Ready to Return: Fashion Rental Is Back

The pandemic hit the world of clothing rental hard. Now, companies like Rent the Runway say the market is booming like never before.

[ – 2021.05.27] It’s been more than a year since the coronavirus brought events and socializing to a screeching halt, prompting much of the United States to settle into sweatpants and stay indoors for months on end. Yet in recent weeks — and particularly in parts of the country where life is edging back toward normalcy — there is a post-pandemic ebullience emerging in how Americans are dressing.

Rent the Runway said it had seen increased demand for bolder and brighter styles. Shipments of mini dresses have doubled this year over 2019. (Hiroko Masuike/The New York Times)

Traditional retailers like T.J. Maxx and Macy’s have reported a surge in apparel sales. And clothing rental platforms such as Rent the Runway say they are reaping the benefits after a perilous year of layoffs and slashing budgets.

Rent the Runway’s chief executive, Jennifer Hyman, said this month that users had been returning to the service in droves. Since a pandemic low last May, there has been a 92 percent increase in active subscribers — lured in part by recent discounts — and the number of customers was on track to outpace 2019 levels by the end of the year. In the New York metro area, the company’s average number of new subscribers each day in May was four and a half times higher than in February.

Jennifer Hyman, Rent the Runway’s chief executive, in 2018. She said its customer was now coming to the service even for small occasions. “She just wants to appreciate and enjoy every moment.”(George Etheredge for The New York Times)

Daring new trends have also started to emerge in terms of what women want to wear — bolder, brighter and sexier styles than ever before. Some companies are calling this peacocking or hedonism, while Rent the Runway has been referring to it as the new “joie de vivre.”

“It is truly surprising that women above the age of 35, women in their 40s, are renting crop tops at the exact same rate as our teenagers on the platform,” Ms. Hyman said.

And as quarantines have lifted, so have hemlines. From coast to coast, mini dress shipments have doubled this year versus 2019. Neon colors and “loud prints” are on the rise.

Rent the Runway’s recovery began as soon as people started receiving vaccines in mid-February. Ms. Hyman said a major factor had been users’ willingness to celebrate even the smallest of occasions — so-called micro-occasions — beyond more obvious events like summer weddings, bachelorette parties, vacations and significant professional moments.