Some Like It Haute: How a High Fashion Experiment is Revolutionizing Our Wallets, Wardrobes, and World

By Merin McDivitt

Americans — myself included — love nothing more than a quick fix. Constant reinvention and consumerism have been built into our national DNA, from Benjamin Franklin’s self-improvement diaries to Jay Gatsby’s flashy transformation to modern lifestyle brands. Increasingly, these “quick fixes” encourage us that we must pay to achieve our best selves, regularly reinventing our wardrobes and bodies to achieve an elusive ideal. Our newsfeeds, inboxes, and bestseller lists constantly promise us that a perfect life is just one purchase away.

The problem is, this never-ending consumption cycle is terrible for the environment and our wallets. So, as a fashion lover who also cares deeply about sustainability, I’ve been searching for way to have my cake and eat it too. Lucky for me, a new paradigm is emerging in the fashion industry, courtesy of the sharing economy: clothing rentals.

Photographs by Samantha Plouff   Missoni dress,  Modcloth jacket

Photographs by Samantha Plouff

Missoni dress,  Modcloth jacket

This winter, I set out to conduct my own fashion experiment, testing out the Godmother of fashion startups, Rent the Runway, for a month. I wanted to see whether I could finally bridge the gap between the transformative power of a new wardrobe, and my own hopes for a sustainable future. My experiment helped me become more aware of the impact that my habits have on the environment and economy. And, in a wholly unexpected way, it also gave me a newfound personal confidence as I wore the most fashion-forward ensembles of my life.

Unlimited basically works like Netflix for high fashion (back when Netflix still trafficked in DVDs). For a monthly fee — currently set at $159, though you can often find introductory discounts — you select four pieces of clothing at a time, ranging from extravagant evening gowns to Kate Spade purses to upscale daywear, from the website’s mind-boggling collection. They arrive at your house newly dry-cleaned, and you can wear each piece as much or as little as you want. As soon as you return an item, you can order something else to replace it, creating a constantly-rotating dream closet.

Opening Ceremony dress

Opening Ceremony dress

The service is impressively sustainable: because clothes are rented by many people, trendy pieces have a longer shelf-life than they would if you bought them on a whim. One beautiful item can give dozens of women’s wardrobes a boost, and as soon as they tire of it, they return it rather than tossing it into a landfill. The company invests in high quality, well-made pieces that will last longer than throw-away fast fashion, uses reusable packages, and even commits to faux fur and plastic bag recycling. Rent the Runway estimates that every American woman throws away 82 pounds every year. Yes, you heard that right: 82 pounds. I know that I contribute to this waste, purchasing trendy or poorly-made clothes that give me a thrill for a few months, then getting rid of them once I tire of them, and starting the cycle all over again. As the company tells it, the retail industry is the second largest polluter in the world, just behind oil! While it’s not exactly environmentally friendly to ship clothes across the country, on the balance, Rent the Runway struck me as a much more responsible, ecological way to dress. It offered me an opportunity to try coveted, trendy pieces, minus the pricey purchase or the environmental impacts.

I was blown away by Unlimited’s constantly evolving selection of top designers and quirky cult labels. Most of the items were singular and distinctive, making me stand out and feel incredibly confident. Instead of impulse-buying something I saw online, I would simply add another exquisite piece to my Unlimited Queue, eliminating the temptation to splurge and giving me the chance to try any high-end piece before forking over the money to buy it. And Rent the Runway offers discounts on any piece you do decide to buy. The quality of almost every item was incredibly high. My favorites were a forest green Tibi silk top, a lace Marchesa blouse, a Missoni mini-dress, and a Rebecca Minkoff poncho sweater that became so essential to my winter wardrobe, I stalked it online and purchased it for a steal during the post-holiday sales.

Author's own sweater, Carven skirt

Author's own sweater, Carven skirt

I expected Rent the Runway to make me more stylish and sustainable — that was the whole premise of the experiment, after all. But I was also impressed by the effect a perfect outfit could have on my mood, confidence, and creativity. I wore the clothes every time I needed an extra boost of inspiration: when I taught a small seminar class, my first ever, for freshman students; for professional meetings and interviews; even for long days of creative writing. While Unlimited isn’t a catch-all solution to the fashion world’s woes, the service is a great way to address the environmental, economic, and personal issues at the heart of the industry.


Merin McDivittComment