sartorial bets made and lost, joining the expensive brocade palazzo pants I wore to a fancy function and then forgot about, and the mom jeans that I got on a trip to Stockholm, where they seemed safely on the hip side of hideous. I have plenty of clothes that I love. Even so, the weeds are starting to choke the garden.
According to Jennifer Hyman, the C.E.O. of Rent the Runway, I am not alone. “Every woman has the feeling of opening up her closet and seeing the dozens of dead dresses that she’s worn only once,” she told me recently. Each year, as Hyman is fond of pointing out, the average American buys sixty-eight items of clothing, eighty per cent of which are seldom worn; twenty per cent of what the $2.4-trillion global fashion industry generates is thrown away.
Chief among the culprits here are fast-fashion businesses like Zara and H&M, which flood their stores with a constantly renewed selection of cheaply manufactured styles cribbed from high-end designers. Inditex, the Spanish company that owns Zara, is the biggest clothing retailer in the world, and produces 1.5 billion items a year. Its business relies on both the fact of surplus and the impression of scarcity. If you take a few days to mull over a possible purchase, it may well be gone by the time you return. Prices are low enough to nudge customers to buy that bedazzled leopard-print cape to wear out on Saturday night, even if it ends up at Goodwill on Sunday morning.
Hyman founded Rent the Runway in 2008 with Jenny Fleiss, while both were in their second year at Harvard Business School. The idea was simple. Men have long been able to rent tuxedos for black-tie events. Why should a woman spend a fortune on a gown that she’ll probably never wear again? Rent the Runway gave women access to designer dresses for a fraction of the sticker price. A dress was delivered in two sizes, returned by prepaid shipping label to the company’s warehouse, dry-cleaned, and sent out to the next wearer.
A few years ago, Hyman thought hard about how to expand the business. The company tried offering a subscription service for handbags and accessories, but it fell flat. At a focus group held in Washington, D.C., Hyman spoke with a customer who compared Rent the Runway to an ice-cream sundae. “It’s delicious. It makes me feel awesome,” the woman said. “But after I eat the sundae I feel really fat, and I don’t want to have another one.” Hyman said, “For me, that was a eureka moment. She was saying that Rent the Runway was a nice-to-have, not a need-to-have. If I’m going to be an analogy to food, I want to be your meat and potatoes.”
In 2016, Hyman and Fleiss launched Rent the Runway Unlimited, a subscription service that initially aimed to help professional women dress for work, and has since expanded to cover most of their daily fashion concerns. For a hundred and fifty-nine dollars a month, a customer can keep up to four items at a time, rotating out any piece as often as she likes. She might, in October, rent a heather-gray coat in a woollen-cashmere blend by Theory (retail price: $925), then, in December, trade it in for a pillowy Proenza Schouler puffer ($695), with three rental slots remaining to cycle through a dizzying selection of skirts, slacks, joggers, jeans, and jewelry that she might wear to the office, or to a party, or on vacation, once, or ten times, or never.
By the end of this year, Rent the Runway will offer fifteen thousand styles by more than five hundred designers, with a total inventory of eight hundred thousand units, stored in what Hyman calls “the closet in the cloud.” Browsing that inventory on its Web site, or scrolling through its app, can feel like bobbing for apples in the sea. Styles go by—too cheesy, too skimpy, too random, too reasonably priced to waste a rental on—and then: a billowy floral Marni skirt ($1,140; “TO DIE FOR,” according to one reviewer), or a sporty Vince day-to-night number ($375; “glamorous & comfortable”) to pair with a bold Oscar de la Renta tulip necklace ($990; “Walked around like Princess Diana with it”).
“Lots of forces are disrupting the fashion world right now,” Cindi Leive, the former editor of Glamour, told me. “There’s the over-all demolition of every old rule you can think of about how people should dress. The concept of work dressing versus casual dressing is gone in a lot of fields. So is the idea of dressing for day versus night, or of what makes a January outfit versus a July outfit, or of what’s appropriate for a twenty-year-old versus for a fifty-year-old.” With its subscription service, Rent the Runway has created an unusual hybrid of fast fashion and luxury, offering speed, variety, and that dopamine hit that comes from buying something new plus the seductive tingle of leaving the house in something expensive. Customers are encouraged to play with their style without guilt. If a piece doesn’t work out, it goes not to a landfill but to another user, and another, and another.
