Fashion rental – you are what you access?

Written by Sofie Li Gao 

You are what you own”, is something that Belk (1988) once argued for. 15 years later this argument does not sound that convincing anymore.

No one has probably missed out on the fact that sharing economy is a growing consumption trend in today’s society. Companies such as Netflix, Uber and Airbnb have in short time grown into business giants, and the number of companies that are capitalizing the trend of utilizing property-sharing is growing.

Recently this trend has started to grow in the fashion industry, and companies such as Rent the Runway and Chic by Choice have entered the sharing market. The business model is to rent out high fashion designer dresses for about 20% of the retail price (Rent the Runway, 2016; Chic by Choice, 2016). This makes it possible for lower income consumers to wear expensive $2000 dresses. But will this trend be as successful as for the movie, housing and transporting industry? Before discussing this question, the concept of sharing economy and the rise of the trend will be explained further.

Rent the Runway (2016)

Rent the Runway (2016)

What is sharing economy?

The principle of sharing has existed in history for long. But what is distinguishing the new form of sharing from the old one is that it is strangers rather than local communities who are exchanging goods and services with each other (Schor & Fitzmaurice, 2015). Furthermore there is usually an organization that is facilitating the sharing to provide with professional help and security for the users. The new way of sharing has been given many names to show its difference from traditional sharing. Two examples are “connected consumption”, to emphasize the digital and social dimensions (Schor & Fitzmaurice, 2015), and “access-based consumption”, with emphasis on the non-ownership dimension, that no transfer of ownership takes place (Bardhi & Eckhardt, 2012).

Why did this become a trend now and not ten years ago?

A common answer by scholars is because of the rise of new media, also known as Web 2.0 (Belk 2014; Bardhi & Eckhardt, 2012; Hennig-Turau et al., 2010). Facebook, Twitter and all other types of digital communication and information channels are connecting people into a larger network. The digital makes it possible for anyone with an Internet connection to share content globally with no marginal costs. It also makes it possible for consumers and companies to communicate in new, effective ways (Hennig-Turau et al., 2010). Most sharing organizations are facilitating their services through digital platforms (Belk, 2014).

Another explaining factor could be the financial crisis in 2008, when many consumers lost their economic power. Many of the organizations facilitating sharing arose during that time and benefitted from the overall price sensibility among people (Belk, 2014).

What are the motives for sharing with others?

There are three major motivations to why people participate in the sharing economy. The first motivation is economic. Peer-to-peer sharing of goods and services is most often cheaper than to buy from traditional businesses (Schor & Fitzmaurice, 2015; Bardhi & Ekchardt, 2012). It also enables access to objects the consumers would not afford to own (Belk, 2014). The second motivation is for environmental reasons, to save resources and maximize the use of every good. For example car-sharing companies argue that sharing cars result in less car driving because people would only drive when they really need to. The third motivation is to increase social connection and build social networks. Some types of sharing involve community building among the peers (Schor & Fitzmaurice, 2015). This motivation has been proved wrong in studies of car sharing, as users often never meet and do not have any interest in doing so either. What motives people have depend on what type of sharing it is regarding (Bardhi & Eckhardt, 2012).

The motive of renting clothes seems purely economical. People use the service to afford wearing designer clothes. The service does not involve any social interactions between the users as everything is handled by mail, and the amount of shippings and dry cleaning makes the sustainability factor questionable. Thus, two of three motives of being part of the sharing economy are not applicable on the fashion rental service. From this, it can be interpreted that the rental users would buy the items instead of renting them if they had the financial power for it.

Rent the Runway (2016)

Rent the Runway (2016)

Sharing in the fashion industry

Rent the Runway is a successful fashion rental company based in New York, founded by Jennifer Fleiss and Jennifer Hyman in 2009 (Bloomberg, 2016). The company initially focused on special occasions such as weddings, balls and other formal events. The dresses worn during these events are usually only worn once, but cost a fortune to own. In a press interview Hyman mentioned how the social media has affected the purchase behaviour of consumers. No outfit captured in a photo on social media can be repeated, because everyone has already seen it. So by renting out designer dresses for about $70 per piece the customers can afford to wear different dresses on every occasion (Bertoni, 2014).

The company recently launched a new concept, where instead of renting the pieces one-by-one, the customer can pay $139 per month, or around $1700 a year, to get unlimited access to the wardrobe of Rent the Runway (Zarya, 2016). This service is comparable to the business models of for example Netflix and Zipcar, that are offering unlimited access to movies respectively shared cars through a monthly fee (Netflix, 2016; Zipcar 2016). This implicates a shift of the concept: from focusing on special occasions to everyday life.

The act of Rent the Runway is further expanding the rental service within the fashion industry. Whether the new concept will succeed or not is still unclear. There are many factors that should be considered in forecasting whether fashion rental will keep on growing. The factors Ownership vs. Sharing, Identity, Contagion and Status will be further discussed.

