Here’s to the end of owning our wardrobes

Naomi Braithwaite, Senior lecturer in Fashion Marketing, Branding, Management at Nottingham Trent University

Fashion rental is on the rise as a sustainable alternative to owning the clothes in our closet. Rent The Runway is doing it, and others may follow. But hold on there: how did we get so caught up on the idea of owning what we wear in the first place? And why is this finally changing, and what does the fashion industry need to know in order to make that change last? So to find out, we asked Naomi Braithwaite, expert on fashion branding and marketing, to enlighten us.

This article is part of the editorial series: The Rise of Fashion Rental Servies

Whether it’s climate impact, working conditions or the lack of model diversity, the fashion industry has been under fire for several years now. A growing group of consumers – and even people within the industry itself – have been increasingly pushing for change. The big question is “How?” This editorial series explores the rise of fashion rental services. And in this article, we address that rental services go hand in hand with thinking differently about ownership. If we rent, we don’t need to own our wardrobes – but are we willing to?

Q: Could you tell us something about today’s prevailing attitude towards fashion and ownership and where it comes from?

A: “In other words, how did we get into this mess? Well, at the end of the day, we generally want to own things. There are, however, some consumers who want to do things differently – and there’s even a company in the US, called Rent The Runway, that caters for their needs. But to most people, owning what they wear is still a priority.

That’s not so surprising. My grandparents, and others who went through or grew up around the war, literally had nothing to their name. Back then, it was fairly normal to rent things – often the only option. So as soon as you had scraped together enough money to actually own something: that’s how you could make an impression. Ownership gave you a certain status. Ownership was a sign of success. It is this drive to own things that has unwittingly lingered on and ultimately started to take on extreme forms.”

“At the end of the day, we generally want to own things.”

Q: How does this explain current consumer behaviour (i.e. fast fashion)?

A: “Things started to change again in the 1980s and 1990s, when mass production and design innovation in fashion made it cheap and easy for consumers to acquire more clothes than ever before. It turned all those people who were already ‘driven’ by ownership into mass consumers. Fast fashion was born.

Now, some would say that when you buy fast fashion, you’re not very likely to feel any attachment to it because it’s so cheap. But what I’ve seen in my research is that we do still feel a connection, but that we’ve shifted that from a financial attachment to an emotional attachment – to the experience of wearing it and the memories associated with that.

So this is actually a side to fast fashion and that can be utilised to help younger generations break the ownership chain and go for fashion rental.

After all, most young people today have less of a connection with war-time sentiments. That makes it easier for them to let go of the idea of ownership that was passed down to them. What they do have a connection with is newness and change – and openness to change. Just consider the impact of social media, where they want to have a new look every day. It’s their need for newness that is fuelling interest in fashion rental. And with less of an attachment to ownership, there’s nothing standing in their way to rent some of what they wear.

This could signify a reversal in the trend in gigantic wardrobes that I often see with women. While it’s great that they are not throwing away all those clothes, some don’t even wear 50% of what they have hanging in their closet. It’s not discarded, but it isn’t being used either. That’s where fashion rental could work so well, by letting them get their hands on that new item of clothing – for one wear, probably – and then extending the item’s life by renting it to multiple customers.”

“For young people it’s easier to let go of the idea of ownership.”


Photo & retouch by Lennert Antonissen
Model Eefje Kouwenberg
MUA Nataly Vasilchenko
Dress by Karlijn Krijger
Concept & styling Nanette Hogervorst

Q: You’re placing your bets on younger consumers (ages 16 to 25) in particular. Is there any proof that they are especially receptive to the idea of shared closets?

A: “Yes, some studies have been done in Germany and the UK, and they do show that people in this age category are more open to do something different. But it has to be convenient to them, and the price needs to be reasonable.”

Q: How does the fashion industry need to change in order to make fashion rental platforms more popular?

A: “There are a couple of requirements for fashion rentals. They need to be simple and effective, and the pricing will need to depend on the type of item, of course. That means more of a focus on dresses and premium denim or suits – things that people may only need one time. That’s been the trend so far, but more day-to-day wear, like T-shirts, could work as well, provided that the quality is higher. There are two benefits to that. Producing to a higher quality would help to counteract cheap, mass production, even of something as simple as a T-shirt. And that would warrant charging a higher price to rent the item, which would make more sense to the rental business.

Still, this should not be seen as a final solution to the problem. It’s a model that could be used alongside the typical ownership models to reduce mass production and continue selling and renting in a more sustainable manner.”

“Our drive to own things has unwittingly taken on extreme forms.”

Naomi Braithwaite-fashion-rental-NTU

Photo & retouch by Lennert Antonissen
Model Eefje Kouwenberg
MUA Nataly Vasilchenko
Dress by Karlijn Krijger
Concept & styling Nanette Hogervorst

Q: “Consumption is an activity that is intended to satisfy needs, improve the self, enable new capabilities and define social relationships.” – Can these needs still be met with rental platforms?

A: “I believe it can, because consumer culture is driven in part by the desire for the new. Fashion rental can facilitate that. The need to own is more of a challenge, but younger more sustainability-minded generations have been doing away with that.”

Q: How do you perceive your role as a researcher in this transition?

A: “My job is to weigh up the barriers and opportunities, understand what makes consumers tick and provide that information to brands.”

“Consumer culture is driven in part by the desire for the new. Fashion rental can facilitate that.”

Q: “The biggest opportunity and challenge is to scale the business and work with big companies. It can only be done with them. They are not open to risk or wanting yet to innovate the change” (F. Disegni, personal communication, 4 May 2017) – Do you agree with this statement?

A: “If you intend to rent out clothes, you also need to think about what materials will work and be easy to keep clean. I think smaller businesses may be more innovative at that. Quality, cleaning and transport are naturally not 100% sustainable, but this is a great example of change. We probably need a bit more time before this hits the mainstream, but things could suddenly start moving quite quickly as rental platforms develop greater competence in our feelings about ownership. That’s what will ensure that this is not simply a trend that will come and go.”

About Naomi Braithwaite

Naomi is a member of the BA (Hons) Fashion Marketing and Branding and the MA Fashion Management Marketing and Communication courses. She is also a PhD supervisor across the Fashion Knitwear and Textile and Fashion Management Marketing and Communication departments.

As active researcher at NTU, Naomi leads a couple of collaborative projects with Hong Kong Design Institute. She works on projects that use ethnographic methods to question relationships between fashion and identity.

Find more about the work of Naomi at the website of Nottingham Trent University and her website addressing Shoes and Material Culture & more.

Visit our event during Dutch Design Week about Design for Circularity in Fashion – #1 fashion rental

Purchase your ticket to this event via Eventbrite. If you buy regular ticket,  you’ll receive a Sustainable Fashion Gift Card of 10 euros – as soon as Fashion platform Our World launches this Gift Card on the market. With your ticket you can also join the tour along circular and sustainable fashion projects at Dutch Design Week, also 25 October starting at 11:00. RSVP for this tour to Please note that this ticket will not include access to Dutch Design Week.


Photogrpaher: Asia Werbel
MUA: Khandiz Joni
Models: Maéna (Body London) and Aldo Heubel

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