I’m a crap shopper. I’m easily overwhelmed by the experience and not very patient. That goes for online and in real life. That said, I do actually like clothes and love a well put-together look. I just don’t want to spend a lot of time to accomplish it.
Over the COVID-19 pandemic, like many people, I largely stopped shopping or giving much of a damn about fashion trends, if I ever really did. Recently that’s started to shift as opportunities to socialize have ramped up. This spring some noteworthy events landed on my calendar: a school auction and a trip to Palm Springs. It was time to make a little effort. But where to begin?
I’d been curious about clothing rental since I first covered Seattle fashion startup Armoire more than four years ago, and I have friends who have used its competitor, Rent the Runway, for special events.
I also knew the pandemic had been tough on both companies as many women no longer needed a rotating wardrobe of professional wear and social engagements dried up. So how were they now?
Rent the Runway has been on a COVID roller coaster. It reached a $1 billion, unicorn-status valuation in 2019, only to lose half of its customers by the end of 2020, according to research firm CB Insights. The company went public in October, but its stock is down more than 70% since then.
Armoire was likewise on the rise pre-pandemic, growing 400% in 2019. When the virus hit, the startup furloughed many workers, but has been able to rehire them. CEO and founder Ambika Singh reported that Armoire’s customers stuck with the startup as it shifted to athleisure wear and cut prices. Last month I reported on its new in-person store.
Even in the best of times, clothing rental is a tough business. Customers are able to rent clothes worth hundreds of dollars for a fraction of their retail value. Companies cover shipping and cleaning costs, plus the expenses of technology and labor. Some of their inventory will be damaged or go out of style or just wear out.
The clothing rental market is valued at $1.8 billion and some experts predict significant annual growth. Even brick-and-mortar retailers including Banana Republic, Urban Outfitters and Bloomingdale’s have started offering rentals.
It was time to give the experience a try, to see how Armoire and Rent the Runway would perform for a reluctant, out-of-practice shopper like me. Could their tech tricks help me discover appealing apparel without my usual frustration?
My mission: a dress or two for the Southwest desert, and a top and bottom suitable for a semi-dressy but not full-on-cocktail-dressy school auction.
Easy, right? Here are a few takeaways from my experiment:
Rent the Runway
First impression: The site is bright and beautiful and I am decidedly not the target audience, which appears to be a 25-year-old living in LA — not a middle-aged mom in Seattle. Short skirts. Short shirts. Vibrant prints. And so many massively puffed sleeves. The fictional heroine Anne of Green Gables would weep with joy. I just wanted to weep.
I had the option of searching for clothes by style (dresses, tops, etc.), occasion (wedding, gala, night out, etc.) and topics under “trending.” Selecting “dresses” by my area code pulled up 2,660 items.
Digging deeper: Hoping to narrow my search, I create a profile that included my zip code, birthday and clothing sizes. That didn’t change anything. Still, with enough scrolling, a few interesting items emerged.
I turned to the filters, setting parameters by occasion, weather, dress length and my age.
For dresses, this nudged the hemlines below mid thigh and dropped me to 300 selections. Tops were tougher to tame. I could select neckline preferences, but not belly coverage. The site was pushing a lot of midriffs to someone in the 40s+ crowd. Bold move RTR! But we were getting closer.
Pick a plan: The site clearly laid out three options for rentals: four items per month for $69 for the first month, $89 after; or eight items per month, four at a time, for $99 for the first two months, $135 after; or 16 items per month, four at a time for $149 to start, $199 after.
I went with the four-item plan, which limited me to clothes that retail for up to $350, while the other two plans opened to door to apparel priced up to $3,500.
At that point the platform let me tick some off some styles that I didn’t want: lace, minis, strapless and off-the-shoulder options. I was never able to find that part of my profile again, and the searches still dropped some of these items into my results.
The site encouraged me to “heart” or “thumbs down” clothes to refine my profile. I’m sure at some point it would shift the algorithm, but how many leopard prints would I have to reject before the tech heard me?
Time to choose: After flailing in the relatively easy categories of tops and dresses, I revised my goals and axed the pursuit of pants. I fiddled with the filters to again try to dial back the “Euphoria” vibe.
I narrowed down my choices and perused the photos and input submitted from other users to find key information on fit, comfort and satisfaction for each apparel finalist, revising my line up based on their experiences. I used the sizes suggested by the site.
After a quick consult with my 13-year-old, I submitted my order. My clothes would arrive in two days.
First impression: Armoire’s landing page features attractive, everyday women — even including some in my demographic — in a variety of outfits. Upfront it promises personalization, curation and convenience. Registration is required before browsing is allowed.
Digging deeper: With the registration done, it’s time for a quiz. This delights me. I have an opinion on everything and am glad to share it.
I tick through photos showing general styles, patterns, cuts of clothing and fabrics where I pick whether I would “never, sometimes or often” wear the items. Another round gets more specific on colors and styles. I’m asked about types of events that I want to rent for, favorite brands and sizes.