A hundred and fifty-nine dollars a month adds up to one thousand nine hundred and eight dollars a year. “Seventy-five million professional women in this country spend three thousand dollars a year or more on clothing for work, and they’re getting three thousand dollars’ worth of value,” Hyman told me. “Our subscribers spend nineteen hundred dollars a year, and last year the average subscriber got forty thousand dollars’ worth of value.” Even if you accept her arithmetic, that’s a lot of money to spend on not buying clothes. (Rent the Runway still offers short-term rentals, along with a lower-tier subscription program with less generous allotments.) Subscription services like Netflix and Spotify have changed the way that we consume movies and music, and Uber and Airbnb have made it second nature to share our cars and our homes. But what we wear is a daily personal statement that we make about ourselves in public. Is it worth investing money in your self-image if that image is just on loan?
Rent the Runway’s closet may be accessed through the cloud, but it is kept in a three-hundred-thousand-square-foot warehouse and dry-cleaning complex in Secaucus, New Jersey. On an afternoon in late August, I arrived at the company’s Manhattan office, on Hudson Street, to meet Hyman so that she could take me there. The office’s reception area was decorated in shades of millennial pink, pale blue, and gold. In the corner stood a mock closet, empty save for a few silk blouses and handbags, presumably showcasing the decluttered future awaiting Unlimited subscribers.
Hyman arrived, beach-tan, with a robin’s-egg-blue manicure. She was wearing a formfitting sleeveless dress in a black-and-white plaid pattern by Veronica Beard. When I asked if she had rented it, she gave me a benign duh look. (Actually, it was a sample from the label, which will be added to the site later this fall.) “I rent everything in my life except my pajamas, my undergarments, and my shoes,” she said, as we made our way to the street and climbed into a black S.U.V.
Hyman, who is thirty-eight, is often credited as the big-picture thinker behind Rent the Runway, the one with the vision. “She has something that a certain rare breed of entrepreneurs have,” Scott Friend, a partner at Bain Capital Ventures, who has invested in each round of the company’s funding and sits on its board, told me. “Some people call it the reality-distortion-chamber quality. There are lots of reasons you can come up with for why their idea won’t work, but by the time they’re done explaining it to you you’re, like, ‘Oh, yeah, that’s just math.’ ” Fleiss, who left the company in 2017 to run a subscription shopping service owned by Walmart but remains on the board, was, as she told me, “the efficator,” who made things run.
Hyman speaks in the assertive manner of a TEDx regular, her phrases ornamented with the lexicon of tech. As our car passed through the Holland Tunnel, she gave me a rundown of the subscription business’s “viral” success. Rent the Runway has some ten million members—defined by the company as people who have created a log-in to its site—spread across the country. Subscriptions, which have increased a hundred and fifty per cent year over year, currently account for half of the company’s revenue.
We pulled up at the warehouse. On the hangarlike main floor, clothes in various stages of processing snaked along a labyrinth of dry-cleaning conveyor racks. The sound was like that of an airstrip crossed with a dentist’s office, a cacophony of whooshing, suctioning, beeping, clicking, and rumbling. A sweet, slightly oily perfume with notes of geranium and pine hung in the air—a scent that Rent the Runway users will recognize, and that evidently helps mask the odor of previous wearers. (“The smell has really improved over time,” one Unlimited subscriber told me. “Though sometimes things do come and they smell like other people. You don’t realize it until you heat the clothing up with your own body.”) The company claims that its dry-cleaning operation is the biggest in the United States, and possibly the world. “We’re going to have to dodge,” Hyman said, as she moved to avoid a sequinned gown that was being hoisted onto a bagging machine, which sheathed it in plastic with a satisfying hiss.
