My first encounter with Rent the Runway came with prom 2013, when I wore a pale pink dress by Catherine Deane. At the time, it felt elegant as hell, but my current boss recently said it made me look like a Fox News anchor. As a teen in Dallas, that wasn’t necessarily a bad thing (though I can’t say the same for the belief system that went with it). But as I grew older, wiser, and capable of leaving Lilly Pulitzer behind, I forgot all about RTR.
But now! I’m reluctant to write this for the same reason that people don’t want to give out the name of their favorite local restaurant, but I feel I must: Rent the Runway has amazing clothes — the kind that will appeal to even the most cynical fashion snobs.
My revelation occurred on a July evening. I needed a dress to wear to a fancy work event that was taking place outdoors, in a heat wave. A friend was using Rent the Runway for the summer, and on her account I saw the perfect dress, from the extremely stylish brand Khaite. I was verklempt: Khaite, on Rent the Runway? Within minutes I had signed up, and within hours (about 48) I was standing on a beach next to a Chanel-branded surfboard like a person who has an unlimited budget for heat-wave formalwear.
It wasn’t just that dress. The more I rented, the more the compliments rolled in. Things that I normally wouldn’t buy, either because they were too expensive or too flashy, were folded into my regular rotation. The Khaite dress, a Stine Goya babydoll with a dollhouse print, a Susan Alexandra beaded bag — all became mine for a few glorious days.
Since 2013, rental has blossomed. Le Tote just bought Lord & Taylor. Ann Taylor, Bloomingdale’s, and American Eagle all have launched subscriptions. If you want the fanciest formalwear, there’s Nova Octo, where you can rent Tom Ford dresses for $950; if you want kids’ clothes, try Stitch Fix. Rent the Runway is valued at $1 billion, but there’s a difference between success in business and success in the aesthetics-driven wonderland that is fashion. Up until recently, RTR’s edit has been very mainstream, presumably so that they could appeal to a huge audience. That’s logical from a making-money standpoint, but it didn’t do much to impress my fashion-editor co-worker who worships at the alter of Rei Kawakubo. Anecdotally, she’s loved almost all of the rented dresses I’ve worn to the office (especially this Co maxi).
Sarah Tam, the chief merchant for Rent the Runway, said the new, fashion-forward edit is a mix of data and intuition. Over the last four years since subscription has started, Rent the Runway has harnessed the “millions of data points at their fingertips.” With Unlimited, they added brands and saw how customers reacted, then finessed the assortment using customer feedback, which they were getting in real time.
Tam noticed the customer was wearing a lot of wear-to-work clothing, and specifically gravitating toward tailoring. So for fall, they added Margiela and other tailoring-forward brands. And as for their data: I wear between an 8 and a 10, but when I ordered the Co maxi mentioned above, a little pink “RTR Insight” suggested I get the size 4. It fit perfectly. Rent the Runway doesn’t give out stats on how many people use their service, but I asked the man at my local UPS on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, and he said “hundreds” of navy-blue subscription bags come through that location each day. (Twice a week, I add mine to a stack of others.)
Of course, if everyone rents the same clothing, there’s always a chance that we’ll all end up looking identical, possibly in the one pink coat that unnerves boyfriends and husbands the world over. Truth be told, when I get off my subway stop now in SoHo, I always spot RTR picks — Monse jeans, Isabel Marant dresses, Marni bags. But that’s also an issue with mass production. Everyone has the leopard-print skirt! It’s better for the environment and for your wallet if it’s the same leopard skirt passed around America via a rental service.
Over 100 billion items of clothing are made each year, and half of all fast-fashion garments are thrown away within a year. If you’re only going to wear a leopard skirt for one season, doesn’t it make sense to rent? I’ve worked hard this past year to keep my wardrobe minimal and sustainable — a task that means trying to rewire my brain to stop craving new things. With renting, that shift isn’t necessary. (Whether that’s healthy is a discussion for another day.) Rent the Runway allows me to wear gorgeous, high-quality clothes for as long as it feels appropriate, send them off for cleaning, and regroup. It costs $140 a month — cheaper than a membership to The Wing. And it’s inclusive: The company added plus sizes in 2013 and stocks clothes up to a size 22.
Maybe at some point in time, I’ll have such a defined personal style that I won’t feel the need to try trends just for the night. But until then, I’ll be raking in the compliments and enjoying my digital dream closet.
8 Designers to Look for on RTR
Khaite: The brand that convinced me to get a membership in the first place. If your beat is sophisticated clothes with just a little bit of flair, you’ll love it.
Co: If you want everyone to think you’re very artistic and sophisticated. I’m currently waiting for this burnt-orange dress to become available in my size. It reminds me of origami.
Rejina Pyo: Pyo’s statement dresses are consistently all over fashion month. The famous Greta dress isn’t on RTR (yet … fingers crossed) but some equally brightly colored dresses are, along with some of her oblong bags.
Brock Collection: If your first reaction to the prairie dress trend was “Yes, please!” then you probably already know about Brock. The New York brand is known for romantic, Jane Austen–esque designs. Just look at this red dress!
Koché: This was a brand I discovered through Rent the Runway. I rented this black polo dress, which achieves my goal of looking like a prep-gone-wrong. Turns out, that’s a lot of Koché’s aesthetic, and now I’ve re-rented the same dress four times.
Marni: Marni has a reputation for being a brand for the smart, fashionable woman. Unlike their Philophile counterparts, though, the Marni customer appreciates prints.
Stine Goya: Stine Goya pieces feel feminine, playful, and very now. I got to look like a dollhouse for a day, which was a dream.