The Fast Rise of Slow Fashion
Normalizing the fashion rental and resale markets in the age of conscious consumerism
By Min Chen
In the not-so-distant past, the fashion industry was rather slow-moving. The long process of sourcing wool, weaving textiles, and hand-sewing garments made clothing a costly investment. While prices were driven down by the invention of the sewing machine during the Industrial Revolution and the 1960s counterculture movement–which inspired young people to use personal style as an avenue for self-expression–fast fashion wouldn’t reach its pinnacle until the late 1990s and 2000s.
Democratizing access to the latest trends made high street leaders like Zara, H&M, and Topshop some of the industry’s most profitable companies. With a retail model characterized by the rapid turnover of cheaply-produced designs, fast fashion’s growth over the past two decades paralleled the rise of social media, where influencer culture has ingrained a ‘no-repeat’ attitude toward our sartorial choices. The byproduct of this model is the exploitation of cheap labor in developing countries and a heavily polluting manufacturing process–all to produce garments that are discarded after an average of seven to ten wears (Ellen MacArthur Foundation).
Luxury fashion brands are also to blame for the industry’s wasteful ways, as many have been ousted for destroying millions of dollars worth of inventory–Louis Vuitton, Burberry, and Richemont, to name a few–for the sake of maintaining exclusivity through scarcity and preventing counterfeit activity.
With the textile market on track to account for 25% of the global carbon budget by 2050, retailers and consumers alike are experiencing an awakening–of sorts. Although fast fashion is still projected to grow to US$44 billion by 2028–up from $35 billion in 2018–the circular economy movement is gaining momentum in tandem (Statista).
Circular fashion is the concept that garment production should not harm human development and environmental ecosystems. It advocates the use of renewable materials, reducing supply chain wastage, and extending the life cycle of clothing through reuse. Reuse is arguably the most effective solution, as it doesn’t produce new materials and lowers the frequency of recycling, which can be a resource-intensive process in itself. Most importantly, the rental and resale markets have a relatively low barrier to entry, allowing the new retail models to evolve quickly and establish a footing in the age of the conscious consumer.
To better understand how resale and rental platforms are disrupting retail, Jumpstart speaks with two startups that are making waves in the space: children’s apparel resale platform, Retykle, and luxury rental destination, Wardrobista. Not only do they reflect the evolution of consumer behavior, but they also point to how all segments of the fashion industry will soon follow suit to integrate resale and rental into their future.
Sparing is caring
Buying consignment or secondhand is a tale as old as time, but the resale platforms of today are working to solve specific problems. Fashion industry veteran Sarah Garner came up with the idea for Retykle (‘recycle’ and ‘tyke’) after becoming a parent.
“I’m most interested in solving this issue for the inherently temporary nature of children’s and maternity fashion, which is particularly wasteful when consumers often turn to disposable items instead of quality purchases,” says Garner.
Being a purpose-driven company means that its values must also permeate into its operations and marketing strategies. The company encourages customers to return packaging for reuse, and shares content and organizes events to educate parents about how to live more sustainably, such as workshops teaching them how to use cloth diapers. Garner says that the company has grown organically through word-of-mouth since its founding in 2016, driven by a broad shift in consumer mindset.
“The more we educate consumers about the perils of their decisions, the more they care and make purchase decisions which reflect their values,” says Garner. “People are becoming increasingly conscious and hyper-aware of how their purchases affect others and the Earth’s resources.”
This shift also encouraged Elaine Fong and Joey Li to explore the potential of the rental model, and they founded Wardrobista in 2017. Fong witnessed the lack of transparency in the fashion industry first-hand, having worked in brand management and fashion merchandising.
“I saw a lot of waste, starting from even the design stage. Consumers can only see what is on-shelf, but they are actually forgetting about what happens behind-the-scenes,” she says.
Aside from the sustainability perspective, the co-founders note that the rental model is also more practical for today’s consumers for being space- and cost-saving, especially for urbanites. Shoppers are more price-conscious due to unfavorable market conditions and the rising price of luxury goods, where even those reporting six-figure incomes [in U.S. dollars] are looking for “discounts or alternative models of acquisition” (McKinsey & Company). Concurrently, ‘Kondomania’ has inculcated a ‘less is more’ outlook on consumer culture.
On the other side of the coin, social media has also perpetuated the culture of overconsumption through accelerating the transience of fashion trends, in addition to setting impossibly high standards for curating a stylish personal brand. Fong says that consumers feel they “can’t really wear the same dress for all these important events over and over again” because of social media.
It only takes opening Instagram to see all the new styles one’s missing out on, as opposed to waiting a month for the next issue of Vogue to arrive. According to a survey conducted in the U.K., one in three young women considers their clothes “old” after wearing them once or twice (McKinsey & Company).
The two conflicting dynamics of wanting more without accumulating more have led to the rising popularity of resale and rental. Online resale grew 21 times faster than traditional retail from 2016 to 2019 (thredUP 2019 Resale Report), and the rental market is expected to expand at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 9.4% between 2019 to 2025 (Grand View Research). For startups like Retykle and Wardrobista, tapping into such opportunities will entail adapting to shifting consumer needs and building trust in the new retail models.
