Karen Spencer has always loved buying new clothes. When she grew tired of a designer dress, she would often sell it on eBay to make some of her money back.
But 15 months ago, a friend asked her if she had considered renting out her wardrobe instead. It was an idea she had not come across before. She put a few items on a clothing rental app and was pleasantly surprised when she made £100 in the first week.
Soon, she was hooked. She has now made more than £20,000 and rents out about six or seven dresses a week. Ms Spencer, 49, from Thaxted, Essex, uses the money she makes to invest in new pieces and rent other people’s clothes from the platform.
She has about 170 items listed. And she is not the only one cashing in on the expanding clothing rental industry. As the cost of living crisis bites, many Britons are realising they can rent high-end clothing and accessories at a fraction of the retail price.
The global online clothing rental market is worth an estimated $2bn (£1.8bn) and is expected to double in the next 10 years, according to analyst Future Market Insights.
The app Ms Spencer uses, By Rotation, has seen a tenfold growth in users since March of last year, accompanied by a fifteenfold rise in listings.
Other firms have reported similar spikes. Cocoon, which specialises in designer handbags, said the number of its customers has risen by nearly 150pc in the past year. For The Creators, which rents maternity and postnatal clothing, said orders have increased by 221pc in the same period.
Ms Spencer, a college principal, said she has stopped purchasing “fast” fashion. “I’ve been able to invest in better pieces and not have the guilt of ‘Oh my goodness, I’ve bought this but I might wear it once for an occasion or a wedding, it might sit in the wardrobe for a year and then I may sell it and only get 20pc of what I paid for it’,” she said.
When Ms Spencer was made an MBE last year for services to education, she purchased a £650 Saloni dress for the ceremony. She said she would have previously cringed at spending so much, but has been able to get a good deal of it back by renting the dress out.
She uses the app to try out new designers and styles before buying items, and often rents accessories. She has borrowed bags for going out for meals with friends and other social occasions. For a birthday she recently rented a Stella McCartney dress.
‘I felt a million bucks for less than £70’
Others have had more modest gains, but say apps like these are saving them cash. Kristina Pittam, 27, from south-west London, earns about £60 a week renting out her designer clothes.
She also rents about three or four times a month from services such as Rotaro and Hurr. “Maybe if I was a little bit older and a bit further into my career, I’d be able to buy some of these pieces that I’m renting,” she said.
“But I think I’d probably still end up wanting to rent them out to people so they’d also get to try them.”
Ms Pittam, a social media marketer and consultant, sees renting as a more fulfilling, sustainable consumption model that could be key to making fashion a less polluting industry.
For a gala at St James’s Palace, she went to Hurr’s pop-up location at Selfridges to try on some dresses before the event, settling on an outfit that included a feathered handbag with a crystal embellished handle. “I got to rent a whole outfit and paid under £70,” she said. “I felt like a million bucks.”
Parisa Crewdson, who asked for her last name to be changed, pays £100 a month for a membership with Cocoon, which rents designer handbags worth up to £3,500. “I own quite a few designer bags and I’m always getting really bored of them,” she said.
Ms Crewdson, 32, from Cardiff, said the “budget-friendly” nature of the subscription is part of the appeal. “I am finding that bags are becoming more and more expensive,” she said.
Before the pandemic she said she would have been able to buy a high-quality handbag for £1,000 – but a similar purchase would now set her back at least £1,800.
‘I couldn’t wear the clothes I wanted’
Kavya Chauhan, 33, from east London, rented clothing during her pregnancy and while she was breastfeeding her daughter.
She bought a few staples to wear regularly – maternity jeans and a few tops, plus coats that were a size bigger than she usually wore – and used For The Creators for holidays and date nights.
She said she did not want to accumulate maternity clothing that would not get much wear and would take up space in her flat.
Ms Chauhan, a freelance marketing consultant, said: “When you get pregnant you know your body is going to change but I actually found it weird.
“I felt a bit lost. I couldn’t wear the clothes I love and had to find some other options, so it was really nice to find clothes I genuinely liked.”