Hyman led me to a loading dock, where, each morning, delivery trucks drop off tens of thousands of navy-blue garment bags containing returns. The majority will go out again the same day. Nearby, a man stationed at a cleaning counter dabbed leather paint over a scuff mark on a caramel-colored bag. Another, wielding a spotting gun, blasted a stain on an embroidered blue skirt. Behind an imposing row of dry-cleaning machines, women in hairnets were inspecting clothes that had already been processed. “They’re smelling the dresses,” Hyman said.
Unlike most warehouse-based retailers, such as Amazon, which care primarily about getting goods to customers, Rent the Runway must also see that goods get returned from them—and in time to reach the next person waiting in line. Every step of the process is guided by proprietary algorithms that insure maximum efficiency. But, if something goes awry, a domino effect of delays can occur. Furious complaints from jilted customers—“Ruined my anniversary”; “Don’t Rent Your Wedding Dress From Them!!!”—attest to the high stakes of error.
Upstairs, some hundred seamstresses were busy repairing garments. A rainbow of ribbons, sequins, buttons, and zippers hung on a nearby pegboard. More than a thousand people are currently employed at Rent the Runway’s warehouse. This summer, Hyman equalized benefits for hourly and salaried employees across the company, winning praise from, among others, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the democratic-socialist congressional candidate, who tweeted her approval.
Rent the Runway has, since its founding, raised more than four hundred and fifty million dollars in funding. (Condé Nast is an investor.) At the time of its last venture round, in December, 2016, the company was valued at eight hundred million dollars, and this, Hyman pointed out, didn’t take into account the subscriptions boom. Next year, the company will open a second warehouse and dry-cleaning facility, in Dallas, to keep up with demand.
Hyman’s confidence that more and more people will grow comfortable with renting clothes is predicated, in part, on a belief that many of us already are. Some of this may be a question of terminology. Back at the office, Hyman and I sat down to chat in a heavily air-conditioned conference room, and I lent her my denim coat to throw over her shoulders. When she returned it to me, she thanked me for letting her rent it. “Oh, I’d call that borrowing,” I said.
“Well, you shouldn’t,” she replied.
Hyman grew up in New Rochelle, the oldest of four children. Her mother gave up a finance career to care for one of Hyman’s sisters, who is severely autistic; her father worked in trade. “My father is the best salesperson I’ve ever met in my life,” Hyman said. “The price of a T-shirt at the Gap was a negotiation for him.” She went to Harvard, where she edited the Crimson’s weekly magazine and was a founding member of Seneca, a women’s social group that was created in response to the school’s all-male Final Clubs. After she graduated, in 2002, she took a job at Starwood, the hotel-and-resort company. Shortly upon arriving, she e-mailed the company’s president to ask for a meeting. He agreed, and, armed with a PowerPoint, she pitched a honeymoon registry. “I believed that we had entered the experience economy, and that people were starting to value experiences over ownership,” she said. Couples were getting married later in life; Hyman figured that they would rather have a chance to travel than receive more kitchen stuff. “His response was ‘Yeah, yeah, whatever,’ ” she said. “So I went back to my boss, and I said, ‘He’s approved it!’ ” By the time she left Starwood, three years later, the honeymoon registry had become a sizable part of the company’s fifty-million-dollar wedding business.
After a stint selling Internet ads at a Los Angeles startup, Hyman enrolled at Harvard Business School, in the fall of 2007. She and Jenny Fleiss were in the same section, and became close. Over lunch one day the following year, Hyman told Fleiss about a concept that she had just come up with. During Thanksgiving break, she had visited her sister Becky, who was working as a buyer at Bloomingdale’s. Anxious to look good at a college friend’s upcoming wedding, and in the photos that would circulate on Facebook afterward, Becky had splurged on a Marchesa gown, putting two thousand dollars on her credit card—more than a month’s rent. Hyman was scandalized. She thought there should be a way for her sister to dress up without going into debt.
