Last October, Medha Chandorkar decided to reckon with her wardrobe.
The 26-year-old's closet was filled with clothes from H&M and Forever21—trendy and plentiful, but also relatively cheap and disposable. She had some neon crop tops she would pull out just once a year, solely for a concert or music festival. But Chandorkar, who lives in Arlington, Virginia, and works for a startup, was fed up with how the clothes felt, and where they came from. "On many levels I was dressing poorly and unethically," she said.
So she signed up for Rent the Runway, the popular service that lets users try dry-cleaned clothing for a month, and got hooked. These days, Chandorkar said, she owns half the clothes she used to, spends $30 less per month on shopping, and feels far better about what she wears.
"It's allowed me to be creative," she explained.
There is little hidden at this point about the excess and inequity baked into much of the fashion industry. Americans threw away 81 pounds of clothing a year per person, according to one 2016 survey, fabric that generally ends up in landfills or the ocean. Meanwhile, documentaries and media have provided a close-up look at how workers in garment factories—like the infamous Rana Factory that burned down in Bangladesh in 2013—are exploited and hurt in the process of churning out fast fashion. What's different is that after decades of fairly steady growth in the clothing industry, awareness about these concerns has been accompanied by systemic trouble in the retail market. In March, CNBC reported that fashion brands were seeing a dip in sales amid explosive interest in rentals. Among others, popular brands like Urban Outfitters and American Eagle have suffered from declining value, while the once-unstoppable J. Crew has, for years now, suffered through a series of rebrands amid excess inventory. A report last fall from McKinsey & Company, a global management consulting firm, highlighted the pitfalls of the retail sector, and the larger shift away from stockpiling clothes. That shift will take time: According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average American household spent $1,833 on clothes and related services in 2017.
"Rental, the bigger it grows, will have impacts on sustainability," said Raymond Wimer, an assistant professor of retail practice at Syracuse University, who suggested this effect was only poised to get more pronounced. "Rental and second hand will capture some more of the consumer spend away from traditional retail."
Some of this volatility has to do with the continuing online takeover, and infringement on traditional stores by companies like Amazon. But it's also part of a broader cultural shift away from ownership and into a sharing economy. Spurred by a movement toward minimalism and ethical awareness—one sometimes tinged with privilege and virtue-signaling—shoppers have increasingly decided to simply buy fewer clothes, experts and advocates said.
"This is a movement, not a fad," said Rakesh Tondon, the CEO of Le Tote, a clothing rental company that launched in 2013. "People are tired of owning things."
If there's a symbol of the minimalist wardrobe right now, it's Marie Kondo, the Japanese author and host who built a carefully curated empire on her methods of organizing, tidying and scaling back on unnecessary consumerism. At this point many of us have a friend who's held a garment to their chest and thanked it before tossing it in a garbage bag for donation.
But when the Netflix show Tidying Up with Marie Kondo launched alongside New Year's resolutions in January, the impact was felt beyond the home. A spokesperson for Poshmark, an online service for branded second-hand clothing, said the company saw a 64 percent increase in people selling their clothes the first week the show was out when compared to the year before. The company itself was already valued at more than $600 million at the end of 2018.
"I think the average consumer is a little more mindful of what they're purchasing," said Jane Waldron, a seller stylist who has more than 100,000 followers on the platform.
Even traditional brands are catching on: Eileen Fisher, a high-end women’s retailer, launched Renew, a site where people can buy gently used clothing from the otherwise expensive label. And outdoor wear company Patagonia has made a name for itself by teaching customers to fix their own merchandise instead of buying more.
The coveted minimalist closet clearly started gaining traction before Kondo's show. In a survey of 2,900 U.S. internet users by Civic Science last year, 35 percent—especially women and millennials—said they were already minimalists, or wanted to be, partly to protect the environment. And blogs and consultants for capsule wardrobes—i.e. small, selective wardrobes focused only on basics—have cropped up across the internet, urging people to live off of a few dozen pieces of clothing.
Kaleigh Rogers, a reporter for the Canadian Broadcasting Company (and former VICE staffer), said she was captivated by this movement. She decided not to buy any clothes for an entire year, in an effort to cut down on her own waste and habitual spending. "I wanted to challenge myself," she said, "not succumb so much to the unnecessary consumerism."
Even before her self-prescribed no-buying spree, Rogers had culled her wardrobe and tried to focus on high-quality, multi-use clothing. She followed Instagram accounts about minimalism and capsule wardrobes, absorbed Kondo's treatise, and researched ethical brands. But the new mandate still proved difficult: She was tempted to buy new clothes for events, and as an emotional outlet.
