A luxury wool and silk dress I rented from StyleLend. (Photo credit: Lydia Hudgens)

It was the Friday night of my bachelorette party, and my girl gang was gathered around the kitchen island at my best friend’s Bushwick loft, dressed up for dinner out. One of my friends, Megan, was wearing a flattering LBD that was clearly well made. Somebody complimented her, and she said, “Thanks! It’s Rent the Runway.” I was surprised that she would consider my bachelorette dinner a fancy enough occasion to rent a dress for, but she went on. “I have the subscription service.”

Megan, who works a 9-to-6 at a financial firm in Manhattan, pays $139 a month for Rent the Runway’s unlimited subscription, and gets three items at a time that she can keep for as long as she wants until she swaps one out for another. She can buy items she really likes at a discount, and gets free shipping and dry cleaning in the deal. She loves the service, which helps her not overstuff her, “teeny tiny closet. My teenage self who strived to never wear the same outfit twice in a given month would have melted at the thought of RTR,” she says.

All weekend we complimented her on her looks. On Sunday, when she was wearing a thick cotton t-shirt that draped nicely and black trousers, I complimented her again. “Thanks! I own all these things, since they’re basics.”

And a lightbulb went off in my head.

I’ve been a huge proponent of the capsule wardrobes, which is when you own a very edited wardrobe of versatile pieces in black, white, and grey, plus two of your favorite accent colors. It’s a great way to buy fewer but better items, spend approximately five minutes on picking out your daily outfit, and effortlessly pack a carry on for a week in Europe. It makes your closet manageable and save resources. But it has one big drawback: it’s boring. Man Repeller called it, “like eating oatmeal for breakfast every day.” That’s why, while I liked the concept, I couldn’t fully subscribe to it. I don’t like every trend, but there are some I love. The Capsule Wardrobe is a joy in some ways (so French!) but in others a real drag (no sequined romper for you!). And I don’t even want to talk about my crazy things I have in my Burning Man drawer.

Plus, getting the Capsule Wardrobe wrong can be expensive. I’ve “invested” in some expensive items that I thought I would adore and wear every day for ten years, only to realize six months later that there was something about it – the fit, the ease of use (damn you, German knapsack with the thick tie cords), the way it made me feel (OK, these particular Levi’s actually make me feel like a mom that has given up) – that wasn’t quite right. Of course, being a beautifully made, timeless object, I can consign it, but for only up to a third of what I paid for it.

Renting, then, as an addition to having a Capsule Wardrobe, is an elegant solution to both of these problems.

Up until renting came into vogue, there was no way to affordably and ethically/sustainably take part in trends. Just take the off-the-shoulder trend. It’s such a lewk, that you can’t wear it more than once a week on weekends, and that is really pushing it. (Every single Saturday during the summer? OK, fashion victim.) Still, it’s so cute and flattering and sexy! So, do you succumb to fast fashion and buy a $24 version that was sewn in a sweatshop, wear it three times, and feel OK about the $8-per-wear cost but like a huge hypocrite for the environmental and ethical implications? Or do you buy the sustainable/ethical version at $75, like I did, knowing that it will probably be out of style – if not next summer, definitely the summer after – at which point stores will be flooded with unwanted off-the-shoulder tops, and the Buffalo Exchange clerk will look at yours with disdain and set it aside saying, “We have too many of these. We’re looking for [fill in next trend here].”

Buying secondhand only kind of solves this problem. Trends usually find their way into secondhand shops when they are just past their peak. (That’s why I use secondhand shops for affordable white blouses that I can drop food on without hating myself, fun vacation threads, and costume items.) I swore to myself I would wear my Reformation off-the-shoulder top all the time, but I’ve only managed to rotate it into an outfit three times so far (hopefully more this summer, but still). That’s $25 per wear! Plus, it’s huge resources waste. Just imagine the million off-the-shoulder tops that have been bought by women, worn a few times, and discarded.

That’s where renting is so valuable, to you and the environment. If you could rotate through 12 pieces each month (three per week) from Rent the Runway, your cost per wear would be $12. And that top would be cleaned and worn by three other women that month. So by renting instead of buying, you can get your trend fix, but could say you’re preventing three other tops from being manufactured, bought, and then discarded into the landfill.

Plus, you can try out items, wear them one or two times, and if they truly make your heart sing, buy them at a discount. This seems like the next step for a generation who went from owning to streaming their music. It’s not about the emotional attachment, it’s merely about having access to what you want for the right occasion. Of course, renting isn’t quite as convenient as pulling up a song on Spotify. But perhaps the technology will get close someday.

So yes, I absolutely think you should add renting to your sustainable-fashion toolkit, along with buying secondhand and buying fewer but sustainable and ethical things for your capsule wardrobe.

