Does Anyone Need an Unlimited Wardrobe?
Late in February 2018, my partner walked into our living room with a bottle of Champagne and a little black box. He asked The Question, I said yes, and we toasted. Some time later, my mind beelined toward all the event-specific outfits getting married would entail. Because if there was anything to be gleaned from the endless parade of engagement parties, bridal showers, and bachelorettes I’d been to over the past several years, it was that being a bride-to-be meant wearing more white than I had in the rest of my adult life combined.
That’s because to wear white is to tempt fate, to trigger a heavy period two weeks early, to tip red wine down the front of a pristine blouse, and invite all stainable substances to a party on your pants. With this and my limited closet space in mind, I concluded that it was finally time take Rent the Runway for a test drive.
A company that sits at the intersection of fashion and technology, Rent the Runway markets itself as a “closet in the cloud,” and indeed it is a carousel of ever-revolving clothing and accessories, attractively displayed on your smartphone or computer screen. Members can rent a single item for a fee or subscribe to a monthly package: The “Refresh” includes four items per month and costs $69; “Unlimited” is the pricier tier at $159. It starts with the same four items, but these can be exchanged for others as often as you like. (Shipping, dry cleaning, and insurance are included.) The premise is framed as liberating and empowering, as well as a sustainable alternative to environmentally sketchy shopping habits: a bottomless closet, guilt-free.
This year, the company celebrated its tenth birthday, and I have friends who have sworn by it for almost as long. Last year, CNBC named Rent the Runway the ninth most disruptive company in the world, and its rise makes perfect sense in the context of our Instagram-obsessed era: Photos that would have once wound up in cellophane sleeves now cycle through social media, which has turned up the pressure to always be wearing something new. Yet, there is also a growing tension in our closets: As the repercussions of fast fashion and throwaway culture accrue and become impossible to dismiss, it’s clearer than ever that consumers need to take a long hard look at their buying habits.
The summer after getting engaged, I worked at a magazine in downtown Manhattan, surrounded by chic women in brands I lacked the sartorial pedigree to recognize. Once, the elevator opened to reveal Anna Wintour clad in a rust-colored maxi-dress and gorgeous leather boots. I stared down at my Teva sandals and humidity rumpled skirt and considered the gulf between the way I looked and the way I wanted to look for the duration of our ride. Not long after, I subscribed to the “Refresh” Rent the Runway package, which turned out to be the fashion version of a gateway drug.
At first, my goal was to test things I could potentially wear to my wedding and related events. Predominantly white orders would arrive in their iconic navy pouches, carefully hung and wrapped in plastic. Concerned about the waste, I appreciated that RTR encouraged members to send everything back with the bag for reuse and recycling, though I did find myself thinking about what the near-constant cycle of shipping and returns was doing to my own carbon footprint. (Spoiler: Nothing good.)
I would try on the selections, debating the merits of an Opening Ceremony shift versus a Rebecca Minkoff skirt and Derek Lam blouse. In the past, labels hadn’t meant much to me, and it didn’t cease to seem bizarre that a cardigan cost hundreds of dollars just because it bore a Marni tag. The things I wound up liking most and sometimes even purchasing (Rent the Runway gives the option to keep rentals for what is often a deep discount) wound up being simple, well-made staples from brands I already loved: an elegant A-line dress by Mara Hoffman, a puffy sleeved Amanda Uprichard top made from heavy, flattering fabric I had coveted on Shopbop before deciding to wait until it went on sale.
But something about having access to brands that were otherwise beyond my financial reach made me feel like I needed to prioritize costliness to get the most out of my subscription. Sorting selections by price and scrolling from the most expensive end gave me a strange thrill. When I realized that my RTR membership did not come with access to the full closet, I made a deal with myself: If I stopped shopping completely, I could switch to the unlimited tier. The subscription price doubled, a cost that I justified by telling myself that it was money I would have spent on clothes anyway.