"Before, if I was stressed out, I would go shop," she said. "I had to find other ways to deal with my stress instead of that quick high."
This mindset has appeal even to those young people whose careers are focused more squarely on fashion. Harshali Patil, an assistant merchandise buyer in Manhattan, said she used to buy seasonal clothes every month before signing up for Rent the Runway to keep up with trends in her industry. But the cost was high, and she was bothered by the waste.
Now Patil, 23, said she keeps a smaller number of clothes in her closet, and spends money only on basics like socks and underwear. She keeps up with what's new by way of a steady rotation of rental clothing—which she said is increasingly common with her friends in the industry.
"By not supporting fast fashion brands like H&M and Zara, there's more awareness about their unethical ways of incredibly fast turnaround times in keeping up with the latest trends," she said.
Not all of America's latest anti-retail trends are born of wokeness. While some consumers are finding liberation in their lighter wardrobes, others are actually just looking for more choices. Even though the byproduct is less shopping, reducing waste may not be the driving force.
Some of those people are influencers, social media natives. "The rental and second-hand market are really big for Gen Z," Wimer said. "It helps their social media outlook, and it's forbidden to be photographed in the same outfit." For this crowd, consignment sites like ThredUP and Poshmark, as well as the rental services, offer a lower-cost way to keep the 'Gram fresh without hoarding clothes.
Some social media accounts are defined by such choices. Writer and blogger Michelle Chavez, for example, rarely repeats outfits on her feeds, but her bent toward sustainable fashion means she showcases used, fair trade, and environmentally friendly clothing, like a dress made out of banana leaves. And Kathleen Elie, a.k.a. Conscious Chic, talks about fair trade and labor practices while modeling high-end clothing.
Women, the traditionally dominant consumers of clothing, also have a pressing need for choice as they enter the workforce at unprecedented numbers. "There's some global forces happening," said Maureen Sullivan, chief operating officer at Rent the Runway, which hit a $1 billion valuation this year. "Women put more investment in getting dressed to show up for work."
And the work wardrobe becoming more casual, Sullivan said, means fewer staple suits, and more flexible outfits. That's one of the reasons Rent the Runway, which initially focused on clothes for events, expanded into a much broader range of offerings.
Both Sullivan and Tondon, of Le Tote, said with the rising popularity of renting, the demographics of the average customer have changed. According to them, in the time since the companies launched, the average age rose (from early 20s to late 20s for Rent the Runway, and 26 to 36 for Le Tote), signifying a wider distribution across women using the services.
That speaks to a gradual embrace of second-hand and sharing culture, Tondon suggested, whereas people may once have been hesitant hesitant to wear already-worn clothes. "There's more awareness and acceptance," he said. "When you see your friends do this, it validates the feasibility to satiate this need."
That mindset can take some time. Growing up, Chandorkar recalled, her mother thought it best to wear new clothes and seemed to regard sharing or wearing used items as "just kind of gross." But after Chandorkar went to college and started swapping clothes with her friends regularly, renting clothes was almost a logical next step.
"It took a little bit of thinking about it, and redefining," she said.
There are, of course, forces that challenge this new mindset around clothing.
For one, it's new: Only about 13 percent of American's potential rental market is in clothing, according to a survey by JLL, a commercial data and analytics firm. Wimer said the larger clothing retail sector continues to grow, even with this exodus. And stores that are wary of seeing less foot traffic are finding ways to tempt customers with their own subscription-based clothing services, with mixed success. Nordstrom, for example, bought Trunk Club, which sends subscribers a box of new and curated clothes to try on every month, though it appeared to lose value a couple of years after the acquisition.
There are also companies that build off the larger minimalist culture, while still geared toward the purchase of new clothes by higher-end customers. Everlane has continuously branded itself as a fair labor and minimalist brand focused only on basic clothing, although critics have questioned its actual transparency. And companies like Vetta, offering a one-stop shop for a capsule wardrobe, are trying to convince women to invest in minimalism rather than divest from excess clothing.
For those who have already committed themselves to buying fewer clothes, however, the messaging might not be impactful. "Even the best brands are doing something wrong," said Rogers, who has continued to research the ethics behind fashion companies, even while allowing herself to dabble in shopping again now that her year is over.
Meanwhile, Chandorkar acknowledged that the minimalism movement as it stands is steeped in privilege. An unlimited monthly subscription to Rent the Runway is $159, and Le Tote's "classic" membership is $79. "It's not affordable for a lot of people, but it was for me," she said.
But the true benefit, she said, is not being part of the fast-fashion cycle. "The labor rights, the environmental impact, I thought a lot about that. And it came together."
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