That night, Hyman and Fleiss wrote to a dozen variations of what they hoped was Diane von Furstenberg’s e-mail address. (“She was an icon of American fashion,” Hyman explained.) They got a reply, and went to New York to pitch von Furstenberg on a rental portal for her brand’s Web site. She was unimpressed, but back on campus the two M.B.A. students kept tinkering with the idea. Hyman, using her sister’s employee discount, bought a bunch of nice dresses from Bloomingdale’s, then invited Harvard undergraduates to rent them. “We thought we would get data from usage,” Fleiss told me. “But the biggest thing we got from it was the emotional impact of designer fashion. It was a lightning-in-a-bottle moment—like, this could be huge.”
Their timing was good. In the early two-thousands, the success of digital retailers like Net-a-Porter had proved that consumers would buy designer fashion online, without first trying it on. And, thanks to sites like Gilt Groupe, which offered daily deals on luxury goods, bargain shopping—once associated with grandmas elbow-deep in bins of misshapen sweaters at Loehmann’s—had become cool. Gilt was founded by two female Harvard Business School graduates, and Hyman and Fleiss knew that Bain Capital Ventures had narrowly missed out on its initial funding round; Bain wouldn’t, they figured, want to make the same mistake twice. Before graduation, they had secured $1.5 million from Bain in seed funding.
Hyman and Fleiss moved to New York, where they made a deal with a dry cleaner in the West Village to clean and house their inventory. Getting the inventory was the tricky part. Most designers were wary of the rental concept, lest it cannibalize their business. But the recession economy encouraged some to take risks. An early coup was getting Hervé Léger, whose bandage dresses had been popularized by the likes of Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian. Eventually, von Furstenberg also came around.
Determined to have an e-mail list of forty thousand potential customers before the company launched, Hyman hired interns to search their college databases and to stand outside movie theatres, canvassing the women waiting in line. One of the e-mail addresses on the list belonged to the Times reporter Jenna Wortham. Hyman got in touch with her, and she decided to write a story on the startup. When Hyman learned that a photographer from the paper would be stopping by the dry cleaner’s, she recalled, “I told Jenny that we were going to put on our skimpiest Rent the Runway outfits and go.” The two women stood on ladders, vamping for the camera. “I figured, this is the technology section. There’s no women who are ever part of the technology section of the New York Times.” The article got prominent placement, and a hundred thousand people signed up for Rent the Runway in its first week.
The company’s evolution has not always been so smooth. In 2015, after a number of departures, Fortune published an article in which former employees complained about a cliquish, “mean girls” corporate culture. “Substitute me with any male founder, and would this even be a story?” Hyman was quoted as asking. (“Yes,” the reporter answered.) In 2016, Rent the Runway raised another sixty million dollars of venture capital, the year’s largest funding round for a female-led startup, and turned a profit for the first time. Forbes put Hyman and Fleiss on its list of “Richest Self-Made Women to Watch.”
The most enthusiastic Rent the Runway Unlimited subscribers use the service around a hundred and twenty times a year—an extraordinary number of wardrobe refreshes for anyone other than an heiress or a royal. “I’ve always had what my mom likes to call champagne taste on a beer pocketbook,” Victoria Thomas, a thirty-three-year-old who works in business development at a San Francisco graphic-design firm, told me. “I know it’s not free shopping, but it feels like it is.” Many subscribers whom I spoke with said that they have effectively stopped buying clothes. Thomas said, “I told my husband that I don’t want to buy anything that depreciates in value.” Chelsea Thaxter, a forty-four-year-old subscriber with six-year-old twins and a long commute, told me, “Before, I’d go shopping four times a year and do a kamikaze-type thing where I’d rush through a store, spend hundreds of dollars, and come back and go, ‘Oh, fuck, I spilled something on my new shirt.’ ”
When the company launched, Hyman called each customer to ask how her rental experience had been. “And I kept on hearing the word ‘compliment,’ ” she said. So a survey was conducted in which customers were asked how many compliments they typically received when they wore clothes from their own closet (two), and how many when they wore clothes from Rent the Runway (twelve). Hyman told me, “I was, like, Oh! Our business is about an incremental ten compliments.” Until last year, Rent the Runway had never run a formal advertising campaign. There was no need. “If we look at apartment buildings or on college campuses or at offices,” she said, “we’ll see these network effects occur where one woman has a subscription, and then there’s two, and then eight, and then fifteen, and then twenty-five, and then fifty.” Indeed, the company’s users seem evangelically eager to spread the word on its behalf. One of them, who calculates that she has rented a hundred and twenty-six items since February, described herself as a “walking billboard” for Rent the Runway.
