Our closets felt the pinch first after lockdown halted our social and work lives. We had nowhere to go and no one else to see so we gave up most of our clothes in favor of house dresses and sweatsuits. Fashion became less important as people cut down on unnecessary expenditures, leading many to stop renting clothing.

Although none of the rental companies that I spoke to shared numbers, they all confirmed that there has been a decline in orders as well as an increase in cancellations and pauses in memberships since March when the pandemic hit the United States. However, most customers have returned to the rental companies by last summer. It’s not clear if subscriptions have reached pre-pandemic levels.

woman in black and white floral dress

We are still under lockdown. So what has changed? Ambika Singh, CEO of Armoire, a clothing subscription company that sells contemporary brands such as Rag&Bone, Equipment, Scotch & Ambika Singh, said that people are starting to dress up at home again after the pandemic. She explained that Armoire offers clothing memberships with contemporary brands like Rag&Bone, Equipment, and Scotch & Nuuly, a rental service that URBN also owns Urban Outfitters and Anthropologie and Free People, reports that the company has experienced a resurgence in memberships with each season. More are expected to join the company in the spring and the summer due to vaccine rollouts as well as outdoor events.

This could explain why ELOQUII Unlimited, a plus-size brand, launched its rental service ELOQUII Unlimited in August. Mariah Chase, CEO, said that even though the service was already in development before March 2020, she found that customers still desired it. She says that “80%” of women ranging in size from 14 to 28 agreed that a subscription-based clothing rental service would allow them the flexibility and style they need as their lives change.

This pandemic’s success can be attributed to the communities these companies created. Armoire created initiatives such as the “digital dressing area,” which allows members to upload photos of themselves wearing rented clothes to a shared account. ELOQUII Unlimited and others have updated their collections to include more styles that can be used at home. They also launched loungewear in the fall. Nuuly also reexamined its brand and category mix by expanding its maternity- and plus-size offerings (something customers requested). Also, Nuuly leans towards casual aesthetics as well as “moodlifting” styles.

woman wearing sunglasses

Kim Gallagher is Nuuly’s Director Marketing and Customer Success. “Casual has been a theme of the past year, but [our subscribers still approached] their lives] through fashion lenses,” she says. “They loved our assortment glam casual, such as sequin and velvet Joggers.” (I also know the exact pair Gallagher is referring to because they were the last item that I ordered when I was testing Nuuly in February/March last year, just as things were getting grim.

PHOTOGRAPHED BISHA PAULSON. Our closets felt the most severe effects of lockdown. With nowhere to go and no one to see, we abandoned the majority of our clothing in favor of a uniform of sweatsuits and house dresses. Many people cut down on unnecessary expenses and fashion was less important. This led to many customers abandoning their clothing rental subscriptions. Many customers have returned since last summer, but it isn’t clear if subscriptions have recovered to pre-pandemic levels. Ambika Singh, CEO of Armoire, a clothing subscription company that sells contemporary brands such as Rag&Bone, Equipment, Scotch & Ambika Singh, the CEO of Armoire, a clothing membership company that offers contemporary brands like Rag&Bone, Equipment, and Scotch &, stated that people are starting to dress up at home again after the pandemic. According to Nuuly, the rental service from URBN that also owns Urban Outfitters, Anthropologie, and Free People, the company has seen a resurgence of memberships with each new season, with more expected to come in the spring and summer as a result of vaccine rollouts and outdoor events. This might explain why plus-size brand ELOQUII went ahead with the launch of its rental service, ELOQUII Unlimited, in August. According to Mariah Chase, CEO, the service was already in development before March 2020. However, customers still wanted it, she said. She says that “80%” of women between 14 and 28 agreed that a subscription service for clothing rentals would allow them to have the flexibility they need as their lives change. Armoire created initiatives such as the “digital dress room,” which allows members to upload photos of themselves wearing rented clothes to a shared account. ELOQUII Unlimited launched loungewear in the fall, and others have updated their collections to make them more accessible for home life. Nuuly also reexamined its brand and category mix. It launched loungewear in the fall, and expanded its maternity and plus size offerings. “They loved our variety of glam casuals, like velvet joggers and sequin joggers,” Gallagher said. (I also know the exact pair of sequin pullstring pants Gallagher is referring to because they were the last item that I ordered when I was testing Nuuly last February and March, just as things were getting grim.)