A new definition of ownership
As Asia-based companies, Retykle and Wardrobista have had to craft their messaging to local audiences, who may not be as familiar with the resale and rental concept as Western consumers. Garner says that consignment or secondhand shopping is common and primarily associated with prudence and practicality in North America and Europe, but is less of a cultural norm in Asia.
Fong and Li have similarly observed that rental often correlates to a particular lifestyle in the West; consumers who rent are also likely to make other sustainability-related choices, such as adopting a plant-based diet or using sharing economy services. They note that “even in Asia, there are several types of customers,” but generally, renting is more of a pragmatic decision for them.
Regardless of perception, both companies believe that having a brick-and-mortar strategy is crucial for building trust for new retail models. Retykle opened a permanent store late last year in Hong Kong’s Wong Chuk Hang district after the success of its pop-ups across the city.
“With over 80% of our shoppers having their first secondhand experience with us, we need to establish trust–not only is our product of great condition, but that it’s okay, in fact, to be proud of shopping secondhand,” says Garner. “Often, establishing that connection happens offline, and then our relationship continues online.”
Wardrobista operates a showroom in Causeway Bay, one of the world’s most expensive shopping areas, and organizes monthly pop-ups. Li says that while the company launched as an ecommerce platform, the team soon realized that “online and offline complement each other and help build [consumer] confidence and stickiness.” It was also at these pop-ups that customers asked about listing their own underutilized dresses on the platform.
In 2018, the company introduced its ‘Share Your Dress’ program, where customers can list their dresses on the platform and earn 25% of the rental revenue. Having worked in several leading tech companies throughout her career, Li set out to customize a SaaS application to fit the company’s consignment model, allowing users to view the status of the dresses in real-time and watch as passive income from each rental rolls in.
“We are mixing the B2C [business-to-consumer] and B2B [business-to-business] model; it’s part of an evolution of the new digital world because customers can be sellers as well. Anyone could be a spokesperson and be a part of the company,” adds Li.
Developing new tools will be a focus as the new retail models mature. Garner says that automation is the priority on the tech-side, as managing a large inventory of unique SKUs is a big challenge for resale platforms.
“Any company operating within this space is iterating on its operations to increase the fluidity of product handling,” she adds. “Every week, we are tweaking and modifying our processes to handle more products faster.”
Startups are not the only ones navigating the new retail frontier, as large retailers are now forced to adapt. This development comes as no surprise, as a survey from 2018 found that 72% of consumers prefer to buy from environmentally friendly brands–up 57% from 2013–and 60% would increase their loyalty to a brand with a recycling program (thredUP).
In September last year, Banana Republic (owned by Gap Inc) launched an $85-a-month rental program, ‘Style Passport,’ where customers can purchase the items at any point. Similar subscriptions include Bloomingdale’s $149-a-month ‘My List’ service and Urban Outfitter’s ‘Nuuly,’ which costs $88-a-month. On the resale-side, H&M announced in April last year that it will launch a pre-loved program for its line, Other Stories. Luxury e-tailer Farfetch recently introduced ‘Second Life,’ which enables customers to trade in their designer handbags for store credit.
Although encouraging, such initiatives are sometimes branded as ‘greenwashing,’ or when companies make false claims about the environmental benefits of their products or practices. In August last year, H&M landed in hot water with Norwegian Consumer Authority for misleading consumers about its ‘Conscious’ collection. That said, those in the industry like Wardrobista believe that participation is always a promising sign.
“It’s definitely a good thing that the big players are now tapping into the rental markets because it forces them to be more conscious as a whole,” says Fong.
Looking ahead, new retail startups will have more solutions at their disposal to compete against market leaders, such as rental powerhouse Rent the Runway, and resale marketplaces TheRealReal, Vestiaire Collective, ThredUP, and Poshmark. Resale inventory management company, Yerdle, powers Nordstrom’s ‘See You Tomorrow’ program, which offers online and offline shopping experiences for its pre-loved apparel and accessories, and works with other brands including Patagonia and Eileen Fischer. Banana Republic and Bloomingdales have partnered with CaaStle, a company that offers tech and logistics support for rental supply chains, according to CNN.
Such solutions will also have to cater to the hybridization of resale and rental; Retykle and Wardrobista have both made moves to provide a holistic solution for shoppers. Customers who purchase an item from the former can sell it back once their child has outgrown it, and Wardrobista regularly holds sample sales for its inventory and items listed by its customers. Placing customer feedback at the forefront will continue to guide product diversification as the space evolves.
While it’s clear that we’re far from entering the post-consumerism era, new retail models are proving to be a fruitful start. They serve as an indicator of our times, where sustainability and practicality now top the list in guiding purchasing behavior. For the founders of these companies, education remains essential to bring about real change.
Garner believes that the fashion industry will only shift in earnest when consumers expect radical transparency from retailers, which can be achieved if the media and activists continue to uncover the truth about its wasteful ways. When asked about her aspirations, Garner says she hopes to “build a company that [her] kids will feel proud of and one that the community and [her] team members will feel proud to build together.” Fong also echoes the sentiment of legacy.
“When I was a kid, I was always taught to not be wasteful, and that’s why I grew up to become the person I am now. So I think it’s an educational process–to think before you shop. Ownership is not the only solution.”
Min is Jumpstart’s Editor in Chief.