The beauty of the unlimited subscription was that I could wear thousands of dollars of clothes for a flat monthly fee, which I otherwise tried not to think too hard about. At our rehearsal dinner last November, I wore a white lace dress by the brand Alexis; at nearly $585 retail, it was far more than I ever would have shelled out for a party dress, but, as a rental, left me with zero regrets. An $895 tiger print Proenza Schouler skirt was perfect for a dinner over the holidays but not something I would have wanted to keep in my closet for good; a gorgeous pink velvet Monique Lhuillier blouse was a statement I didn’t feel the need to make more than once. And, of course, if I changed my mind, I could always have rented either again.
Though it was true that I did not experience renter’s remorse, I also knew that I could have found pieces — to keep! — that would have cost less than the money I was forking over to RTR. A complicated logic looped through my brain, tangling up on itself, as I contemplated the costs and benefits of my choices.
On one hand, I wasn’t buying trendy fast-fashion that would wind up in a donation bin a season or so into the future. This summer alone, consumers will spend more than $3 billion on clothes they will only wear one time; the rise of fast fashion has created environmental, labor, and human rights problems across the globe, and textile waste is an ever-growing concern. In the U.S., 8 million tons of clothing and footwear went into landfills in 2015, according to EPA data; the average American throws out 81 pounds of clothing per year. Rent the Runway makes it possible to wear something once in a way that feels responsible and progressive instead of wasteful. On its site, RTR points out that renting reduces the emissions of manufacturing, and combats the single-use wear problem; the company also extends the life cycle of clothing via donations and sample sales, while also keeping its in-house operations environmentally conscious through reusable garment bags and responsible dry-cleaning, among other measures.
Still, I had my concerns about how my RTR habit was shaping my desires themselves. Access to an unlimited wardrobe is also sartorial sleight of hand, a distraction from a bigger problem that’s easier to ignore than address: namely, why we feel so entitled to the option of unlimited anything in the first place, without copping to the ramifications thereof. At the turn of the 20th century, people had what we might now call “capsule” wardrobes, about one-fifth as much clothing as we own now, which they cared for and mended until it had to be replaced. With the rise of department stores, mass manufacturing, and walk-in closets, attitudes about clothing changed. Today’s wardrobes are a reflection a capitalistic ideology that claims more is always better — one that ultimately runs up against the law of diminishing returns and the reality that too much stuff never made anyone happy.
One afternoon, four months and hundreds of rented items into my subscription, the Screen Time app on my iPhone informed me that I spent nearly an hour a day on Rent the Runway. I had been on a mission to scroll through the entire catalog and “favorite” items I liked to optimize my virtual closet. Looking at that statistic alongside the figures documenting my Instagram and email usage, I was reminded that time, too, is a nonrenewable resource. Suddenly, Rent the Runway felt less like a solution than an obsession. Soon after that, I quit.
In the time since, I have given a lot of thought to the idea of what I want versus what I need, and how the way I want to look intersects with the way I want to buy.
None of this means that I’ve stopped shopping. I am in the throes of a rekindled love affair with vintage and resale, and I continue to give myself a clothing “allowance” of $100 a month. It’s slightly less than my old RTR subscription, but I’m spending it with a renewed sense of value. Instead of putting money toward an unlimited closet full of clothes I can’t keep, I’m trying to retrain myself to save for the things I will want to hold onto for years to come. The aim is to look into my closet and feel satisfied with what is already there. It is also to see myself in the mirror in an outfit that is wholly me, not a look I’m just trying on for the moment.
At the same time, when I look back on my RTR experience, I wouldn’t characterize it as a regret: The clothes I wore in the months around my wedding were aspirational, chic, and a bargain if you tally up the retail prices and compare them to the monthly flat fees I paid. But, more importantly, it took access to an unlimited closet to make me think more critically about my clothes.
I found, instead, a desire to embrace limits and explore doing more with less. And that means, for now, I’m going on an “unlimited” cleanse.