On the company’s Web site, there is a distinct air of camaraderie: customers leave detailed reviews of their rentals, often including bedroom-mirror or office-bathroom selfies, along with the sort of intimate information—weight, bust and waist measurements—that your best friend might not even know about you. Most reviews have a friendly, chatty tone, and there is something charming about seeing the same piece of clothing on women of different ages, races, shapes, and sizes. When a reviewer says that the hips of a garment bunch in an unflattering manner or that a dress was so comfortable that she didn’t “feel as if I had to ‘suck it in’ all night long,” you trust her.
The fashion world is not known for this sisterly, slumber-party sort of vibe. Luxury has traditionally been defined by exclusivity and snobbery: upscale designers do not typically showcase their clothes on ordinary, flawed bodies. And yet those values appear to be changing. Anne Fulenwider, the editor-in-chief of Marie Claire, and an Unlimited subscriber, maintains that contemporary fashion does not prize ostentatious displays of consumption as much as it does “your ability to curate what you’re finding on social media and express it in the most eloquent and articulate way possible.” In the tangible as well as the virtual world, sharing is in. Popular consignment accounts on Instagram allow users to post apparel and sell it to other users. Web sites like the RealReal and thredUP are doing a brisk business in vintage and used goods. The appeal of these items is precisely their secondhand provenance—that they have been selected and worn by someone who shares your good taste.
This digital, democratizing shift in fashion has presented designers with a quandary. “The last couple of years have been a tsunami,” Ron Frasch, a partner at the private-equity firm Castanea Partners, said. Frasch, who was the C.E.O. of Proenza Schouler and of Bergdorf Goodman, and the president of Saks Fifth Avenue, has witnessed the brick-and-mortar slump and the rise of online retail at first hand. “I think brands historically felt, in stores, that they could control customers. But now it’s the customers who are in control,” he told me.
Jan-Hendrik Schlottmann, the C.E.O. of the fashion house Derek Lam, hesitated before putting the label on Rent the Runway. “Do you cheapen the brand, do you make it too available?” Schlottmann asked. “Yes, maybe, to a certain extent. But I think to counter fast fashion is enough to take those risks.” He was sick of seeing knockoffs of Derek Lam designs for sale, and figured that, if millennial renters could experience the real, quality thing now, they might decide they “can’t live without it in the future.” (In fact, Rent the Runway hasn’t entirely scanted the business of selling. Rented items are available for purchase at a discount, and the company has recently begun directing customers to retailers like Neiman Marcus and Everlane to buy complements to a rented outfit.)
When a customer returns an item, the site prompts her to say how many times she has worn it and to what sort of occasion, and whether she liked it, loved it, or didn’t care for it at all. A personalized home page is then created for each user, offering suggestions for future selections. “We probably have more data on how women are wearing or not wearing clothes than any other retailer on planet Earth,” Hyman said. Sarah Tam, Rent the Runway’s chief merchant officer, told me that she worked with the designer Jason Wu to develop a collection of dresses data-tailored to her customers. At Saks, where Tam used to work, “the average age of the customer was around fifty,” she said. “At Rent the Runway, she’s around twenty-nine. Also, the best-selling dresses that sold from Jason’s collection at Saks were black, geared toward that more mature woman. For us, only twenty per cent of our assortment is black. Fifty per cent of our buys have embellishments. Our customer embraces color. She loves trends.”
