Most of us have a no-go zone of unusable clothes in our closets, an island of out-of-vogue outfits that leave us scratching our heads asking, “What was I thinking?” Maybe it’s a frilly bohemian-inspired blouse that was so hip last summer, or a floral button-up that your wife convinced you to buy then decided you couldn’t pull off, or those leather pants that you love but look ridiculous in the office. Indeed, studies have found that at least one out of every four items of clothing we own goes unworn.
Fashion entrepreneur Christine Hunsicker wants to put that familiar experience behind us. As millennials and other generations embrace the sharing economy, she’s become a leader in the rent-your-wardrobe movement. Hunsicker is the cofounder and CEO of Gwynnie Bee, a subscription clothing service for women size 0 to 32, that allows them to go online, pick as many items as they want, wear them as many times as they want, then return them in a postage-paid envelope for different styles.
Today, she shares with Fast Company her ambitious plan to bring that model—and its technology—to the masses.
Hunsicker has launched a new platform called CaaStle—short for Clothing as a Service—that will allow fashion brands to quickly make a portion of their inventory available to customers to borrow for a flat monthly fee. Brands like Ann Taylor and NY&Co have been beta-testing it for several months, and Hunsicker is now ready to officially roll it out.
The Reason To Rent
Hunsicker thinks about fashion in very rational terms, amortizing the price of each garment based on how many times you will wear it. “It is always going to make sense to own your basics, like your denim and black blazers, that will give you a really good cost per wear,” she says. “The piece that we believe will change is for fashion items that are trend-driven or print-driven–the things that you are not going to get as much use out of.”
The appetite for clothing rentals has been growing in recent years. Rent the Runway, which allows customers to rent gowns for parties, has expanded to everyday wear and subscription offerings. In October, the company launched RTR Update which allows fashionistas to rent four designer pieces for 30 days, then return them for four new ones, and since March 2016, RTR Unlimited has offered users access to a rotating closet with unlimited rentals. LeTote lets women borrow clothes for as low as $59 and has launched a maternity version of the service, which has been popular, since most women don’t want to buy clothes for each stage of their pregnancy. Retailer DSW has said it would soon test out shoe rentals.
Gwynnie Bee, founded in 2011, works similarly, offering different subscription packages. Renting out a single item at a time from Gwynnie Bee’s selection costs $49 a month and goes all the way up to $199 for 10 items. The most popular plan is the one where the customer has three items at a time, allowing a woman to wear nine or 10 items a month for $95. If the customer falls in love with an item, they can buy it for less than retail price.
Unlike platforms like Stitch Fix, which selects items for the customer, Gwynnie Bee allows customers to pick everything that arrives in their box. This approach to clothing takes a page from other subscription services in our lives, like Netflix and Spotify, that gives us unlimited access to movies and music respectively, for a fixed price.
Disrupting An Industry
From a fashion brand’s perspective, the clothing rental business means getting more utilization out of a product, much like Airbnb allows people to do with homes, or Uber allows people to do with cars. “You’re able to derive more value from that asset,” Hunsicker says.
Gwynnie Bee, says Hunsicker, has been the guinea pig for testing out her more ambitious idea. “When we started the company, we knew we wanted to disrupt the entirety of the apparel industry,” she says. “Everything was built to support other services.”
Hunsicker notes that when customers are given the option to rent, rather than buy, they make very different choices when it comes to clothes. They tend to take more risks and be more experimental, opting for items that might be a little bit out of their comfort zone. They might pick brighter colors or more fashion-forward pieces, knowing that they only need to wear them a couple of times, then return them. “You can see them, over time, gravitating to slightly riskier items and statement pieces than where they originally started,” she says.
What’s Under The Roof of CaaStle?
To create a successful rental model, brands need to have powerful technology that allows them to identify how much inventory to have on hand, and a warehouse where clothes are dry-cleaned and made to look good as new for the next customer. This allows each item to be rented repeatedly, letting the brand extract as much value from it as possible. “The faster you turn it, the more that you’ll get during the month for that one flat fee,” Hunsicker says.
These were logistics that Hunsicker had to learn from scratch. Until she launched Gwynnie Bee, she had spent 17 years creating complex technology platforms at other startups. The Princeton graduate ran operations at Drop.io, an online file-sharing service and bandwidth exchange that was acquired by Facebook. Prior to that, she ran Right Media, an advertising exchange that was acquired by Yahoo for $850 million. “Let me tell you, that first day, we were like, How do you fold clothing?” Hunsicker recalls. “How does one actually pack a box? It’s very different than just dealing with technology.”
Hunsicker brought on people to figure out the logistics. And now, Gwynnie Bee has this dry-cleaning operation down to a science. When boxes of worn clothes come back, they are cleaned, mended, and pressed. When other brands choose to use Hunsicker’s new CaaStle platform, her company will handle all the warehousing and cleaning operations.
“This is a really difficult business to build and run efficiently, but that is what we like about it,” Hunsicker says. “And that’s why we think there aren’t many players in this space at all.”
With Hunsicker’s CaaStle platform, any fashion brand can instantly become a clothing-rental company. She has already white-labeled her technology for Ann Taylor’s “Infinite Style” program and New York & Company’s “NY&C’s Closet” program. The CaaStle platform looks like just another extension of the brand that employs it—meaning that, as far as the consumer is concerned, it appears they are dealing direct with their favorite fashion retailer.
“We are not interested in getting in the way of the brand’s relationship with the consumer,” Hunsicker says. “We’re actually trying to strengthen that bond.”
Taking Risks With Fashion
Over the last decade, fast fashion has dominated the apparel market, as brands put out cheaper, off-the-runway looks. That model appears to be losing steam, partly because consumers have been more interested in investing in longer-lasting, timeless pieces. Hunsicker believes a platform like CaaStle will provide consumers with an alternative to buying of-the-moment pieces without worrying so much about the environmental or financial waste involved. “They can take more fashion risks and make more differentiated products because they know they can monetize it,” Hunsicker says.
Hunsicker says her new platform has the potential to change the fashion supply chain. Fast-fashion brands don’t invest heavily in manufacturing because it is now the norm for customers to pay very little for on-trend items, wear them for a brief period, and then move on. With CaaStle, even super trendy items need to be sturdy because they will be worn frequently by many customers. Higher-quality factories tend to be associated with better conditions for workers, so there is a chance that this model will lead to more ethical manufacturing as well.
“You are no longer looking to sell this thing that you know somebody is only going to wear once or twice,” says Hunsicker. “Now you can make more sustainable items because you are making the product to last.”
It gives even the most boring dressers among us the chance to be more fashionable by renting out the hottest looks of the season. “Things that monetize the least in retail tend to monetize the most in rental,” says Hunsicker. “It’s a really good complement,”