One of the biggest fashion trends of late: subscription boxes. How we shop is less about a hemline or a specific color but rather whether you want to rent or buy.
Rent the Runway (with its “unlimited” monthly service) and Stitch Fix (itself a $3 billion business) are the Goliaths paving the way. Jennifer Hyman, cofounder of Rent the Runway, frequently points out how the American woman buys 68 items of clothing year, some of which she never ends up wearing. (According to the company, the subscription part of its business has grown 150 percent year over year since it launched in 2016.)
“Social media has created an atmosphere in which, yeah, you could wear the same thing twice, but you’d rather not,” says Rachel Saunders, strategy director of retail strategy firm Cassandra. “So how do you do that without spending a fortune? It’s all contributed to this idea that it’s OK to share clothes with strangers.”
Allied Market Research estimates the clothing rental market will reach $1.856 billion in global value by 2023, with more and more players in the game, like Le Tote and Gwynnie Bee. Naturally, individual brands—ones you’d normally shop at their stand-alone stores or at a mall—now want a piece of that pie, especially as brick-and-mortar shopping continues to decline.
Classic workwear purveyor Ann Taylor, fashion-forward brand Vince, and even trend-focused label Express have all launched subscription services over the last few months that allow shoppers to test a curated selection of pieces at home before either buying their favorites and sending back the rest (and then being replenished with different options). Many of these ventures are being managed by the same company: New York–based CaaStle, which seems to have a lock on the back-end management of fashion subscriptions, at least for now.
So are these services really worth it when weighed against buying clothes outright? How easy is the rental process, really? How good is the selection? And does this mean the end of shopping as we know it?
We compared five of the big brand options (all of which, coincidentally, are being managed by CaaStle) to see how they stack up, what’s worth it, and what’s not. These might be early adopters, but judging by where the industry is growing, it’s likely you’ll see even more of your favorites jump into this space over the course of 2019.
Known for its minimal but still fashion-forward pieces, Vince enters the subscription game with Vince Unfold. To get started you create a virtual closet with at least 10 items (though it’s recommended that you add more than 24), from which the brand creates your first box. Each shipment comes with four pieces. When you’re done with it, you send it back and get four new ones in a brand-new box.
The biggest difference between Vince Unfold and other brand-specific subscription boxes comes down to one thing: inventory. Vince is much more high-end than other single labels dipping their toes in this market, with most pieces featuring three-figure price tags—think silk tank dresses ($345), shaggy bear coats ($695), and oversize cashmere cardigans ($495).
Price: $160 a month. You can exchange your four-item box an unlimited number of times, but you must return your whole box to do so. If you want to keep a piece that you’re renting, you can purchase it at a discount, between 20 and 60 percent off.
Pros: Vince clothes are gorgeous and luxurious, which means that every single item that comes in your box can easily be mixed and matched with whatever’s in your wardrobe. Additionally, the selection of products is pretty vast. You’ll get tons of mileage out of these clothes.
Cons: The price point is high, especially when you weigh it against Rent the Runway’s unlimited offering (which has Vince on its roster). Also, you can’t return pieces individually, only as a whole box, and you don’t pick what you’re getting in each shipment.
TL; DR: While this subscription still makes sense from a cost-benefit standpoint if you’re a big fan of Vince, they could improve on the details. Try it here.
Infinite Style by Ann Taylor lets you rent three pieces from Ann Taylor (excluding Loft and Lou & Grey) at once. You have to select a minimum of eight pieces to add to a queue. It takes about three days to process and another two days to ship; you find out exactly which items from your edit are being shipped to you in an email with tracking information for your package.
Where Ann Taylor’s service really shines is in its abundance of workwear. We found pieces like houndstooth ankle pants (which retail for $98), a tweed sheath dress ($159), and a sequined fringe jacket ($129.)
Price: $95 a month. You can return the complete box for a new one as many times as you’d like throughout the month.
Pros: This is one of the best subscription box options out there if you need a big rotating closet of professional clothing. Plus, you get the option of buying clothes you’ve already rented for 60 to 70 percent off.
Cons: Given the higher price tag compared with comparable services, you have to really love the Ann Taylor look. You also have to return a complete box in order to get sent new product.