Christine Hunsicker is the founder and CEO of logistics company CaaStle that grew out of the success of her previous company, clothing-subscription brand Gwynnie Bee (which is now a subsidiary), and now powers services for rentals like ELOQUII Unlimited, Vince Unfold, and Banana Republic Style Passport, among others. Hunsicker says that video conferencing has created a new market need. She also noted that tops are a top choice for her members, even though they might have chosen more dresses in the past. Melissa Gonzalez, fashion retail expert, and CEO of The Lion’esque Group confirms that people still consider their outfits from a computer angle. She says, “From the waist down, we’re looking at each other more often than ever before, so I think there is a desire to make it fresh again and feel good about that stuff.”

This is why loyalists have never cancelled their rental subscriptions. The joy of getting new items for our wardrobe is still an amazing source of joy. Hunsicker tells me that even though we’re less likely to leave our homes, we still feel the need to dress up and feel good every single day. Our members shared with us daily feedback that their boxes arriving at their doorsteps would be a highlight in their week, and that it was a way they could pamper themselves.

This is exactly what attracted people to renting services in the first place: the joy of wearing designer clothes we couldn’t afford, and trying out styles we wouldn’t mind committing to long-term. Hunsicker says that fashion has always been about self expression and renting gives customers access to a wider range of clothes than they would be able to buy.

black and silver camera on white textile

It is also more sustainable than buying brand new clothes. Many were forced to rethink their shopping habits after COVID-19. They found themselves with too many clothes in their closets, which they barely used during a regular period of time, let alone when there was a pandemic. These eco-friendly options of fashion consumption, such as resale or renting, which have been increasing in popularity, will only increase. Singh says that consumers can play a role in rebuilding a post-pandemic society to be more fair and kind to Mother Earth. “Rental fashion is poised to boom like never before,” Gonzalez says. He also believes that rental is a better option than buying a new closet.

Gonzalez says that rental is not only beneficial for customers, but also benefits brands who wish to be seen by customers. She says that it makes sense for brands to continue to offer rental as it is a great way to get to know customers. “As long brand partnerships continue to happen, the inventory is exciting and customers are getting access to brands they didn’t have before, it continues being a valuable proposition.” Ralph Lauren launched a rental program with Lauren Ralph Lauren (also powered by CaaStle). David Lauren, chief innovation officer and brand officer of the company, stated that Lauren was a good place to start. It was a brand that had lost some momentum. This was an opportunity to re-spark curiosity and interest in the brand.

Gonzalez stated that she believes that rental clothing will remain popular among consumers: “People are excited about going out again, particularly as we get vaccines and the warmer temperatures are coming.” There is also the future where we will (presumably, hopefully,) be returning to large social events such as weddings and large social gatherings. Gallagher says that rental companies are well-positioned for meeting the fashion demands of people returning to special occasions and traveling. Chase says, “As we recover from the pandemic, and consumers have more occasions for dressing up, we believe that the value proposition of having a rotating closet will rise with demand.”

woman in brown tank top and white pants sitting on white wooden table

We don’t know what we’ll wear in a year. What will our style look like after the pandemic? It will be comfort-first for all time.

Hunsicker says, “As we go back to pre-pandemic activity, there’s a big question about how wardrobes will look: Is elastic here to stay or will the yoga pants be put aside in quarantine?” “Rental services are a great way to help consumers get dressed up without having to commit to a post-pandemic wardrobe.

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