Here is a review of some of the services:

StyleLend

The most urbane and fashionable of the bunch, StyleLend sources your luxury rental from other women’s closets. Its specialty is high-end, interesting, funky pieces that you might not want to wear more than once, because they are so unique (red white and blue sequined Chanel bomber jacket!), but that will garner you an avalanche of compliments when you wear it out to an artsy industry event. When two friends were trying to figure out where to rent something really cool for my warehouse wedding, I directed them here.

You just put in when you need the rental (a week or two weeks), your size, and browse through the available clothing and accessories. Pick out your items, and they will be delivered in a few days, or a few hours if you live in NYC. Try them on, return the items that don’t fit for a refund, wear the items that do fit, pack them back up and ship them back. If you are the kind of gal that has a few designer items in your closet that are less than two years old, you can put them in StyleLend’s library and make back some of what you paid for it.

The first time I tried StyleLend, I rented a dress and shoes, but the dress was too big on me. No problem, they have a fit guarantee, so I returned it and got my money back. The next time I was invited to a benefit dinner at the Harvard Club. I could have bought an expensive, conservative dress that I wouldn’t wear again. But instead, I rented two dresses, and the floral one fit perfectly. I felt supremely confident in it, which was good because I’m not usually one to hang out at the Harvard Club – I needed all the confidence I could get!

StyleLend uses USPS packaging, and wraps the item in recycled paper and one flyer. They use disposable B-tags (similar to Bloomingdale’s) which helps them know if the item was worn and prevents fraud related to the ‘Fit Guarantee’. For items brought by courier to NYC customers, the garment comes in a reusable garment bag, and a plastic bag if the item had to go to the eco dry cleaners StyleLend uses – most items are hand-washed however.

Because StyleLend rents you dresses that belong to someone else, you can’t buy them if you love them. But that aspect makes this service more sustainable, because StyleLend isn’t purchasing a library of new clothing to rent out – its making better use of clothing that has already been purchased. So I would say, StyleLend is great for getting something unique and fun for a particular event and reducing your overall fashion consumption. 

Rent the Runway

The OG of renting, Rent the Runway has a large library of pretty dresses and everyday clothes and accessories for rent. I would say the style of Rent the Runway is a little more mainstream, things that you would wear to a benefit, a work event, a bachelorette party. You won’t find the risk-taker items on Rent the Runway that you would find on StyleLend. No matter, you don’t need risk takers for the wedding season. And the subscription service is a huge plus.

You can rent by item, or sign up for the subscription service. There are customer reviews and pictures, so you can get a sense for how it will look in person and on you. Put in your order for a rental of four or eight days, plus a free backup size, get it shipped to you, wear it, then ship it back for free. Rent the Runway items are all conventionally dry cleaned, and arrive wrapped in plastic and then in a cloth bag that you used to return them.

I haven’t personally tried it, but my friend Megan is clearly all about it. Rent the Runway is great for trying out trends and enlivening your wardrobe. 

Le Tote

The most casual of the three, Le Tote asks you questions to determine your style profile, then presents you with options that you can save to your favorites. It will ship you a box which you keep as long as you want, then send back. If you want to buy something, just keep it and you’ll be charged a discounted price for it. Prices range from $39 to $59 per month.

I tried the service out, and I was a little disappointed by what was offered: lots of muted colors, loose cardigans and jackets, and sensible patterned wrap dresses. I managed to pick out a few things, but it was a struggle. The items arrived in a box with plastic bags.

On a Monday when I had a meeting, I put on the slim cut, blue button down, black leggings with patterned black leg panels, and the tiny rose gold heart studs that had come in my box. I looked at myself in the mirror… I looked like a mom. My fear was confirmed when a few hours later I found myself walking behind a woman pushing a stroller who was wearing my exact same outfit – blue, slim-fit button down, black leggings, black sandals. Then, a chic New Yorker passed me on the subway stairs wearing the cool version: blue off-the-shoulder top with bell sleeves, tailored trousers, black pointed loafers. I had more success with an LBD I got, which was cute, though sort of cheap and thin. My fiancé said I looked, “stunning.” Out of my next tote, I kept a pair of Levi’s jean shorts and the spike studs. But the studs got pockmarked after wearing them over the weekend to the beach.

Overall, I would say Le Tote doesn’t have clothes that would get a creative New Yorker like me excited, but they would serve a working woman who doesn’t want to wear the same things to work every single week very well. Le Tote is good for conservative women who are on a budget and need good work clothes.

Overall

Unfortunately, there’s not currently a fashion rental service that focuses on sustainable and ethical fashion – that would be quite a niche. They do include some sustainable or ethical designers and brands. Le Tote has Levi’s, Rent the Runway has Mara Hoffman, AMUR, and Donna Karen, and StyleLend has Reformation, Mara Hoffman, Suno, and Stella McCartney. So you could look at renting conventional clothing a couple different ways. You could feel guilty for supporting the purchase of conventional fashion by these rental companies. Or, you could look at it as reducing overall consumption of conventional fashion.

Have you tried clothing rental services? What did you think?