Photo: Instagram / StyleTheory
Shopping has slowed to a trickle for self-confessed shopaholic Olivia Victoriana since she started renting outfits. The 26-year-old, who subscribes to clothing rental service Style Theory, used to spend about $60 to $80 a week on new dresses. Now, the business analyst, who started renting last year, shops only occasionally. “Renting definitely helped me to cut my shopping budget and save money. I shop about once every two months now,” says the bachelorette, who is Indonesian and a Singapore permanent resident. She pays $129 a month for a Style Theory subscription, allowing her to rent three outfits at a time and get three more once the first batch is returned. “I try to maximise my subscription so I get four deliveries a month and I have new clothes every week,” she says. Asked if she minds that the clothes have been worn by others, she says: “No, not at all. I know they are dry-cleaned, so it is fine.”
The warming reception towards clothing rental has given the industry legs. At least five such companies – Style Theory, Covetella, Style Lease, Rent A Dress and Runway Rent – have launched here in the past two years. Style Theory, which opened in January last year, stands out for its subscription model. The other four companies rent out formal evening dresses for $60 to $500 a dress for four days inclusive of dry-cleaning. These companies have a showroom for customers to try on the pieces and also offer minor alteration services. Demand has been growing, with founders reporting as much as a tripling of revenue in the past year. They say that they cater to a new market of practical shoppers – professional working women in their late 20s to early 40s who realise that renting affords them an unlimited wardrobe at a low cost.
The rise of the sharing economy – where people share goods and services directly with one another with the help of the Internet – has also helped pave the way, says Ms Regina Yeo, adjunct senior lecturer of marketing at the National University of Singapore’s Business School, pointing out that shoppers are now more willing to experiment with new ways of consumption. She says: “The sharing economy mentality has led to younger customers who are more accustomed to the likes of sharing a cab with strangers or sharing a stranger’s home while on holidays. They may be more open to renting clothes now.”
MORE FOR LEASE
The clothes rental concept is not a new one. In the United States, companies such as Rent The Runway, Style Lend and Couture Collective, set up in the last four to eight years, popularised clothes rental. American news website Business Insider US reported that Rent The Runway earned US$100 million (S$136.4 million) in revenue last year. Asked why Singaporeans have started renting dresses now, Covetella founder Carol Chen, 35, says shoppers here are becoming more practical in the slow economy. “It is all about being financially savvy. Renting is also a lower financial commitment so people are more willing to be adventurous with different dress styles,” says Ms Chen, who started the company in June 2015 out of her living room.
The former beauty queen began by renting out her own dresses – about 60 of them amassed from her days as a beauty pageant contestant. The demand was so good that she moved to a 1,200 sq ft shop house in Chinatown two months later. This April, she moved again, this time to a 3,000 sq ft space in Henderson Road. The bachelorette says revenue has doubled annually in the last two years. She charges $60 to $500 for dresses for four days. Shoppers have more than 1,000 outfits to choose from, including pieces from luxury brands such as Gucci, Vera Wang and Tom Ford.
Rent A Dress founder Shuen Chiu, 29, launched her company in Singapore in 2015 as she felt the market here was ready for such a concept. “Singaporeans are generally more exposed to these concepts. They are well-travelled and know about rental companies abroad. I feel they are more receptive to renting,” says Ms Chiu, who started the company in Kuala Lumpur in 2014. The firm has a showroom in Pasir Panjang Road, charges between $80 and $160 a dress for four days and offers labels including Badgley Mischka, Marchesa and Self- Portrait. Founder of Runway Rent, Ms Teo Peiru, 33, also saw a gap in the market. The owner of bridal boutique La Belle Couture says that few stores here rent out formal gowns that are modern and stylish, yet not too over the top.” There are stores that rent dresses for brides, but we want to provide women fashionable styles and sleek yet simple designs for formal occasions too,” she says, adding that her dresses cost between $70 and $270 to rent.
Regular renter Gursheel Dhillon, 29, rents formal dresses as it is the more practical choice. The Singaporean, who runs a marketing agency, rents a dress from Covetella almost every month for work events and parties. “They take care of the dry-cleaning which is great because, after a long event, you just don’t want to think about that,” she says, adding that renting is kinder on the wallet. “If I’ve to buy a new dress every time, it’s such a waste to wear it once and then keep it in the cupboard.”
“With the same amount, I can rent a few dresses and still look like a million bucks.”
CLOSE TO 8,000 PIECES FOR RENT
Subscription-based rental company Style Theory has found a niche in the rental space in Singapore. According to co-founders Raena Lim, 28, and Chris Halim, 28, the Singapore-based start-up has more than 1,000 subscribers and close to 8,000 people on their waiting list. The company, which started in January last year, gets customers to pay $129 a month for unlimited access to its collection of almost 8,000 clothes. Customers pick three items a delivery. They get to choose another three once they return the previous batch. On average, subscribers get two to three deliveries every month.
