The last two years have been a string of pearl-clutching moments for Lord & Taylor loyalists. They were shocked when the beleaguered department store announced it was selling its New York City flagship to the co-working giant WeWork, then fought sobs as the company shuttered that store entirely this past January. When the news broke this summer that the seven-year-old fashion rental business Le Tote was acquiring the 193-year-old brand for $100 million, it sent shoppers into a tizzy.
“One of the fears I heard was, ‘I don’t want to rent mascara or a swimsuit or a bra,’ ” said the store's new chief executive, Ruth Hartman . “We don’t want you to either."
But the merger of the two brands was a symbolic victory for the rental fashion business. For the past decade, these startups have made the concept of borrowing a designer dress for an event as normal as renting a tux. And as they’ve increasingly begun renting everyday workwear to women — and seeking out physical toeholds to recruit new customers — it’s pushed the rental fashion industry into the mainstream.
It’s been a big year for rentals: Rent the Runway, the fashion rental business commonly credited for starting the trend, is now celebrating its 10-year mark and gained coveted “unicorn” status as a billion-dollar business. The company, launched by two Harvard Business School graduates, is setting itself up to expand its physical presence in Boston.
Christine Hunsicker, the founder of the plus-sized clothing rental service Gwynnie Bee, landed on Fast Company’s list of most innovative companies for the launch of CaaStle , a clothing-as-a-service platform that runs rental services for stores like Vince and American Eagle. The peer-to-peer fashion app Wardrobe, which lets users share clothes from each other’s closets, raised $1.5 million in November.
And no less than Vogue declared rental fashion as the future: “What at first felt like a fun, relatively low-cost way to try before you buy has now legitimately altered the way women shop and dress.”
When Le Tote bought Lord & Taylor last month from The Hudson’s Bay Co., it became the first digitally native brand to acquire an established brick-and-mortar retailer.
Hartman, 55, was appointed to her new role as chief executive of Lord & Taylor after working as chief merchandising officer at Le Tote. She has been in retail for three decades. As she toured the Boylston Street location last month, introducing herself to employees preparing for the holiday rush, she reminisced about selling men’s furnishings there as a Simmons College undergrad back in 1984.
It was a simpler time. A time when people bought things.
But as she rode the escalator up to the store’s second floor, Hartman pointed to a clear sign that the department store was entering a modern era: a newly installed Le Tote design studio where customers can sign up and be fitted for the service. Eventually, Hartman hopes, Le Tote subscribers will be able to borrow a dress from the store, then purchase a pair of heels or a lipstick to complete their look. And it’s only a matter of time before the merchandise in Lord & Taylor makes its way into Le Tote bags, she said.
But Kenlyn Jones, an assistant professor of fashion design at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design, sees the surge in fashion rentals as a confluence of trends.
“It’s the minimalism movement — Marie Kondo told us to dump all of our stuff, and it struck a chord,” she said. “Consumers are concerned about sustainability. And people are much more interested in experiences than in owning things. Fashion rental is kind of a new experience. You get something new, but you’re not tied down to it.”
And there’s the undeniable fact, she added, that life in a time of Instagram means never being photographed in the same outfit twice.
The maturation of the rental industry has taken on other manifestations.
After years renting dresses for formal events, the cofounders of Rent the Runway noticed a trend: Women were throwing a blazer over the dress they’d borrowed and wearing it to work. Now the company has an unlimited service that lets women borrow and return four items — be it fancy or workwear — as often as they like for a $159 monthly fee.
Women are “supposed to show up dressing for the job you want,” said the company’s cofounder and chief executive, Jenn Hyman, but that’s often impossible when their clothing costs more to buy and dry clean than men’s clothing does.
The company now says it makes the majority of its revenue through its subscription services — which like its other program includes insurance to cover stains and tears — as an answer to those “pink taxes.” It’s set up drop-off boxes to expedite returns at several Nordstrom stores and in the building lobbies of financial firms (700 women now use the service in Goldman Sachs’ New York City offices alone, Hyman said). The company also has retail storefronts in New York, Chicago, California, and Washington, D.C., where customers often arrive in the morning to dress themselves for work.
Now the company has set its sights on Boston.
Hyman was in town to recruit subscribers. The company has beencourting local influencers and installed a return drop-off box in the West Elm store in the Fenway. The placement is strategic: Rent the Runway recently began offering pillow and blanket rentals in partnership with the store and sees housewares as one of its biggest growth areas.
They’re not alone. Earlier this year, Ikea announced it will soon begin renting furniture like its Billy bookcases and Malm dressers for a monthly fee.
Hyman said her company’s aim is to disassemble the pride of ownership — a mantra that has underpinned most commerce over the past century.
“We have been sold a myth,” she said during her visit to Boston. “One that has convinced customers to make irrational choices” based on always needing “more or new,” she said. Rent the Runway allows its subscribers to “wear more and own less, with the variety and freedom without the burden of ownership.”
Nikoleta Lirantonakis, the owner of Best Dressed, the five-year-old South Boston store with more than 1,000 formal dresses for rent, said she was excited to see the rental market go more mainstream. When Rent the Runway had a shipping snafu in the fall, it sent dozens of new customers through her door, and many liked the idea of trying on a rental dress and supporting a local business, she said.
“The more popular it becomes, the more business we get,” she said.
And Nicole Peters, an executive assistant who was shopping in Lord & Taylor last month, said it was thrilling to learn the department store she and her mother had shopped at for decades might soon offer rentals — in part because it could break her habit of stashing bags in her car to hide them from her boyfriend, who frowns on her shopping.
“Brick-and-mortar needs something new,” she said. “Nothing changes if nothing changes.”
Janelle Nanos can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @janellenanos.