By Iris Yeung and Eric Park
Kat Wu, a student at the Chinese International School, wore a floral embroidered black dress at her Year 11 graduation prom two years ago. Her dress was just as glamorous as any of the others but there was something special about her prom outfit – it was rented from an online platform.
Wu, now 17, recalls spotting a student discount advertisement when she was browsing the website of Yeechoo, an online clothing rental platform two years ago. She was impressed by the cheap rental price and rich variety of designer dresses. After her first fitting in the company’s showroom in Central, she decided to give dress rental a go. The rental fee of the dress was HK$380 for four days while the retail price was HK$2,400.
The rental service helped Wu save money and time since she did not have to visit numerous boutiques to hunt for her dream dress. “If you look at the price of dresses that are marketed as prom dresses, the high-quality ones are very high, like in the thousands,” Wu says. “If I were to buy it, I would spend significantly more than just renting it.”
Yeechoo introduced Hong Kong to the idea of an online “shared wardrobe” in 2014. The business allows customers to rent dresses from more than 200 designers for as little as one-fifth to one-tenth of the retail prices. Rented items are properly dry-cleaned after each use to keep them in good condition.
One of its co-founders, Abby Zhang, says the inspiration behind the startup stemmed from a common problem that many women have experienced. “We realised that we always end up buying dresses that would only be worn a couple of times so we asked ourselves: Why can’t we create a sharing closet so that we don’t need to buy every single time?”
In the United States, online fashion rental businesses like Rent the Runway are doing well but it is not easy to replicate that successful business model here in Hong Kong. Yeechoo is now a fast-growing startup with more than 30,000 users, but Zhang reveals it was tough going in the first year. She says even though Hong Kong has a culture of dressing up for special occasions, unlike in the U.S., most Hong Kong consumers have little knowledge about the concept of a shared closet.
Her company has made a great effort to educate local consumers about the idea of sharing a wardrobe and how it is different from the service offered by second-hand clothing rental companies in the city that lend wedding outfits and formal suits. “In the U.S. they are more open to the second-hand market. You can just purely say rental services, second hand, all that. But for Hong Kong, I think the marketing message is that we don’t really focus on rental. We tell people more about the lifestyle they’re choosing. This [renting a dress] is lighter [less burden on spending], smarter and cooler,” Zhang says.
The company started by providing a rental service for cocktail dresses and evening gowns, Zhang says. It now offers a wider variety of clothes including daily wear. Customers can join a monthly subscription plan under which they can rent six designer pieces at a fixed price. The package targets young professionals who need to change their work outfits constantly.
Established in the beginning of this year, Prêt-à-Dress is the latest player in the market. Company owner, Ellen Ng, carefully selected around 500 luxurious fashion pieces for rental. The rental fee is set at 10 to 20 per cent of the retail price. Most items in her collection are dresses by famous designers, including Elie Saab and Vera Wang, and the collection is renewed from time to time. Having worked in the fashion industry for more than a decade, Ng decided to step into the clothing rental business because she could see its potential in a fashion-forward city like Hong Kong.
“There are so many fashion trends and new things for girls to try out nowadays. You would not invest too much on a single, exorbitant piece. Maybe you would wear it for only a couple of times, then you would find out that it is no longer a trendy item after two or three months. You would want to wear something new for the next occasion. That is why the rental model is getting more popular,” Ng explains.
The fashion industry has always been trend-driven. The cheap price tags on fast fashion encourage consumers to buy more garments just to keep up with the ever-changing fashion trends. Ng says her dress rental platform can serve as “a different version of the fast-fashion trend”, as her service allows customers to try out different styles on a small budget.
Ng says her customers vary widely in age and occupation ranging from university students looking for party dresses to tai tais going to charity balls. She has also seen young women in a panic who drop by her place in Central without any idea how to dress for a formal event. Her job is to help clueless customers by providing constructive styling advice. She says such a tailor-made and thoughtful service gives added value to a customer’s experience.
Elaine Fong and Joey Li started running a wardrobe sharing and clothing rental platform, Wardrobista, in February last year while they were still working full-time – Fong in retail clothing and Li in the IT industry. As an industry insider, Fong says the problem of clothing waste is very serious in Hong Kong.
“I am a practitioner in this field. I have seen so much waste created by the fashion industry. Lots of waste is generated at each production stage, starting from sampling to unsold products,” Fong says.
Established on the basis of a “shop less, rent more” belief, Wardrobista has a mission to make the local fashion industry more sustainable by promoting the concept of sharing under-utilised dresses and bags. They hope their customers will still look fabulous without being guilty of harming the planet.
The platform now has around 200 dresses available for rental. About 40 per cent of their collection belongs to their customers who list their barely used frocks for hire. Under its “share your dress” initiative, those who collaborate with the platform can earn a 25 per cent commission for each successful rental.
“A dress might only be worn twice or thrice a year; it is left idle most of the time. But there are people who might want to wear this dress for different occasions. That is how resources should be better utilised,” says Li, explaining the rationale behind the initiative.
“We hope people can think twice before buying new clothes. Do you really need an extra piece? Or you just need a dress for an occasion? If it is the latter, why not rent it or share the piece you have with others to extend the life of the garment?” she says.
Ada Wang would agree entirely. The 44-year-old who works in a publishing company is a strong supporter of clothing rental. She often struggles about what to wear to gala dinners, weddings and other social events. Before trying dress rental service, she bought five to six evening gowns per year for a few special occasions and ended up a collection of gowns which she no longer wears in her wardrobe.
Wang stopped shopping for fancy dresses after she found she could hire gowns. She says she no longer has to worry about being caught for wearing the same outfit more than once by her friends on social media anymore as she can always rent a different dress. Since all rental dresses are kept in good condition, Wang says her friends cannot even tell that her dresses are used items.
She now congratulates herself for being a huge supporter of dress rental which saves her money – and space in her wardrobe. “Lots of space is freed up in my closet now. It is no longer suffocated with clothing waste that I will not wear,” Wang says.