When former Delhi High Court lawyer Aanchal Saini decided to change tack in 2016 and set up an online company to offer luxury clothes for hire, she faced some scepticism from her peers, questioning whether there was even a market for fashion rental.
But more than five years on and she has not looked back. Two years ago, Ms Saini's company, Rent it Bae, acquired India's market leader in the fashion rental sector, Flyrobe, to merge the two businesses.
Operating under the Flyrobe brand, the company today has more than 1 million customers, offering apparel through its online platform, which services more than 30 cities across India and its stores in Bengaluru and Delhi.
An embroidered silk bridal lehenga by top Indian designer Sabyasachi, is, for example, available for rent for four days for 9 per cent of the garment's 500,000 rupee ($6,631) price tag, while a men's three-piece suit can be hired for about 20 per cent of its value.
It has not been an easy journey for the company, however, to convince people to try renting instead of buying when it comes to their wardrobe.
“I always tell people that this is a ‘consumer mindset change’ business,” says Ms Saini, chief executive of Flyrobe. “It requires some years to be spent in this space. When all of us first came to this market, people didn't even know this service existed.”
Fashion rental is still a niche segment globally, but it has grown in recent years in western markets, in particular – underscored by Rent the Runway in the US making its debut on the Nasdaq in October with a $1.7 billion valuation. While the sector is still in nascent stages, industry observers see potential for further expansion of fashion rental in India.
Factors driving the market in Asia's third-largest economy include growing awareness about sustainability, rising internet usage and an increasing appetite for branded and designer clothes at an affordable rate.
The global online fashion rental market is set to almost double to more than $2bn by 2026 compared to just over $1bn in 2021, according to Market Data Forecast. Some analysts see India's online fashion rental market growing faster than the average global pace over the next few years.
Alongside FlyRobe, other companies that offer clothes rental services in India include The Stylease and The Clothing Rental, based in Mumbai.
The sharing economy in general has made gains globally and India is part of this trend.
Kuntal Malia, co-founder of StyleNook, an Indian online personal styling and shopping service for women, which uses artificial intelligence, says that renting clothes does not have mass appeal by any means, but it “speaks to our generation”.
“One scenario where it works fine is the super-premium segment that has a one-time use, for example, an outfit to attend a wedding,” explains Ms Malia. “The other is where consumers are extremely conscious of always wearing a brand’s latest season but cost becomes a factor.”
Fashion rental companies typically professionally clean garments between uses and aim to deliver them to customers in "as-new" condition.
However, factors such as hygiene "do concern Indian customers, especially amid a pandemic”, she points out.
There were other major challenges during the Covid-19 pandemic which meant that fashion rental companies in India, including Flyrobe, were severely affected, says Ms Saini.
Flyrobe’s business largely depended on weddings and many of these were postponed in 2020 and the first half of 2021, when the pandemic and lockdown restrictions were at a peak in the country.
Indian weddings often span several days and are extremely lavish, requiring several changes of outfits for those attending.
These are high-ticket items and a single wedding for Flyrobe could often result in about 200 orders. As this trade dried up for a while, it hit the company’s revenue hard.
“We had to lay off people, shut down stores,” says Ms Saini.
The situation also pushed some of their competition out of business.
But now, with restrictions easing and the economy recovering, weddings are taking place again and business for Flyrobe is back on track, she adds.
The company now aims to open more stores across the country and is looking for funding for expansion.
Althoug Flyrobe is facing increased competition from new players coming to the market, as demand picks up, it has put on hold a plan to launch a subscription programme to generate more revenues from western wear, since it would largely be aimed at office workers.
“Because of Covid, people are not going out as much, people are working from home, so we’ve shelved our subscription plans for a while,” says Ms Saini.
Flyrobe caters to both men and women, and while the majority of its users are women, 55 per cent of the spending comes from its men’s collection.
The company holds its own inventory of clothes as well as enabling designers to rent out their garments through its platform. Flyrobe also allows its customers to lease their clothes, if the garments meet their standards.
Industry insiders say that the pandemic has in fact ultimately boosted consumers' concerns about the environment and sustainability in general, including the impact of fast fashion, as well as prompting many people to tighten their belts when it comes to spending on clothes.
“When the pandemic hit the world, people started [thinking] that they might not need so many clothes after all,” says Rohan Gupta, managing director of Gargee Designer's, a luxury menswear brand, which offers the option to hire its outfits. “They started thinking that they already have enough.”
The company has ambitions to help “change the fashion consumption views too”, he adds.
Japnah Gambhir, founder and designer at Indian fashion house Majestic by Japnah, says that consumers are becoming more interested in the option to access high-quality clothes on rent. At the same time, the reach of the industry is also rapidly expanding with the growth of e-commerce.
“Expensive things are not just for a certain section,” says Ms Gambhir.
Some people “feel that it is better to keep an item of clothing for two to three days, make memories and save money for future needs. It indeed looks better to spend just 10 per cent of the product price than spending huge sums”, she points out.
In addition, it also appeals to the ethics of many millennials and “fashion rental platforms are coming up with plans that can help the environment and make this world fashionable with an ethical approach”.
“With the rental industry [carving] its space in India slowly, people are becoming more aware of its benefits,” Mr Gupta says. She believes that “it might take a little time for everyone to adapt to this concept and the industry to boom”.
Rising internet usage and increased exposure to fashion trends in India is only fuelling the demand for clothes that may not be affordable for everyone to buy. The internet is creating the opportunity for them to easily access these items through online fashion rental platforms.
“With the internet and social media, people are getting more brand and quality conscious,” says Mr Gupta.
Ms Saini anticipates that this will only help the market to surge as acceptance of renting garments grows. She is confident that there will be a shift eventually as companies like hers tackle a problem a lot of people can relate to.
“We always moan that our closets are full but we have nothing to wear,” Ms Saini adds.