Armoire wants to know me, beyond whether I’m down with lace. I can’t wait to see what it’s going to recommend.
Pick a plan: The truth stings a little bit. The short list selected by the algorithm was kind of dull — and accurately reflects my mostly non-adventurous taste. I take a moment to confront my milquetoast nature. The larger 70-item closet offered a broader range of choices, a few that could work.
Armoire offers a similar range of plan options: four items per month for $69 for the first month, $79 after; or seven items per month for $79 for the first month, $119 after; or unlimited items per month, six at a time, for $139 to start, $249 after. I again went with the four item plan. All of the plans provide access to the same clothes.
Time to choose: While my range of options were less overwhelming, I was still struggling. I decided to tap a resource not available on Rent the Runway: free access to an actual human.
Armoire gives members complimentary 20 minute consultations with stylists, either by phone or in person, as well as online chats. At the appointed time on a Friday afternoon, a friendly woman called my cell, ready to help. I poured out my dreams and confusion; she reassured, encouraged and told me she’d get back to me in 15 minutes with a new closet.
The result was mixed — there were some workable basics, some wildcard brightly patterned jumpers and other miscellany. The stylist offered to take another run at it, but I realized that the personal contact and opportunity to feel heard had bolstered my will to dive back in on my own.
Before I could do that, however, I got an unexpected email: “Get excited — your very first Armoire case is headed your way… We’re hand-picking 4 of our very favorite pieces to send you, based on your style quiz preferences.” What?! This version of fashion Russian Roulette frightened and excited me. What would I get? Did the system go rogue? I decided to let it play out.
On Monday I got another unexpected email, this one from my stylist offering something of an explanation. It appeared the email was sent in error. I opted to pick my own clothes, again relying heavily on user feedback for honing my selection. I again accepted the algorithm’s size suggestions.
Since I’m in Seattle, I opted for free same-day delivery via GoFlyy, a gig-driver service.
Moments of truth
Armoire’s package was the first to arrive, announced via text from GoFlyy. Its plastic bag was printed with instructions for reuse and inside was a bundle of clothes tied up with a string and adorned with an adorable origami dress.
The two floral Palm Spring dresses fit perfectly. One was too ruffly and youthful, but the other was a keeper. My auction top, a black sleeveless blouse, also fit great, though my teen questioned its plunging neckline. The last item was more of a whim — a black cashmere sweater with cool grey trim for everyday wear. I put it on and kept it on. And wore it the next day.
My main complaint: the clothes had a Febreze-ish smell, but that dissipated over an hour or so.
The Rent the Runway selection arrived two days later, packed in a garment bag to be used for returns, which is a plus compared to Amoire’s plastic shipping bag. However, each RTR item was enclosed in its own plastic dry cleaning bag. Customers can mail the bags back for recycling into Trex decking, but the reality is the world has a surplus of recycled plastic. A spokesperson said they’re working to replace the bags with another option.
But I did like the clothes. As with Armoire, they all fit great. Both dresses, one sportier and the other dressier, will be well used on the desert trip. The two event tops were solid options for the auction, and I plan to wear a polka dotted number with a flattering collar. Bags aside, it was a win.
I like renting clothes. Based on the retail prices quoted by the platforms, I received apparel worth more than $1,000 from each, costing me less than $80, albeit future months would cost more.
While both platforms required considerably more time, patience and effort than I’d hoped for, I realize that over time the algorithms would get smarter about my tastes and I would become more adept at setting the filters. Despite the pursuit of clever tech tools, a key feature for both was the information shared by other humans — the photos showing how the clothes looked on real women and their take on fit and satisfaction.
Between the two, Rent the Runway edged out Armoire for having more clothes that I liked, though the avalanche of options and limited personalization made them harder to find. Maybe I have a hometown bias, but I also liked Armoire’s emphasis on building community. I could form a relationship with my stylist, and I value that.
But will I use either past this experiment? That, for me, mostly comes down to an environmental question. While these services tout themselves as a green alternative to buying clothes — particularly when it’s inexpensive, rapidly changing “fast fashion” — there are limits to their enviro bona fides.
A study published in Environmental Research Letters last year from Finnish researchers suggested that rented clothes could generate more greenhouse gases than purchased clothes given the energy used for deliveries and dry cleaning or laundering. The most eco-option, not surprisingly, was buying fewer items and wearing them for a long time.
Rent the Runway commissioned its own study conducted by third-party researchers that found rentals had a lower carbon footprint than buying. The research took a broader look, studying more categories of clothing than the Finnish research. RTR’s study also concluded that rentals reduce the amount of clothing being produced.
I think I’ll use the services intermittently for events that require an outfit that I don’t need on a regular basis. And maybe I should think seriously about purchasing that lovely cashmere sweater — both companies allow renters to buy and keep the clothes at discounted prices — and wearing it lots. It’s the least that the environment deserves.