TL; DR: This is a solid solution to the what-to-wear problem, with some casual attire and cocktail looks thrown in too. Try it here.
Called the Express Style Trial, this service allows shoppers to rent three items from the brand at a time for $69.95 a month. There’s a pretty big range of merchandise to choose from, all of which feels very current—a striped jumpsuit (which retails for $79.90), a faux-leather-trimmed shift dress (also $79.90), and a satin maxidress ($88).
“We see Style Trial as an complement to our e-commerce and store business, allowing our customers to engage with fashion and experiment with new styles and trends that she may not otherwise invest in,” says Jim Hilt, executive vice president and chief customer experience officer at Express. “It provides our customer with easy access to the latest trends, as well as an ongoing rotation of staple pieces at a fraction of the prices.”
To begin renting, you have to add at least eight items to a virtual closet (though it’s recommended that you add around 20). From that selection, Express creates a box of three pieces to send to you. You can prioritize what you want, through a feature that promises “we’ll try to ship those first.” But once you’re done with those first three, you can ship everything back, and Express will dispatch a new box. You can do this as many times as you want. Express estimates that a super-active user could have 12 different pieces a month (or four boxes); an average user would probably have about nine (or three boxes).
Price: $69.95 a month. You can cancel the subscription at any time, and you can return your boxes to exchange for new items as frequently as you like.
Pros: The price, definitely—if you’re already a big fan of Express, you can maximize the amount of returns that you do throughout the month to get the most product.
Cons: The work-appropriate options are on the limited side (in general, the offerings are much better suited for casual wear). Because of the way that Express builds its subscription boxes, you don’t select the exact items that end up in your shipment. You also can’t cancel your subscription directly online, only over the phone.
TL; DR: If you are already a big Express shopper, the cost benefit of this is pretty great. Try it here.
Rebecca Taylor’s foray into subscription boxes, RNTD, is comparable to Rent the Runway Unlimited in price—both are $159 a month. The brand grants you access to a rotating closet with four items at any given time; you must add at least 10 pieces to a queue, from which Rebecca Taylor then puts together your shipment.
“The pricing was meant to be realistic and attainable for our customer,” says Janice Sullivan, president of Rebecca Taylor. In other words: It’s hoping this service opens Rebecca Taylor up to a new shopper who otherwise couldn’t afford to constantly and consistently buy its pieces. And the “new arrivals” section has a solid mix of Rebecca Taylor’s signature dresses as well as some of its more trend-forward garments: a silk embroidered ruffle dress ($395), high-waisted plaid pants ($395), and a laminated navy trench coat ($1,295).
“I think consumers value options, the option to rent, to own, to lend, to resell—as a brand you want to move with her and be there on every level that makes sense,” Sullivan adds.
Price: $159 a month. You get four pieces per shipment, and you can send the box back for new items as often as you’d like.
Pros: It’s hard to not love Rebecca Taylor. And while a closet full of its pieces has long been out of reach for most shoppers, it’s suddenly much more accessible.
Cons: Like with Vince, you can’t return individual pieces to get new ones—only the full shipment. That’s really what sets it apart from Rent the Runway Unlimited, which carries Rebecca Taylor.
TL; DR: You’d have a pretty dreamy rotating wardrobe. You just have to love or let go of everything you get as a bundle. Try it here.
New York & Co.’s NY&Company Closet is one of the most affordable subscription boxes out there, charging $49.95 a month for three items at a time from the brand—return them all, and receive a new selection in the mail.
This offering has a great mix of both work and weekend clothes, making it one of the most versatile single-brand subscription boxes. But like the other stores offering rental service, it’s one brand—you have to like the aesthetic. On offer are pieces like a leopard sweaterdress ($74.95), a red striped blazer ($79.95), and houndstooth wide-leg pants ($79.95).
Price: $49.95 a month. You get three items at a time; you can return the full box for new product as many times as you like.
Pros: You get a lot of bang for your buck with this one.
Cons: The unpredictability of not getting to choose exactly what comes in your shipment isn’t ideal.
TL; DR: This is a great value subscription service for someone who wants to test-drive this method of shopping. Try it here.