The Sharing Economy

The Spring of My Endless Closet

I tried Rent The Runway's Unlimited subscription. Suddenly my life was filled with fancy possibilities.

By Sarah Rufca Nielsen April 15, 2016

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I never thought much about renting clothes until the beginning of this year. I'd heard, of course, of Rent the Runway, which aims to do for your closet what Uber is doing for cars—but I thought the whole thing rather extravagant. Why pay $50 to $100 to rent an outfit for one night, when you could just run to Nordstrom and buy something you could wear as many times as you want for two to three times the price? 

That changed when I was scrolling through Instagram and saw my co-worker attending the Heart Ball in a curve-hugging gold sequined gown. Her post had plenty of comments, which could collectively be summed up as "damn, girl." When I said as much to her in the office the following Monday, she raved about her experience renting the dress, by Badgley Mischka, from Rent the Runway. Suddenly I realized that my friends who never seemed to repeat a dress at an event—despite the insane calendar of weddings the average 30-year-old attends—were on to something.

A few weeks later, Rent the Runway emailed me asking if I'd like to try out it's new Unlimited rental program, which was at the time in beta mode. They offered me my first month free, which is the same offer open to everyone now that the Unlimited program has officially launched. For $139 ($150 with tax), I could rent up to three items at a time and keep them as long as I want, or return them as quickly as I liked and pick out new pieces. 

The timing was perfect: it was nearly Valentine's Day, and I'd be taking engagement pictures soon after, plus I knew there would be a handful of work-related semi-formal events I'd be attending. I was game. 

The first drawback was that most designers on the site only go up to a size 12, and I wear a larger size than that. Rent the Runway seems to know that the average American woman wears a 12/14, and they've really done their homework, adding plus-size extensions from big-name designers and offering every half-decent brand with larger sizes on their site. But you can't rent out what doesn't exist, and that means the larger size options lean towards brands like Eloquii and Adrianna Papel, which aren't that expensive or high-quality to begin with, and thus aren't that exciting to rent.

For my first outfits I picked three dresses, hoping to find something for a nice Valentine's dinner date. The first dress I tried on was a white sheath with an attached cape by Adrianna Papel—exactly the kind of thing I could have picked up at Nordstrom for under $200. Though it fit, the material wasn't flattering, so off it went. The second dress was a flouncy v-neck by Allison Parris. Despite being the same size as the first dress, I couldn't zip it up. Two down, one to go.

The third dress was by an Italian designer Marina Rinaldi, the rare high-end designer who specializes in plus sizes. I was surprised how thin the fabric felt, and was ready to be skeptical until I put it on. The black and white pattern of the dress was ultra-flattering, and I immediately looked like I lost 10 lbs. The fabric was thin because it was made out of magic. I wanted to wear it everywhere, forever. I always wondered if spending a fortune (in this case, over $800) on a dress really made a difference in how you look. Surprise: it does, or at least it can.

The rest of my unlimited trial followed more of less the same pattern. A one-time rental from Rent the Runway includes a free second size, so you can order both the size you tell yourself you are and the size that is most likely to actually fit, but to do that on Unlimited you'd have to use two of your three rental slots. I'd say about half of the dresses I ordered were too small or too large, so returning them and trying again cut down on how many outfits I was able to wear in a month. There are user reviews which say if an outfit runs big or small, but the system would be improved if Rent the Runway incorporated a universal sizing translator like some online shopping sites have—you enter the size and brand of your favorite dress, and it uses that info to steer you to the right size. 

Still, I loved it. My life became one of those rom-com montages of changing into outfit after outfit. I rented a second cape dress in red and when I wore it to the office one of the interns told me I looked like a character in The Hunger Games (she clarified this was a good thing). I went to a fashion show without a plus-one—for me, a stress-inducing event—and I felt more confident just knowing that my cocktail dress was by Monique Lhuillier, and I looked like I belonged. Wearing just one awesome outfit a week made me feel like my fashion game was on-point every day, even when I was just wearing the basics from my closet. It was a constant excuse to try new trends—statement jewelry, capes, etc.—that I wouldn't want to invest in. And at $150, it was basically what I'd spend buying 1-2 decent pieces of clothing a month. 

Still, there were drawbacks. A couple times I'd select items and then get a last-minute email saying they weren't available, and asking me to pick alternatives. With the unlimited plan, you're picking clothing that Rent The Runway has in stock at that exact moment, rather than reserving something in advance on a one-off rental. This could mean a dress I had my eye on wasn't available when I was picking things out for a shipment. And the turnaround between me dropping a garment in a UPS drop box and the site receiving, processing, and sending the next choice wasn't as fast as it could be—it took over a week in some cases. I learned the hard way not to expect to send something back on Saturday and expect to have something new by the following Friday.

Still, I turned off my subscription after two months last week. As we approach summer, I couldn't justify the expense as much, with less fancy events on my calendar. Less than a week later, I'm back on the sauce. Looking at my options for a wedding this weekend, I decided I didn't want to wear the same dresses I've worn to a half-dozen other weddings, nor did I want to spend $200 to buy a new one. Renting now seems like the natural solution to this situation. I'm hooked.

I am planning on re-instating my Unlimited membership towards the fall though—picking out a romper, a Mara Hoffmann maxi dress and/or Balenciaga sunglasses for my bachelorette party in Mexico, trying out cocktail dresses for my bridal shower and rehearsal dinner, and renting jewelry for my wedding. Or maybe I'll just stop buying new purses and rent a new designer bag every season. Or switch it up with the ultimate trio (dress, bag, jewelry) for a Christmas party. Suddenly, life seems full of fancy possibilities.

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