Rent the Runway (2016)

Rent the Runway (2016)

Ownership vs. Sharing

There are still people who are against the principle of sharing. Ownership has long been the ideal consumption mode in Western society, associated with high status and a sense of security and independence. The traditional rental has in contrast been associated with limited individual freedom, low status and low financial power (Bardhi & Eckhardt, 2012). With ownership comes a long-term interaction with the object, and often the object becomes part of the consumers’ extended self, part of the self-identity (Bardhi & Eckhardt, 2012). We often put meanings to our possessions; we appropriate them to become more personal and maintain the object over time (McCracken, 1988).

On the other hand, a study by Durgee and O’Connor (1995) showed that people associated renting with a sense of freedom, non-commitment and the ease of escaping from maintenance tasks. They felt less pressure when renting, because it would not matter in the long term if they made the wrong choice. The study also showed that car owners sometimes rented cars when driving into tough cities, to prevent any damage on their own cars (ibid.). This low-risk reasoning does however not consider the consequences of damaging rented goods. The $5 insurance fee for dresses from Rent the Runway only covers “normal wear and tear”. More significant damages would result in paying the whole retail price of the item. Moreover, if the item is never returned the fee is double the retail price of the item (Rent the Runway, 2016).

The overall way of looking at ownership seems to have changed. The younger generations grow up in a society where sharing is obvious. This must create a different attitude towards ownership and sharing. Perhaps freedom and flexibility is now valued more than security and long-term relationships with objects. People get bored more easily today, and change is highly valued. To own an item might take away the value of the event. For example riding a limousine would not be as enjoyable if it happened everyday (Durgee & O’Connor, 1995). The same thing with clothes; in today’s society people do not want to wear the same dress over and over again.


Scholars have argued that everything we consume says something about who we are (Campbell, 2012, cited in González & Bovone, 2012). People dress themselves in clothes that signal their identity to others (Simmel, 1957). What happens to identity when you do not own what you wear? After special occasions, the dress will probably not be worn again, which can argue for why the fashion rental businesses have been successful. However, when talking about renting everyday wear, the identity question becomes more complex. Self-identity is linked to ownership (Bardhi & Eckhardt, 2012), so one can argue for that people with the lifestyle of only wearing rental clothes could feel alienated and detached from their self-identity (Durgee & O’Connor, 1995).

Nonetheless, there might be a change in how people identify themselves today. Perhaps self-identity can be found in rented clothes as well. A further thought is that people rent clothes with the purpose to try on different identities in order to find their “real” identity, or to escape from it temporarily.


To consume luxury goods has in history been a way to claim higher status, to show distinction from other social classes as well as assimilation to ones own social class. Fashion is linked to a sense of belonging, to feel identification with a certain status group (González & Bovone, 2012). But when all the high fashion clothes are rented, and not owned by the wearer, it becomes questionable which social group to belong to. It looks like the person is striving for the luxurious life of the very rich ones, but none of the outfits are owned and the clothes have been worn by others. This instead indicates low economic power. Deriving from this theory, people using Rent the Runway’s Unlimited service would neither belong to the “original” designer wearers, nor the ones wearing cheaper clothes. Another important question for the fashion industry is what would happen to the status of designer brands if everyone started to rent designer clothes.

Evidently, the status symbol seems to have changed over the years. McCracken (1988) noted that status in the Middle Ages was decided by patina, i.e. how long the item had been in one’s family. The older the item was, the higher status.  In the Industrial Age, the possession time grew shorter and status was instead achieved by being the first to own new fashions. There has clearly been a shift from longer to shorter possession time. The next phase with an even shorter possession time could predictably be rental consumption.

Rent the Runway (2016)

Rent the Runway (2016)


The fact that the rental clothes are shared and thus worn by multiple users raises questions about contagion. Contagion refers to a feeling of disgust stemming from the awareness of that an object has been physically touched by someone else, normally a stranger (Argo et al., 2006). A study about car sharing showed that the service created fear of contagion for some people (Bardi & Eckhardt, 2012). Clothes are physically attached to human body and would hence be even more of a concern when speaking of contagion. Rent the Runway dry-cleans every piece between rentals (Rent the Runway, 2016), but this will never give the user the feeling of wearing a completely new item.

Moreover, buying second hand is a growing trend (Hennig-Turau et al., 2010), indicating that more people are accepting the fact that others have worn their clothes before. However the concern of contagion will certainly remain for some people, and they will probably always buy their clothes new. Fashion rental will thus never fully replace the traditional retail shops.

Concluding remarks

Consumption choices are based on a number of underlying social as well as economic factors. This article has showed many different perspectives of the sharing economy, displaying its complexity. There are as discussed many implications of everyday fashion rentals.

Consumers could either be positive or negative to fashion rental services, depending on their individual values, and the ratio is unknown. However what we do see is that sharing is becoming more accepted in today’s society. We seem to be moving towards a non-ownership world. But how far it will go is yet to be discovered. It would be interesting for future research to look further into the sharing of everyday goods as well as study the Unlimited service of Rent the Runway, to get a better understanding of the new phenomenon.

More than 40 years ago, Berry & Maricle (1973) predicted an all-rental lifestyle for the future. They said that the products would have become so complex that consumers would rather lease or rent them than bear the responsibility for owning and maintaining them. Perhaps they were right. Maybe “you are what you own” has turned into “you are what you access”.

Word count: 2000.

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