For special occasions, glamorous evening gowns, chic separates and the latest It Bags are right at our fingertips, thanks to rental services. Tuxedo rentals have been the norm for decades, even before the Internet existed. For the actual wedding dress, though, not so much.
In 2018, game-changing juggernaut Rent the Runway launched offerings for wedding guests, bridesmaids and everything nuptials-related for the bride: bachelorette party, rehearsal dinner, etc. — everything but the traditional big day gowns. So, what gives?
In the U.S., renting fashion has become increasingly popular due to a confluence evolving consumer values (thanks to sustainability-minded Gen Z and millennials) and effects of the global pandemic. According to a 2020 study by Statista, the value of the U.S. apparel rental market will steadily grow from $1 billion in 2018 to a $4.4 billion by 2028. The crossover with the North American bridal gown market, which Statista projects to reach $3.23 billion in 2021, should offer an opportunity for disruption, following in the footsteps of direct-to-consumer wedding gown concepts like Azazie, Grace + Ivory and Lace & Liberty. But consumers still need a nudge.
"It's like in every American movie, [a wedding dress is] handed down by the mother. There's some sentimentality of keeping the dress," says Elizabeth Galbut, co-founder of SoGal Ventures, which invests in DTC customizable wedding dress brand Anomalie and online wedding planning service Zola.
In the U.S., a wedding gown can symbolize heartfelt customs and traditions we're so attached to, and even involve the rituals of multiple fittings. "Just getting over the, 'I want it as an heirloom' and 'I want it perfectly tailored to me' are the two hurdles to get over," says Aaron Cheris, a San Francisco-based partner at Bain & Company. The luxury retail expert, however, suggests keeping an eye on the resale space as a weathervane for acceptance and adoption of the bridal rental model, as well as a way for prospective customers to become accustomed to wearing a pre-owned piece, especially for such a life event.
The numbers look encouraging: According to a study by research firm GlobalData for Thredup, fashion resale (not including thrift and donation) will balloon from $7 billion in 2020 to $36 billion by 2024 as retail shrinks. The same study found that through 2021, just 9% of shoppers plan to purchase more luxury, while 52% plan to buy less. The Lyst Wedding Trends 2020 report, meanwhile, found that search for wedding dresses including the words "vintage," "second hand" and "pre-owned" are collectively up 38% year-on-year. (Cheris, however, warns of Covid-induced germaphobia, which rental disruptors would have to consider when developing and marketing cleaning protocols.)
In Asia, renting wedding dresses and related celebratory ensembles is standard. "It doesn't really make sense to just buy a dress and wear it once, then put it in your closet, throw it away or sell it again," says Marco Chiang, co-founder of Wedding Dress for Rent. The online-only service is an offshoot of CEO (and Chiang's spouse) Rae Zhang's bridal rental and retail boutique, Casaluna, which she founded in 2014 in the P.R.C. As the business took off in Mainland China, Zhang designed an in-house line and created relationships with international luxury brands, including Pronovias, Vera Wang and Rosa Rosa, to acquire a substantial inventory of gowns.
In 2018, Zhang and Chiang sensed "a shift" in attitudes toward wedding dress rentals in the U.S. "We figured that it makes sense to try it out in the States and see how it goes," says Chiang, who handles operations and customer service out of San Francisco. But compared to Casaluna, Wedding Dress For Rent's segment of the overall business is "tiny compared to China," says Chiang. "It's not even comparable."
With SEO built into the name, Wedding Dress for Rent experienced a spike in business over the pandemic year, with clients scrambling for rescheduled nuptials and Zoom ceremonies. "I would say there has been anywhere between a 50 to 70% increase in calls and customers," says Chiang, adding that his clientele is majority East Asian. (The company also rents traditional Chinese qipaos.)
With demand so high, Chiang and Zhang actually put growth and marketing/advertising plans for the U.S. market on pause. "But, even then, we were already almost overwhelmed," he says.
Keeping enough inventory of gowns, especially popular styles — and in a diverse range of sizes — to meet the demand creates an immense challenge to scale, especially for disruptors. "You have to have a very large inventory to be able to have availability, and that's a huge capital cost up front," says Galbut. "So a startup would need to have some sort of unique competitive advantage in either creating inventory at low price, like if they're a manufacturer or work with a manufacturer, or having some unique capability of getting materials at lower prices."
Weddings are also seasonal: The summer and fall months involve high demand, while, as Cheris points out, a bulk of offerings may be "sitting around for six months of the year," instead of generating ROI on the investments.
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Lukh (pronounced "look") is on the forefront of the rental game over here, along with a handful of chic South Asian wedding-wear rental disruptors, including Borrow the Bazaar and Rani Runway. The Chicago-based online service offers traditional ensembles for bridesmaids, guests and brides for the multiple events surrounding the wedding — but not the main ceremony look, which brides prefer to purchase custom. Lukh also emphasizes educational support, as many of the renters may not be familiar with South Asian wedding traditions. "You could actually consider us almost like a cultural concierge services for those occasions," says co-founder Karen Desai.
The year-old start-up partners with a factory in Mumbai for its private label offerings, which include beaded and embroidered lahengas and vibrant silk ensembles. This allows Lukh to recoup investment costs faster.
"It also is helpful for us because it's a quicker turnaround to have inventory [in stock]," says Desai. She and her team work with the factory to "curate" traditional South Asian designs and incorporate American style trend elements, gleaned from frequent Instagram polls and customer feedback.