Rent the Runway is hardly the only company using data analytics to offer affordable personalized shopping. Stitch Fix, which was founded by Katrina Lake, also a Harvard Business School alumna, asks its customers detailed questions about their style, and then sends them customized clothing selections in the mail. Customers keep what they like and return the rest. The company, which went public in 2017, was last valued at two billion dollars. But Hyman believes that she has a leg up: “We have seen that what people think they want is very different from what they end up wearing.” Hyman’s goal is for Rent the Runway’s predictive powers to be so accurate that a user can find an outfit she likes in no more than two minutes. The company attracts customers by letting them dress like someone new. It keeps them by claiming to know their style better than they know it themselves.
Lately, a number of businesses born online—Amazon, Casper, Sonos—have begun to try their luck with brick-and-mortar retail. Rent the Runway now has stores in New York, San Francisco, Chicago, Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles. During a recent lunch hour, I stopped by the flagship location, in Manhattan, on West Fifteenth Street. Women clad in various New York uniforms (Lululemon leggings and Tory Burch flats; loose linen overalls and block-print head wrap) browsed through new fall knits and handbags. Jewelry was laid out in transparent drawers. I paused to examine a colorful checked coat by Mara Hoffman that might best be described as “clown chic.” “I know,” the woman next to me said, conspiratorially. “I just added it to my fall list.”
Angela Nunes, the store’s manager, greeted me, wearing a rented pale-gray-blue Nina Ricci dress. As we spoke, she kept a sharp eye on the floor, playing the role of hip mother hen to bewildered newbies and to regulars who wanted to know when the day’s shipment from the warehouse would arrive.
“Hey, babe, what’s up?” Nunes asked a customer in long braids with a Strand tote bag over one shoulder who was having trouble figuring out how to return an item. Nunes showed her how to scan its bar code at a nearby monitor before dropping it into a bin beneath a marble countertop.
“Those are so fun!” she said, encouragingly, to a woman in a red leather skirt who was holding a pair of wide-legged jeans with zippers running down the sides.
Compared with the cloud, the selection at the Rent the Runway store is drastically limited in size as well as in style. Still, certain customers seem to have incorporated it into their urban routines. Nunes explained that the store was a kind of testing ground in which to observe users’ behavior, and adapt accordingly. “There are women in the neighborhood who will go to the gym, shower there, and then stop by the store on their way to work to pick something up and return two things, order something on their phones while they’re walking to the train, and then come back in the evening to pick it up,” she said. One of her regulars, she said, had moved to an apartment down the street to be in closer range.
A few weeks later, while walking in SoHo, I looked through the window of a boutique that housed expensive, forbidding-looking clothes, and reflected on how self-conscious I’d feel walking in. I couldn’t afford any of it; what would be the point of stopping to browse? I found myself thinking of the Rent the Runway store, and of the strange fact that most customers were paying the same amount to be there. In this city riven by inequality, the old bond between money and taste had come, in some small way, unstuck. Or had it? “Wearing something from Prada is not cool—it just means that you have a lot of money,” one subscriber had told me. And yet she confessed that she only liked renting expensive things: “Otherwise, what’s the point?” In a system designed to provide maximum access, the allure of inaccessibility remained. Maybe this wasn’t so strange. In “Orlando,” Virginia Woolf, a clothes-obsessed writer if ever there was one, wrote, “They change our view of the world and the world’s view of us.” There is a pleasure in getting away with something, in hiding oneself in plain sight.
In the past month, I, too, have lived the life of an Unlimited subscriber. As I browsed my options, I instructed myself not to wonder about how much use I’d get out of an item or whether it was frivolous or practical or “me.” I was playing dress-up; my job was to click. I have rented ten things. Did I need so many changes of clothes? I am, after all, a member of a profession in which the standard uniform is a pair of jeans and an old T-shirt. On the other hand, I keep renewing my gym membership, and I haven’t used that ten times in the past thirty days. My test period has led to some preposterous misfires, but I’ve also traded my usual battered canvas totes for a couple of nice leather handbags, and have become attached to a pleated skirt and a pair of patterned pants that are wildly beyond my means. Soon I will send them off, to their next temporary home. For now, I’m happy to pretend that they’re mine. ♦