Reading: I Am Rent-the-Runway Curious

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I Am Rent-the-Runway Curious

For a cool $99 a month, you can be the Devil Who Rents Prada. But is it worth it?

By Diane di Costanzo

Photo by Flaunter.com

Maybe this is happening to you, too.

Suddenly, colleagues who mostly wear black — like me — have started swanning around the office in bold, fashion-forward, and clearly expensive garments that they seem to wear just once.

“Where did you get that?” I asked a colleague named Macy, on the day she wore a wildly embroidered, flocked, and glittery mini-skirt.

“RTR,” she said, and then, noting my confusion, “Rent the Runway.”

I want to be an RTR Girl!

RTR was launched in 2009 by two Harvard Business School students as the female version of a tux-rental service, offering gowns and other finery to women who’d rather lease their special-occasion looks than invest in them. RTR still rents evening wear, but the bulk of its business is based on a monthly service that lets subscribers check out designer clothing for work and play, along with overcoats, handbags, and accessories.

Rent the runway is it worth it
The Amanda Upritchard red ruffle winner

The most popular plan, called RTR Unlimited, costs $159 per month. It allows you to keep four pieces at a time, with the option to swap any of them out whenever you like, as long as you only ever have four in your possession. RTR pays for dry-cleaning and two-day shipping. And if you live in New York, Georgetown, Chicago, San Francisco, or Woodland Hills, CA, you can shop the stores — which offer less variety but instant on-site returns and rentals.  

Hardcore RTR users have all but stopped buying clothes, occasionally picking up new basics, but relying on the service to fill their closets. There’s no buyer’s remorse. No over-investing in a trend. No costly fashion mistakes.

It’s the sartorial equivalent of Spotify or Zipcar. Why own anything — leather jackets, music, a vehicle — when you can just rent what you need when you need it?

“I rent everything in my life except my pajamas, my undergarments, and my shoes,” RTR CEO and cofounder Jennifer Hyman told The New Yorker. And, with her MBA from Harvard, she easily demonstrates how the math supports the RTR model. “Our subscribers spend $1,900 a year, and last year the average subscriber got $40,000 worth of value,” she said, adding up the average retail value of their rented looks.

To entice the curious, RTR runs nearly constant new-member discounts, which, for me, meant a first-month RTR Unlimited subscription for $99.

I Come Up EH (Empty Handed)

The month got off to an unpromising start. I decided my first move would be to forgo the depth and breadth of the online shop in favor of browsing the New York City store. Located on 15th Street just off Fifth Avenue, it’s a bustling, sisterly space with women stuffing worn garments into bins, then hitting the racks and dressing rooms to try on new looks. Next comes the real thrill: walking out of the store with four garments that might cost a collective 1,000 bucks, without spending (another) dime.

Me, I walked out empty-handed.

On the day I visited, a lot of the stock was more “run-of-the-mill” than “runway,” with racks jammed with garments from the likes of J. Crew and Tory Burch. The selection reminded me of the Loehmann’s of yore — some great labels but a meh mix of sizes and styles.

Back home, I logged onto the website and, dazzled by the online selection, was soon “hearting” garments like mad, creating individual lists for work, travel, and the red carpet. Just kidding about that last one. But if for whatever reason I snag an invite, I’ll have something to wear to the Oscars.   

I made a few rules for myself: no black dresses, black trousers, black anything. I also tried to avoid my go-to labels, such as Theory, Vince, and Club Monaco.

Rent the runway is it worth it
Me in the chalk-striped dress from Drew

My first shipment included an Amanda Uprichard red wrap dress ($270 retail); a ruffled Drew chalk-striped dress ($276 retail); a Josie by Josie Natori faux leopard jacket ($400 retail); and a long Delfi Collective knife-pleated skirt ($348). The two dresses were a hit, and although I loved the jacket, I didn’t wear it because it was too warm for indoors and not warm enough for outdoors.

The skirt was ridiculous on me: too small around the waist but so long it dragged on the ground. So, only half successful — never mind, it’s all free! — I swapped the Delfi skirt for a Tanya Taylor multicolored tweed kilt ($350 retail). It was too big and, on me, too school-girlish.

The Problems of Guessing Your Size

And now I was two for five, a success rate that starts to reveal the fault in the system. Renting garments from new (to you) designers without trying them on means you’re guessing at your size. Even the copious user reviews and size ratings (“runs small,” “true to size,” etc.) don’t tell you how it’s going to look on your non-schoolgirlish frame. And while mailing back the garments in the pre-labeled bag is easy and free, you can’t order replacements until they’ve been checked back into the warehouse, typically in three days’ time. So there’s a five-day lag between your fashion flop and your perfect (you hope) new look.

I’m not going to re-up my membership after 30 days. But just because the $159 per month plan isn’t for me, that doesn’t mean I wouldn’t recommend RTR to others — after all, the service reports having some 10 million happy customers.

Here’s a list of advice and caveats for the RTR-curious, typed as I close out my subscription wearing a long, knit, ribbed and stretchy Tibi skirt in a shade that can only be described as “creamsicle” ($595 retail). Cute but so not me — which is the whole point.

Is RTR for You?
  • Will you be a guest at a special event like a wedding or the Oscars (and if the latter, do you want me to be your date)? Then RTR Reserve rents single items for four days, sending you two sizes of the same garment. Prices vary but there’s currently a swell Marchesa Notte gown renting for $165 (retail price $1,095), which means you can show up in a celeb-worthy gown for just a hundo and change.  
  • Does a total of four monthly garments (with just one swap permitted each month) sound like a more reasonable investment? Then RTR Update, at $89, discounted to $69 for first-time subscribers, is for you.
  • Do you have more time than money? I found the constant checking in and out of garments, perusing the website and (very good) app for my next look, a pleasant but massive time suck. I did get full value from my month, though, renting clothes with a total value of $3,036, coming very close to the CEO’s estimate of a $3,333 average monthly value of clothing rented.
  • Do you happen to live on West 15th Street in Manhattan? Or near any of these locations? I might still be a member if I could run across the street — or drive with ease — to drop off and pick up my orders, reducing the lag time to just a day or so.
  • Are you a Taurus? If yes, you know we have a hard time being cool about giving up things we love. Pro tip: Check out the clothing that RTR is ready to retire, sold in a clearance section of the app at deeply discounted prices. So I actually purchased a pair of Bailey 44 vegan leather pants ($39, retail price $198) — breaking all my rules, by the way, as they are black, and I own the exact same pant in cotton and velvet. But I love Bailey 44, they fit, and I don’t have to ever, ever give them back.

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