Another variable factoring into profitability is "number of turns versus inventory," says Cheris — or how many rentals an outfit can generate while still remaining rentable and pristine. He points out that the "combo math" of creating the most optimum formula has made it harder for rental startups to scale. Prominent bridal styles, like minimalist slip dresses and crepe sheaths, may hold up for multiple dry cleans, but elaborate beading, delicate lace and extravagant floral appliqués — not so much. Plus, the repeat washing expenses would eat into margins, unless the dry cleaning facility is in-house, like Rent the Runway's, which happens to be the largest in the world. Never mind real estate costs: "[Wedding gowns] take up a lot of space," says Chiang.
For Desai, Lukh's launch year has offered its own educational experience in maintaining the embroidered and embellished silk fabrics: "I quickly learned that intricate beadwork does come off after like, two wears, and then you dry clean.... "
Lukh has pivoted to "more pattern-based" offerings and enacted extra quality control for sewn-on embellishments. On the Chicago-end, the team quickly "increased efficiencies" in keeping similar embellishments and patterns easily accessible to quickly replace and repair beading in between rentals, she says. Desai and her team continuously experiment and test combinations of the sturdiest fabrics, embellishments and silhouettes.
As far as Rent the Runway's bridal offering goes, "I'm never gonna say, 'never' — I'm not saying that [wedding gowns] will never become a part of our offering," says Sarah Tam, the company's Chief Marketing Officer. "But, with weddings being really high stakes, we don't want to disappoint our customer with any dress that we can't alter to her specification and fabrics that won't last through our dry cleaning process."
Tam and her team have found the most popular fabrications, not requiring tailoring for a well-received fit, include crepe, wrinkle-resistant materials and lace with stretch. With Zoom nuptials, civil ceremonies and micro-weddings proliferating over the past year — and weddings becoming less traditional overall — interest in ready-to-wear alternatives, like midi-dresses, jumpsuits and separates, have increased. (Interest in "white dresses" on the platform jumped from the 25th most searched term, in before-times, to eighth since June 2020 — to still remain in the top 10.)
Size diversity is another advantage of offering ready-to-wear as compared to traditional bridal-wear, which, as a whole, still struggles with offering an inclusive range of sizes. Galbut, who's skeptical at best about the viability of wedding dress rentals in the U.S., does perk up at the prospect of disruptors determining a cutting-edge way to solve this persisting pain point in the market. "It's a huge opportunity, even from a design perspective," she says. "Can somebody design dresses that actually can transform into different shapes and sizes that are more inclusive?"
Lukh offers specially-designed adjustable sizing on certain pieces. For example, blouses and some dresses have mechanisms for renters to easily take in or loosen the backs for an ideal fit; strategically-placed zippers and strings also allow clients to alter the fit at home. "The goal is to innovate much as possible," says Desai. Next on the list: designs with detachable sleeves and shoulder covers, which also respect the different culture and religious traditions throughout South Asia.
Wedding Dress for Rent allows reversible alterations on dresses, but the field is wide open for technological advancements — or innovative updates on traditional services. "Highly specialized tailoring will come into play in bridal in the future with rentals," says Tam.
Cheris also muses on personal tailoring services sent to clients' homes for high-end bridal rentals, similar to Net-a-Porter's at-home shopping consultations. Riffing on ideas, he considers combining models: "If I ran a rental business, I would try to buy off of the used market, in good condition, rather than buying new. Because then I can actually afford to rent it to you for a lot less." He compares wedding dresses to used cars, in that "once it's off the lot, it's a lot less valuable." (Although, Borrowing Magnolia, which launched in 2015 as a resale and rental service, evolved into resale-only after an acquisition in 2017.)
Brands with a bridal category could consider rental as part of their overall offerings. Bain &. Co.'s recent LuxCo 2030: A Vision of Sustainable Luxury report found that "by 2030, rentals could represent 10% of revenue: an item rented a typical 20 times generates a profit margin of 41%, while enlarging the luxury customer base with new customers for whom the brand would have otherwise been out of reach." Of course, securing lifetime brand loyalty may not be a priority for a bridal-specific brand, as wedding dresses tend to be one-time purchases. But for fashion houses offering — or expanding into — bridal, the strategy could generate another income stream, while speaking to sustainability.
Still, Cheris points out that brands may be "cautious" about giving customers the direct choice between renting and buying new: "Because if I trade you down, I've just lost a bunch of money. If I'm Vera Wang, as soon as I validate — or give credence to — the rental model, does it blow up my whole model?"
Brands could partner with a third party for rentals, in the same vein as selling at a discount at outlet malls. "That way I can segment customers," Cheris says. "The customers who are willing to put forth the effort, they can go get my stuff at the outlet. If they go to my regular showroom, then, great. I can sell them something at full price."
Galbut has a related suggestion for luxury bridal brands: offer in-house rentals of accoutrements, like overskirts or capes, to clientele already purchasing a gown. For profit margins on the brand side, those items tend to be made of resilient (and less expensive) materials like tulle, and the dress category remains in tact. "It's more an upsell to increase your average order value proposition than to completely cannibalize yourself," she says.
Because the interest is out there, according to Chiang. "'I've looked everywhere and I couldn't find anywhere that have wedding dresses for rent,'" he says. "That surprises me because it's like a no-brainer. Just having seen that world and understanding the economics of it."
Rent the Runway has been approached by "a lot of traditional wedding brands" to discuss ways of introducing official bridal into the company's mix, Tam says: "I just have a feeling we're on the tip of the iceberg. The forward momentum is going to be fast and everyone's thinking about it."