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Clothing rentals are growing in popularity as more and more people embrace flexibility.
As an analyst at international consulting firm McKinsey, Fiona Shen earns a salary that is twice as much as her friends and can afford to buy whatever catches her fancy.
But one would rarely find the 31-year-old Shanghai native in a mall shopping for new clothes she simply rents them.
For the past three years, Shen has been saving money and wardrobe space by subscribing to a clothing rental service for 500 yuan ($72.7) a month. As part of this package, she receives two to three items of clothing that are in line with the latest trends every week. Shen's only clothing purchases these days are limited to cashmere sweaters and silk dresses, items which she says are worth owning.
According to her, the main reason she has adopted this approach is the convenience and flexibility it affords.
"Nowadays, when I am traveling for business meetings, I don't even bring clothes. I would simply have the rental platform deliver the garments to my hotel before the trip. I'd then return them without having to go through all the hassle of doing laundry," she says.
"I think women just need different clothes instead of new clothes. I don't need a closet that is larger than necessary to prove myself. My professional achievements are my most glittering accessories," she adds.
She is so proud of adopting this approach that she openly admits to her friends that she rents clothes instead of buying them. She has even recommended clothing rental services to many of her peers.
Consumers like Shen, who are open to renting fashion items, are driving the sharing economy within the fashion industry, which has been slow to jump on the bandwagon, says Clement Tang, CEO of Le Tote China, an online clothing rental company that originated in San Francisco in 2012.
According to the State Information Center, China's sharing economy was worth 2.94 trillion yuan by 2018, an increase of 41 percent year-on-year, and more than 760 million Chinese-over half the country's population-have paid for shared services or products.
The center also estimated that the annual growth rate in the sharing economy in China would remain steady at around 30 percent over the next three years.
A consumer survey by consultancy firm Mintel found that transportation remains the most popular segment in the sharing economy. Among the 3,000 consumers polled by the consultancy, 91 percent said they have paid to share car rides or bicycles. In contrast, clothing is the second least popular category, above mother care and baby products, with only 9 percent of the interviewees saying they pay for such services.
Rachel Botsman, the author of What's Mine is Yours: The Rise of Collaborative Consumption, noted in one of her TED talks that the rise of the sharing economy in other fields has provided a basis for the devaluation of ownership in fashion, where there has long been "a stigma behind rental".
According to its website, TED is "a nonpartisan nonprofit (organization) devoted to spreading ideas, usually in the form of short, powerful talks".
"Clothing rental could be the next big revolution for the fashion industry, after the rise of fast fashion and e-commerce," says Tang.
Tang, who worked in the fashion retailer scene for nearly two decades before helming Le Tote China, says that the clothing rental market can also affect how fashion items are made.
"For years, fashion suppliers have been predicting what customers like and dislike with very little feedback or information from consumers. We then make some of the most important decisions like what colors to use and how many pieces of clothing to make based on this limited knowledge," says Tang.
"With the rental business, however, fashion companies are more in touch with customers, which allows them to learn more about their preferences. This in turn allows them to produce better-fitting clothes for customers."
Le Tote China, which debuted in 2017, currently has more than 1 million members and is among the leading players in the clothing rental sector. Other major rental platforms are Shanghai-based Ms Paris and Y Closet from Beijing.
But instead of viewing the other companies as competitors, Tang said the clothing rental market is still at a nascent stage and is therefore large enough to accommodate more players.
"It's actually a good thing to see more players in the field, especially well-established brands or companies from other areas. It proves that clothing rental is a promising business prospect," says Tang.
Earlier in June, retail chain Urban Outfitters from the United States announced that it would launch Nuuly, its own clothing rental platform which offers apparel from both its own brands and others, including Levi's.