Once upon a time she was the queen of the British high street, credited with a Midas touch that turned Topshop, and later Whistles, into retail goldmines.
But these days, with some 350,000 tonnes of clothing ending up in landfill every year, Jane Shepherdson is busy convincing UK fashionistas not to shop. Joining My Wardrobe HQ as Chair last October, she has turned her attentions to a slower – but no less stylish – business model. Namely: why buy, when we can borrow?
Formerly the preserve of prom dresses and wedding tuxedos, clothes hire is fast becoming the savviest way to dress more sustainably while still enjoying the thrill of a new outfit. Businesswire valued the global online clothing rental market at $1.26 billion in 2019, predicting growth of 8.7% over the next five years. Alongside resale platforms such as Vestiaire Collective and monthly subscription models like Onloan, the new generation of rental sites promise an antidote to the toxic excesses of the industry – and a prime opportunity for brands.
Clothing rental is a guilt-free way to enjoy fashion, to be experimental and to have fun with it again
The brainchild of founders Sacha Newall and Tina Lake, My Wardrobe HQ acts as both a rental business and consignment store for brands and private sellers, giving customers the option to borrow pieces for four days to a fortnight, or to buy preloved and past-season deadstock items at a fraction of the RRP. Among the 500+ designers on the site’s virtual racks are cult labels like Rixo, Ganni and Jacquemus, as well as Butterfly Mark Certified brands Christian Dior, Louis Vuitton, Needle and Thread and Temperley London.
Currently their biggest customer base is women in their thirties and forties, but Shepherdson insists they have no target demographic. “At the moment, we’re just trying to bring as many people on board as possible,” she says. A My Wardrobe HQ pop-up at Harvey Nichols, launched during London Fashion Week, ought to help on that score.
We sat down with Jane to find out why ownership is overrated, and how luxury brands can best join the rental revolution.
What is My Wardrobe HQ’s mission?
We want to make luxury clothing rental the norm, in the same way that Rent the Runway has done in the US. Clothing rental is a guilt-free way to enjoy fashion, to be experimental and to have fun with it again. I would love fashion rental to become as commonplace as renting a car.
Why do you think the idea of ownership is so embedded in British society?
I think that the UK went through a period when home ownership was THE thing, in a way that it isn’t really in other parts of Europe, and that has led to a desire to own things in other spheres of life. However, that is changing rapidly. Millenials and their younger siblings think nothing of renting most things. Ten years ago, we would have balked at the thought of sleeping in someone else’s bed – and yet Airbnb is the way most of us holiday now.
While fast fashion is most widely villainised, luxury fashion has plenty of its own sustainability issues. How do you choose which brands to work with?
Right now we are welcoming most brands, because simply the act of sharing clothes as opposed to owning them makes them more sustainable. But of course, unsustainable practices are not just the preserve of fast fashion retailers – we are very aware that practices throughout the industry need to change. With that in mind, we’re keen to collaborate with luxury brands who are actively changing their behaviour in order to improve; Stella McCartney is an obvious example. We are also talking to young designers about producing collections just for rental.
How is MyWardrobe HQ addressing the misconceptions that might stop people embracing fashion rental?
The hardest thing for us to get across is the quality of the clothes, and the Harvey Nichols pop-up helps enormously for people to see that they are really beautiful pieces, and not what you’d find in a charity shop (no offence to charity shops). I truly believe the reason that rental has taken off in the US is that Rent the Runway gave people a viable alternative. For that to happen here, our customers need to trust us, our product needs to be stunning, the process must be super straightforward – and it must bring joy!
How do we shift the idea of rental as only for occasion dressing, to something that can play a core role in our everyday wardrobes?
I think this will come with time, as we become more and more accepting of rental as a concept. We had huge success with ski wear earlier this year, as people realised that it’s an obvious category to rent. More recently, ‘Zoom blouses’ and jewellery have been popular, especially worn with sweatpants and pyjamas! I think the more people try out rental, the more they will see its advantages and start to change their purchasing behaviour. Everyday essentials will form their wardrobes, but they will rent for work meetings, events and anything that requires shifting up a gear.
So people have still been keen to rent clothes during the pandemic, despite not having the social life to show them off?
We’ve seen some unexpected behaviour. Rental for events has dropped off, of course, but our customers have been keen to purchase iconic pieces, like Dior and Louis Vuitton handbags and Prada shoes, throughout the lockdown. The pieces we have rented have tended to be blouses with fancy sleeve details, huge earrings, and also cashmere from brands like Chinti and Parker – something comfy, but a little elevated. But we’re keenly awaiting the return of events, to give us all a reason to put the gladrags on.
We’re keen to collaborate with luxury brands who are actively changing their behaviour in order to improve
Can rental help democratise luxury fashion?
Oh my god yes, this is the best part of rental! I’ve experienced it myself – the joy of wearing a £3,000 Gucci suit, which I could never have afforded to invest in, is immeasurable. I would love all the luxury brands to start renting, either through us or even through their own stores. The benefit for them is that while wholesale accounts are usually risk-averse in their selections, meaning those signature catwalk pieces don’t get bought, rental customers will choose something that stands out. They don’t have to worry about getting more wear out of it.
As well as price, size accessibility is one of the biggest obstacles in the sustainable fashion world right now – is that something you’re working on?
It’s a problem for us too. We operate as a peer-to-peer site as well as consignment from brands, meaning we get clothes from individuals in their own size – which often tends to be small. When we get stock directly from brands, we try very hard to include larger sizes too, but it isn’t always possible. Luxury designers are missing a trick. Until we get more diversity, both on the catwalk as well as in stores, this won’t change.
Let’s talk logistics. How does My Wardrobe HQ manage all that dry cleaning and shipping in a sustainable way?
We use ozone cleaning, which is much more environmentally friendly than dry cleaning and gets rid of more bacteria. In terms of our transportation, we encourage drop-offs and pick-ups by customers and the short journeys are done by bicycle, then scooter or electric car. We aren’t perfect, but we try our best.
Do we need to step away from fashion’s need for constant reinvention, or will there always be a place for trends?
I think that trends are already losing their power – especially as we can’t actually see much of them in the street anymore! My Wardrobe HQ doesn’t insist on current season’s product, as for most people that really isn’t important. What is important is: does it look amazing? The things that work the best for us are pieces that stand alone – a Gucci suit, a heavily embroidered evening gown, a Dior handbag, a Chanel necklace… Of course there will always be hot brands doing something that everyone latches onto, such as a Vampire’s Wife dress, but well-made, stand-out pieces are the ones that last.
It’s been an eventful year since you joined as Chair of My Wardrobe HQ. What’s next on your agenda?
I’m proud to have joined such an innovative and driven team, to have raised the profile of rental through a huge amount of PR, and of the team for pulling off The British Fashion Awards back in December, where they dressed more than 60 influencers in our dresses. Next we need to continue the conversation with designers and get everyone on board, so that we can make clothing rental the norm. There’s no reason we have to limit this to the UK either. I see no reason why we shouldn’t extend our offering to the whole of Europe.