Fashion for hire

Fashion for hire
PHOTO: Rent A Dress

COMMITMENT phobes, rejoice. Apart from being able to binge-watch shows on Netflix without forking out for a box set, you could also wear the latest Self Portrait embroidery-embellished dress, oversized Gucci shades or carry the Saint Laurent Sac de Jour - without paying the full price.

Yes, we live in the age of the sharing economy and fashion, the most capricious of industries, has finally caught on. Apart from riding in Uber cars instead of cabs, and staying in the homes of Airbnb hosts rather than hotels, millennials are also being dubbed "NOwners" for trading, sharing or renting clothes to update their wardrobes. And former management consultant Shuen Chiu is leveraging this disruptive trend. She launched her Rent A Dress site here last year, having already unveiled it in Malaysia in 2014.

"I found myself spending an insurmountable amount of money monthly on exquisite dresses that I would only wear once for an event," says Ms Chiu.

"With an overflowing wardrobe, I thought, 'many other girls probably face a similar predicament and wouldn't mind rotating their clothing with other beautiful dresses'."

Hence, she decided to purchase a wide range of occasion-wear looks such as a Badgley Mischka beaded ball gown in a small range of sizes to start off, altering some of them slightly to fit Asian frames. Customers then click on a design that catches their eye and have it delivered to their homes, before trying it on and holding on to the designer piece for three days. If the dress does not fit, they could return it by paying for just a delivery charge. Dry cleaning and delivery is otherwise included in the rental fee.

Following consistent demand, Ms Chiu began investing in a wider range of designs, such as shorter dresses like a hot pink below-the-knee dress by Australian label Sheike for a night out, and additional sizes to fit curvier body types. And one would think the concept would have Elle Macpherson-esque legs, considering how appearing in the same dress twice in your Instagram feed is downright sacrilegious for a wannabe style influencer.

"Traditional gown and wedding dress rental services have been around in Singapore for brides," notes Ms Chiu. "However, there is a gap in the market that caters to fashion-forward guests of less formal events. Renting dresses for occasions like parties, dinners, events and even clubbing is definitely a newer concept in Singapore."

While the idea of borrowing clothes for a fee might only just be catching on here, the rental of status totes is not novel in our brand-obsessed nation. In fact, former Singapore Police Force officer Tan Ho Ching started his bag rental site That Bag I Want way back in 2007, having chanced upon the idea when reading about similar businesses in the US.

"When we launched this business back then, we thought that it was targeted at a niche market," explains Mr Tan.

"Little did we realise that there is a huge demand for this service. The amazing marketing campaigns by major brands every season create an enormous demand for their handbags and accessories. However, many people are priced out due to the steep costs. Hence this service sort of hit a sweet spot."

Today, apart from renting out traditionally coveted items such as Louis Vuitton Damier bags and Chanel 2.55 flap bags, Mr Tan also includes wallets, sunglasses and even costume jewellery in his inventory. There is also a tight selection of options for men. And on top of a growing pool of customers - 25,000 registered members at last count - who enjoy leasing a purse for a dinner and dance or a wedding, there are regular clients who would be holding on to a bag or two at any given time, and have been doing so since the site was launched.

"You rent a bridal gown hopefully just once in a lifetime but you can a rent a designer bag every week of a year," says Mr Tan.

"From trying out that new 'It' bag you've seen in the latest fashion magazine to getting a clutch that matches your gown for a gala dinner, there are just too many reasons to rent designer bags."

Gucci Blooms GG Supreme Boston Bag and Louis Vuitton Damier Ebene Speedy 30 Bandouliere. Photos: Gucci, Louis Vuitton

Some fans of designer bags also treat themselves to a rental during festive occasions such as Hari Raya or Chinese New Year, while others may be just entering the work force and need a professional looking bag, without yet having the means to buy one. Over the years, Mr Tan introduced a rent-to-own model which allows customers to buy the bags through weekly payment instalments.

"An economic downturn also helps the business in a way," says Mr Tan. "With consumers becoming more prudent when it comes to acquiring big ticket designer handbags during this period, many turn to rentals for their designer handbag fix."

Apart from those who need a little help glamming it up, expectant mums also have a purse-friendly option for expanding their wardrobe in tandem with their growing bellies. Splurging on maternity wear always seems a tad indulgent, but short of sporting the same muumuu every other day of the week, renting maternity dresses is another way to spice up one's sartorial options when pregnant.

"The idea for my business came about when I was expecting my first child," says former journalist Deborah Ng who owns Maternity Exchange, a maternity clothes store and website offering the rental of maternity clothes.

(Left) A mum-to-be at Maternity exchange, a maternity clothes store which offers the rental of maternity clothes. Photos: Maternity Exchange

"I spent a bomb on maternity clothes which were more expensive than regular garments, especially designs by imported brands which I preferred, and got frustrated when they felt tight after a few months. So when my husband chanced upon the idea of renting maternity clothes in Taiwan, we thought it made sense and started thinking about how to adapt the business model and bring it to Singapore in a big way."

At Maternity Exchange, mums-to-be can buy brand new clothes or rent them either through an a la carte system or through rental packages, with the option to buy the looks after renting them. The store also offers a dynamic pricing system whereby the price drops after each rental, so customers can enjoy a pre-loved piece at a more attractive price.

"When we first started, we had to contend with customers opening their eyes in wonder and scepticism when the sales staff mention that the clothes can be rented," says Ms Ng. "But we hardly ever get that nowadays."

After all, the rise of the sharing economy means this new generation has no qualms about temporal ownership. Besides, who needs more clothes when apartments are shrinking to the size of a walk-in wardrobe?

"It has definitely lent a hand in boosting the renting trend," concedes Ms Chiu. "But unlike car or room sharing services that are similar to the decades-old hotel and taxi systems, renting dresses definitely involves the breaking of a life-long habit."

"With the Internet, women nowadays are exposed to fashion brands from around the world, and they are cosmopolitan, busy and social. These factors are driving the popularity of dress rentals which we see as increasingly becoming a lifestyle choice."

This article was first published on March 5, 2016.
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