Racked is no longer publishing. Thank you to everyone who read our work over the years. The archives will remain available here; for new stories, head over to Vox.com, where our staff is covering consumer culture for The Goods by Vox. You can also see what we’re up to by signing up here.
Jackie Lerner, a Peloton employee living in Williamsburg, estimates that she attends about 10 weddings a year.
That number might seem wild, but Lerner, who is 29, says the stat plays out right: “I’m at the age where all of my friends are getting married, and I’ve probably been to about a billion bridal showers,” she says.
Normally, Lerner would have to splurge on countless outfits for all of these affairs. Except she’s got a secret little shopping hack of sorts: a subscription to Rent the Runway.
“I look at dresses in my closet that I bought a few years ago and I’m like, ‘Wow, I can’t believe I spent $700 on a Diane von Furstenberg dress’ that I’ve only worn a few times. Why would I buy anything now when I can just rent it?”
For frequent wedding attendees like Lerner, RTR is a welcome salvation. The 8-year-old startup that brought in $100 million in revenue last year has completely changed the game for wedding guests. Sarah Tam, RTR’s senior vice president of merchandising and planning, tells Racked that while December is a busy month for the company, with customers renting for the holidays and company parties, RTR’s busiest times of year are March through June, and August through October — aka wedding season.
“Rent the Runway has really changed the way a woman thinks about her closet, especially for special occasions,” says Tam. “The pressure of getting just the right outfit for every wedding is daunting, and choosing from something like 5,000 styles that’s noncommittal is quite the popular choice.”
And while it might seem excessive to some to give so much thought to someone else’s affair, Tam says it's become standard — especially considering the average person wears just 20 percent of their wardrobe.
“I think the sharing economy has really changed how people shop and spend money, and so our closets are changing too,” she says. “There are now whole categories where shoppers can buy, sell, trade, and rent with tech.”
Rent the Runway members pay several price points to opt into the service. Some pay per rental, some opt for a pro membership of $29.95 per year that gets them free shipping and insurance, and others use the unlimited subscription for $139, where three items can be rented and swapped out at any given time. And while the last option might sound like a pricey subscription to add to your monthly costs, Juliette Dallas-Feeney, the director of brand marketing at M.Gemi, who has an unlimited subscription, says it’s way more cost efficient than shopping.
“I was spending way more on each dress, and it was annoying because I was buying things that I couldn’t even wear majority of the time,” says Dallas-Feeney. “Shopping for dresses has become such a waste. I definitely spend less money on clothing now.”
Dresses available can start as low as $30, and go up to $200, with clothing from designers like Yigal Azrouël, Monique Lhuillier, Elizabeth and James, and Marchesa. The company offers jewelry and accessories too, although they still haven’t hacked the sanitary confines of getting into the footwear space.
Alex Sher, a Raleigh, North Carolina, resident who works for a market research company and has a RTR pro membership, notes that many women in their late 20s and 30s “don’t want to wear crappy clothes anymore, but also can’t afford to buy $300 dresses 11 times a year.
“Rent the Runway,” she says, “has become a necessity.”
Sher used to live in New York, but says she got rid of most of her nice clothing when she moved to the South, and so even if she did find something she’d feel compelled to invest in, “I would look ridiculous out here.”
“Out of town is way less dressy than New York — you wouldn’t even wear heels to the nicest restaurant here. So why would I buy something if I am literally wearing jeans and a T-shirt every day?”
Sher adds that she’s looked into other subscription services like Stitch Fix, but chose to stick with RTR in the long run: “My issue isn’t that I don’t have good style and need someone to pick out my clothes; my issue is that I don’t have access to the kind of dresses I want at all time, and don’t want to buy them.” She prefers the site’s search and filter options, where she can edit styles down to event, color, and style preference, “which is so much nicer than having to go out shopping, hit three different stores, and then return home with nothing,” she says.
These days, Dallas-Feeney adds, even if someone does decide to splurge on a dress, the amount of wears it has has is limited thanks to social media.
“If you go to a wedding and take photos in a dress you own, you probably can’t wear it again, especially if the next wedding is in the same social circles, and especially when so many of the weddings I went to were all in the same season” says Dallas-Feeney. Rent the Runway benefits from this social anxiety, because the need to wear something new to every wedding no longer needs to translate to buying something new.
Of course, not every RTR rental is a stellar experience. Sher says that any time she’s tried to experiment outside of the usual styles she wears, like opting for a crop top and ball-gown skirt instead of an A-line silhouetted dress, it’s been a disaster — a product of not living near RTR’s brick-and-mortar locations in New York, Illinois, and California.
Other users point to a failsafe tactic, though: relying on RTR’s unrivaled community of user reviews. With 6 million active members, popular styles on RTR come with hundreds of reviews and photos. While some of the clothing might be similar to items stores like Nordstrom, Bloomingdale’s, and Neiman Marcus carry, RTR users say they like to comb through the photos to find women who’ve tried the item and are also their size — something you can’t exactly get with a regular retailer, where the clothing can only be seen on stick-thin models.
“I’ve gotten down to a science: I only rent items that have photos with people who look like they are the same size and measurements on me, and that have good reviews,” says Lerner. “If it doesn’t have reviews, I won’t even consider it.”
And, with the startup owning one of the largest dry cleaners in the world, RTR users can agree that after a sweaty night of dancing and boozing, it’s pretty great to not have to worry about cleaning rented formal wear.