Renting instead of buying: inside the second-hand fashion market

If you’ve ever discarded an outfit after wearing it just a few times, here’s a store for you

The sales rack at The Clothes Library. Courtesy Sarah Freeman
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"I think everyone in the world should just start shopping second-hand. There is already enough stuff out there without making more stuff," says Sarah Freeman, founder and owner of Sydney's Clothes Library.

As its name suggests, the store (and website) allows customers to rent outfits out, before returning them for others to use, and so the cycle goes. By providing such a service, Freeman – an outspoken anti-fast-fashion personal trainer – hopes to get people thinking about borrowing clothes instead of buying them. "I want to provide an experience that people enjoy, where they can find something they like or need, and get it at a price they can afford. Who wouldn't want to shop like that?" says Freeman.

The Clothes Library store
The Clothes Library store

Mirroring its Antipodean counterpart in the UAE is The Mode, a website launched by Australian entrepreneur Rachel Weyler this year. The difference between Freeman and Weyler's e-boutiques lies in the original retail price of the offerings. While the Clothes Library stocks a handful of high-end outfits and valuable vintage, it also has garments that are priced at as little as 2 Australian dollars (Dh5.33). The Mode, on the other hand, offers designer wear, and while these outfits can be hired for a considerably marked-down price, the website stocks womenswear that originally cost at least US$200 (Dh735).

“If I asked a room of 10 of my female friends here in Dubai how many times they’ve bought an expensive dress and ended up wearing it just once, eight would raise their hands,” says Weyler. “So why not share these pieces around, save the money and have something new to wear every time?”

A Victoria & Woods outfit on The Mode
A Victoria & Woods outfit on The Mode

Cost, quality and other mechanics

The Mode works on a three- or seven-day rental system, and its outfits can be hired for between 20 per cent and 30 per cent of their retail value. So a dress that originally cost Dh1,000 can be rented for between Dh200 and Dh300. Customers can also sign up for a one-month package, which gives you four dresses for Dh500, or an unlimited number of dresses for Dh700, both over 30 days.

“Currently, the dresses are my own or used to belong to my friends, while some are from wholesalers I deal with. However, I am planning to open this up to everyone; 60 per cent, minus the cost of dry-cleaning and delivery, goes to the person who has given her dress,” says Weyler. “An outfit has to be in pretty much perfect condition before we take it on, but most are, simply because they have been worn so few times.” The Mode also offers a personal fitting-room service, in that the driver waits 20 minutes until you can try an outfit (or four) for size and occasion, and if you don’t like it, you pay only the delivery fee.

One of the most popular garments on The Mode is a Rat & Boa dress, which was rented 18 times before Weyler replaced it. “I’ve noticed that black outfits don’t go out as much, as people tend to wear their own multiple times. Statement dresses are more popular, those that are different to one’s normal style, or that someone would be inclined to only wear once,” she says.

Some of the brands currently stocked on the site include Badgley Mischka, Self-Portrait and Zimmermann, plus local designers Dunesi and Sophy G. Hats and fascinators, by milliner Nigel Rayment, and provided by 4422 Millinery, are available for rent (Dh90 for three days), while a handful of unused earrings are for sale only, “for hygienic purposes”.

Earrings for sale on The Mode
Earrings for sale on The Mode

While The Mode takes care of the dry-cleaning once a customer has returned her outfits, The Clothes Library relies on a customer’s good will. This is because Freeman has observed that most shoppers tend to hold on to their outfits for days or weeks on end, or may opt to keep them long-term, an option that her establishment provides.

“We make sure that nothing costs more than 50 per cent of the original price. In-store and online, when you rent a garment, you pay its purchase price. Then you can wear it, get it dry-cleaned and return it, upon which you would get a portion of your money back, depending on how long you had the garment for and what condition it is in when you return it, but normally it’s between 50 per cent and 70 per cent,” says Freeman.

The Clothes Library also has a membership option, with a one-off joining fee of A$100. "If our members have clothes they want to get rid of and if they are in suitable condition, we trade them for 50 per cent of what we think we might be able to sell them for in store credits or 25 per cent cash. And if members refer a friend who joins, they receive either A$25 store credit or A$20 cash, and they can refer as many friends as they like," she says.

