Whatever you may think of fast fashion—that sharp, available, relatively inexpensive class of almost-disposable clothing and accessories—it's tough to avoid its allure in a pinch. But then the thrill fades (if not the garments themselves). And that stuff that got you excited just a few wears ago turns into closet detritus.
"We said, there’s got to be an innovative way to deal with this, not just a low-cost way of manufacturing it offshore, but a way to give women the variety they want," said Rakesh Tondon when we spoke over the summer. At the time, he and cofounder Brett Northart were prepping to launch Le Tote, which sends its subscribers a personalized tote stocked with an assortment of five apparel items and accessories that can be worn, enjoyed, and exchanged for new ones for $49 a month.
A surge of companies are seeking to satisfy desires for constantly refreshed wardrobes. Many offer new ways for women to discover and buy trendy apparel and accessories and, later, let them unload merchandise in secondhand marketplaces. Think: Material Wrld, Tradesy, and Poshmark. In contrast, Le Tote offers an alternative to actually owning anything outright in the first place.
Instead of giving young, female shoppers yet another way to buy or sell, Northart and Tondon decided to experiment with a subscription solution that’s much closer in spirit to Airbnb and Netflix than it is to, say, Shoedazzle or Stylemint.
"What was really appealing about the rental market is that it’s not so much renting as sharing," Northart says.
Now three months into a beta release, the Le Tote site counts 10,000 members, a growing subscriber base, and a new fall/winter collection to pack into its totes. At its best, the service offer subscribers the fast fashion fix they want, but at a price that’s easily less per month than what one might spend for the equivalent number of items in a store. And when the romance is gone, whether that’s a few days or a few weeks later, so are the items, shipped for free in their tote back to the company. Another assortment will soon follow.
As for the residual perks, they include less closet clutter and a way to sidestep the social suicide that, clearly, awaits any person who appears either virtually or I.R.L. in an outfit that she's already been seen wearing in pictures on friends’ Facebook pages. Or as Tondon succinctly sums up the plight of today’s style-conscious social media user: "Six other friends that weren’t at that party still saw you in that dress."
With the sharing economy never more in vogue and secondhand quickly divesting itself of stigma, the idea of paying to wear clothes for a short period of time before returning them to be cleaned and sent off to the next willing wearer is one that could really only gain traction in the here and now. New York-based Rent the Runway stands as the reigning queen of the fashion rental model, but Northart says that his company is different.
"A lot of the rental models that exist today are meant to give access to super-high-end brands that are really expensive. We’re really trying to add variety to your everyday wardrobe without adding to the clutter," he explains.
Aiming to satisfy its core audience of 18- to 28-year-olds with affection for the sort of style touted by Urban Outfitters and Anthropologie, Le Tote focuses on the kinds of casual tops, statement necklaces, skirts, and dresses that twentysomething shoppers routinely scoop up on quickie shopping missions in preparation for the weekend ahead instead of luxury brands and cocktail-appropriate attire.
To keep quality in check, Northart and Tondon say their team strives to buy durable garments (this is not the place to go for a chiffon top layered in sequins) from its wholesalers at the outset and subjects returned totes to a rigorous inspection process. When items pass their prime, they’re pulled out of the rotation and saved for end-of-season sample sales or donated.
Along the way, Northart and Tondon have learned a few things about their users. They love tops and are likely to embrace clothing and accessories in colors and styles that they’d have never chosen for themselves once they’ve had the chance to try them on. But perhaps the most important thing they’ve learned is that, in fashion at least, sharing is all well and good, until it isn’t.
In response, Le Tote will add an option to buy items in its totes early next year. Prices will range from $15 to $100.
"Subscribers have loved some of the items and they really want to hang on to them," says Northart.