Speaking to The Straits Times about the company’s business model last week, Mr Halim, who is Indonesian, says: “There are different ways to consume fashion. But with a subscription, you can have free-flow access and customers can realise their dream of having an infinite wardrobe.” Though he declines to disclose revenue figures, he says the company has been growing and they expect to break even some time next year. The idea for Style Theory came about when Ms Lim, a self-confessed shopaholic, realised she was not using almost 80 per cent of her wardrobe, which had “thousands of pieces”. She says: “I realised I hadn’t worn most of my clothes in a year and Chris asked me how I could keep buying clothes and still say I have nothing to wear.”
The couple went to the same secondary school in Singapore and started dating in junior college. Both attended the University of British Columbia in Canada – Mr Halim studied computer science and business while Ms Lim did finance and human resources. They are not married. Prior to starting Style Theory, Mr Halim worked in Indonesia as a management consultant while Ms Lim worked in Singapore as a finance associate. Ms Lim, who is Singaporean, says: “We asked ourselves if we could leverage the sharing economy to build something that would solve the problem of women always feeling like they don’t have clothes to wear.”
Style Theory started with a capital of about $20,000 from private investors. It received seed funding in July last year. The company began in an 800 sq ft unit in Tanjong Pagar with 150 subscribers, 40 labels and about 900 pieces. It moved into its current 3,500 sq ft space in Pasir Panjang in November last year. It now has more than 1,000 subscribers, 90 labels and close to 8,000 pieces of apparel. The clothes take up more than half the space in the unit and Mr Halim says they will probably have to move again soon.
Besides expanding the office in Singapore, the company also intends to expand into Indonesia in the next few months. Mr Halim, who is based in Jakarta, says they have hired staff for an office there. In Singapore and Indonesia, the company has a team of 50 people including buyers, packers, marketing and customer service staff. On why people want to subscribe to Style Theory, Ms Lim says: “Some come because they are looking for new designers to try. Some want to be more sustainable with their lifestyle, either environmentally or financially. And some come because they just don’t want to keep wearing the same clothes every day.” “They can see the value proposition in this. The biggest lifestyle change we’ve seen is that people spend less on buying items they will wear only a few times.”
Ms Ang Jin Yuan, 30, founder of dress rental company Style Lease, used to spend close to $1,000 on evening dresses that she would wear only once or twice. Realising that her formal dresses could be put to better use, the former financial adviser decided to start a company renting out these dresses so that women could access them at lower cost. Speaking to The Straits Times last week, Ms Ang says: “I bought two dresses from BCBGMaxazria at about $900 to $1,000 a piece. The second time I wore the dresses, I actually didn’t feel like wearing them. “You just don’t feel like repeating your outfits, but I felt like I had to increase the mileage of the dress.”
She started Style Lease, a self- funded venture, as an e-commerce platform in December 2014, with 50 dresses kept in Ms Ang’s home in East Coast Road. The businesswoman, who is engaged, then moved to a 300 sq ft showroom with one fitting room in East Coast Road in mid-2015. “When we moved to our first showroom, business started really picking up because people could come and try the clothes.” It was then that she left her job as a financial adviser and plunged full-time into Style Lease.
By the middle of last year, Ms Ang realised she needed a bigger showroom. “The dresses were taking up too much room and we needed more fitting rooms so customers would not have to wait so long. “Style Lease then moved to its current 1,200 sq ft location in Circular Road. It now has more than 500 dresses. Labels include American brand Vera Wang, Filipino brand Monique Lhuillier and evening gown retailer Adrianna Papell. Dresses cost between $80 and $480 to rent for four days, including dry-cleaning. Customers can choose to alter dresses slightly depending on the piece. Alteration charges range from $10 to $30. But Ms Ang says beaded gowns and those with lace hems cannot be altered.
But that does not seem to have turned customers away. Fitting sessions are by appointment only at the showroom and usually take 45 minutes. Ms Ang says they take about 100 to 150 fitting sessions a week. Customers are working professionals in their mid-20s to early 40s and she says sales have more than tripled in the past year. She is also planning to expand the inventory by this year to include a winter coat collection. “Coats can be pricey as well and we don’t have winter here, so we wear them only during our holidays. But people want to have a few different looks when they take lots of pictures.”
Asked why she thinks more are now willing to rent, she says: “With a few different dress rental companies now in Singapore, I think it has helped people become used to the idea of renting.”
There are also companies such as Spotify, Uber and Airbnb that also promote this idea of sharing something you do not own. This is the new trend. She says this does not apply only to the young. “Everyone is more exposed to the sharing economy now. It’s the new way of doing things. It is about access more than ownership and people are okay with getting to use things without buying them. “Renting no longer decreases the utility of the item.”
This article first appeared on The Strait Times, 10 August 2017.