Outfits at the Clothes Library can cost as little as A$2 (Dh5.33)
Outfits at the Clothes Library can cost as little as A$2 (Dh5.33)

While their modus operandi may be different, the principle behind which The Mode and The Clothes Library operate remains the same: providing a variety of wear-quality clothes at a fraction of the cost that, most importantly, throws a spanner in the fast-fashion wheel. “The ultimate aim is to revolutionise the industry,” says Weyler. “Consider that 20 per cent of the world’s water pollution comes from treating and dyeing textiles; and some fabrics take up to 200 years to break down. So using a single dress multiple times helps. In addition to the obvious benefit of money being saved, the environment benefits, too.

The case against fast-fashion

A columnist for The National, author of Eco Fashion and ReFashioned, and dean of Dubai Institute of Design and Innovation, Sass Brown has often expounded on the very real threat that the fashion industry poses. Consider: on average, 15 per cent of materials are wasted at every stage of the production process, from fibre to finished garment. Of the 400 billion metres of textiles produced each year, around 60bn metres end up on the factory floor. Textiles such as polyester and other synthetic materials do not decompose in a scalable timeline in landfills, while wool emits methane, a major contributor to global warming. Ninety-five per cent of all textiles are recyclable, but up to 75 per cent of them end up in a landfill anyway.

“The average lifespan of a single-owner piece of clothing is between two and three years, with many items discarded without ever being worn. Clearly that is an incredible waste of resources, not to mention a source of pollution when they are sent to landfill. A clothing library is a great way to extend the life of a garment and keep it in use longer,” says Brown. “When it comes to high-cost single-wear items such as bridal gowns or special-occasion dresses, it makes a lot of sense to rent instead of buy. In the case of childrenswear, this [model] allows you to rent clothing for just as long as it fits, then return it.”

Freeman adds: “To me, fast fashion translates to clothes that are designed to be worn a few times only, and that fall apart or are generally misshapen after a couple of washes. A lot of the garments are rip-offs of designer labels that are mass-produced from low-quality fabric by people working in terrible conditions, and sold at prices most can afford easily enough to buy and only wear them once, and not care. We don’t appreciate them enough to treasure them.”

Getting past the second-hand stigma

Freeman has no qualms in admitting that she has “not bought anything new for years, except for underpants, stockings and black turtlenecks”. But how many of us could or would be able to do the same, much less be unselfconscious enough to tell the tale? “As a Brit, I’ve never understood the stigma around second-hand clothes. We have an undying love of vintage clothing,” says Brown.

“The idea is, of course, culturally linked; in some places, it does have connotations of simply not being able to afford anything else. Personally, I love vintage shopping; it allows me to find and buy designer clothing I couldn’t afford at retail or in season, as well as purchase iconic silhouettes and styles that aren’t available anymore. I see vintage shopping as the opposite of awkward; it is instead an exercise in finding unique pieces.”

Weyler reveals the majority of The Mode’s Dubai clients have displayed candour and posted images of themselves in hired outfits, often tagging her or the website. “I’m sure there are some who may be hesitant, but those who rent from us are open-minded to begin with. They love the idea and are willing to say so. Next we are adding a testimonial option, where customers can pose with the dresses and upload their reviews on our site to give newcomers more confidence in following their footsteps.”

Designer dresses aside, The Mode offers fascinators and hats for rent
Designer dresses aside, The Mode offers fascinators and hats for rent

This is not to say that fast fashion can be eliminated completely, at least not in the near future. After all, we buy clothes to look and feel attractive; need-based purchases aside, shopping is a celebratory affair. But Freeman offers some words of advice: “Regardless of whether it’s new or second-hand, choose clothes that fit properly, that you are comfortable in and that you are going to wear. There is no point in buying something that you will need to get altered if you never take it to the tailor. Look after the clothes you buy: don’t be scared to stitch up a little tear; put a new button on if one falls off; or replace broken zippers. Shop your wardrobe first before buying anything new.”

All three women admit that while there may always be a market for fast fashion, renting and conscientious consumerism are the order of the day. Sharing clothes, supporting local designers (instead of high-street brands) and becoming more conscious of our buying patterns are all key to slowing down the rate of production and, consequently, destruction.


Read more:

Eliminating fashion waste from the source

We’re cottoning on to the idea of upcycling 

Countering consumption with a new-look approach

Beirut sends upcycled fabrics down the runway - in pictures