There's a small studio tucked within Manhattan's Tribeca neighborhood that might lead the way toward big change in the luxury fashion market.
The airy, glamorous and sleek space is home to Nova Octo, a mission-focused luxury fashion rental company. Protected behind mirrored walls is a 200-plus product inventory of archival and contemporary luxury wears, many of which include some of the most gorgeous couture gowns by everyone from Elie Saab to Giambattista Valli.
Nova Octo's founder, Silje Lubbe, started the company almost a year and a half ago, with a soft launch in Spring 2018. The former stylist and fashion buyer has a keen, cultural sensibility. Growing up in Norway, eco-friendly practices were her norm. (Norway is both a major oil and gas producer and a strong global advocate of climate change mitigation, with ambitious emissions standards and reduction goals, according to the International Energy Agency.)
Lubbe eventually worked in Kuwait and Dubai, serving luxury clients across the Middle East, where a cultural of ostentatiousness wealth and excess that means wearing an expensive luxury gown only once. (No Tiffany Haddish moments there.) But aside from the flash and ornateness, Lubbe's Arab clients were also looking for couture pieces above a sample size.
Lubbe's experiences in the Middle East coupled with her innate Scandinavian sustainability focus led her to launch Nova Octo. Here's how it works: Shoppers can visit the New York City showroom or the Nova Octo website (NovaOcto.com), which allows you to filter options by occasion, size or designer. Items are available to rent for four days; if you're unhappy with the item you've received and decide not to rent it, you can return it the same day. Temporary alterations are available for the garment you've rented; Nova Octo works with a network of tailors in major cities that the company trusts to make alterations without damaging the garment or comprising its integrity.
In case that didn't sink in, we're talking about renting things like exquisite 20-year-old Oscar de la Renta or Carolina Herrera gowns that are kept in pristine condition. Lubbe doesn't purchase items for Nova Octo in full size runs, instead crafting a curated mix of sizes and styles to ensure you're not ever renting an item that someone else could be wearing at the same time. You can rent for as little as $200, with every price point between that and $3,500.
Aside from Armarium, another new luxury rental company that launched just before Nova Octo, the business of luxury renting is a rarity in the industry — though the industry at large might be shifting. "People used to think renting is tacky. Now it's sort of tacky to spend money wastefully, I think," Lubbe says.
But when it comes to catering to plus sizes within luxury, there's only the option to buy, not rent, at sites like 11 Honoré or some other luxury e-tailer like Farfetch. Currently, Nova Octo only sizes up to 12, though not for lack of demand. When Lubbe worked in the Middle East, she recalls that her average client wore a size 8 or size 10, not sample sizes, and would often have to customize a luxury gown to fit their bodies; luxury's plus-size problem extends well into the U.S. and Europe.
The fact that a new rental company — that purchases its inventory from a mix of private sellers, designers and speciality retailers — can't stock plus sizes, despite its expressed intent to do so, is a reflection of the systemic problems within the industry at large, as noted in a 2018 Fashionista report which found the majority of both luxury design houses and retailers do not truly serve the majority of women.
"There's a shift in luxury, where people are becoming more accepting towards more sizes and shapes," Lubbe says. "And it's really not only just the brands; we need retailers to want to pick up larger sizes, the real issue is there. Department stores have an immense pressure to sell through, sure. But department store evening sections are just sad."
While Lubbe says she's committed to making Nova Octo more size-inclusive as it grows, she's also prioritizing sustainability. Part of that means being "seasonless."
"I don't want to buy new every season at wholesale," Lubbe says. "I want to pick pieces from the market that appear to be 'out of season,' but have a 10-year horizon or longer in terms of wearability."
The "out of season" problem Lubbe alludes to is one in which designers are forced (sometimes by their conglomerate bosses) to produce more new things faster. The consumption culture in which we live is in no small part propagated by social media, and the idea that wearing something more than once on Instagram is unheard of in the celebrity and influencer spaces.
During a sustainability panel during this month's 2018 FashionistaCon, panelists like Mara Hoffman noted the importance of people with a platform in promoting sustainable practices in fashion. Nova Octo is beginning to crack that ceiling, dressing models like Josephine Skriver (with 5 million followers) in Giambattista Valli Haute Couture for the Cannes red carpet. (That piece, which is the most expensive gown currently for rent on Nova Octo's website, rents for $3,500, and retails for 10 times that.)
Nova Octo's commitment to sustainability also includes making things like shipping as eco-friendly as possible. The company is completely plastic-free, using wooden hangers both in showroom and for shipping, garment bags made of high-quality fabrics that are re-used more than 100 times, and stationary and paperwork from recycled paper.
"We added a lot of cost to ensure the needed luxury feel to this, yet being in line with our sustainable mission," Lubbe says.
Another way the company ensures it remains mission-focused: Each rental transaction comes with a 15 percent automatic donation to a charity partner with Nova Octo of the renter's choice. To be sure, 15 percent is an extraordinarily high portion of a sale to donate to charity for a startup company, after considering things like maintenance and cleaning costs that come after each rental — the most expensive part of operating the business, Lubbe explains. It's non-negotiable for Lubbe. "I wanted to put my money where my mouth is," she says.