It’s an understatement to say that a lot has changed over the past few weeks. The novel coronavirus has upended nearly every aspect of American life — not the just big stuff, like staying home and closing non-essential businesses, but the resulting small, personal stuff, too. The infection rate and death toll continue to grow. Due to the economic downturn and rising unemployment rate, many people are looking to cut out whatever unnecessary expenses they can. That means industries like food, retail, and travel have all taken a major hit. One luxury some refuse to relinquish, though? Their Rent The Runway subscriptions.
“I love the Rent the Runway product and brand and am very loyal to it,” says Bailey, who is 31, lives in San Francisco, works in tech, and has two Unlimited memberships she’s been using since 2014. “I want to be able to keep renting for a long time into the future and am supporting businesses that I hope will be around when this crisis is over. I appreciate the feeling of getting dressed and going to work, even if I'm just walking into my living room.”
“I honestly never considered pausing it,” agrees Natasha, 32, who lives in New York, works in publishing, and has been using Unlimited for two years. “RTR has helped lift me out of so many bad moods and ruts over the past few years.”
I, myself, am among these hardcore RTR devotees, ready and willing to go down with the (very stylish) ship, should it ever come to that. These days, like many other non-essential workers, my life primarily involves toggling between my bed, my fridge, the couch, and the makeshift desk I’ve erected directly next to the bed. This makes me extremely lucky. It’s also pretty much the opposite of a situation where I need a cute outfit. The only other person here is my boyfriend, and he mostly wears the same pair of mesh basketball shorts. And yet, something’s been stopping me from cancelling my Rent the Runway Unlimited subscription, even as I try to curb my spending in other ways in preparation for whatever is to come.
While Rent The Runway declined to share exact figures, it’s likely a significant number of subscribers have cancelled or paused their accounts. Anecdotal evidence to support this includes the fact that people are tweeting about it, and mentioning it on Slack. My own friends have looked at me with furrowed brows — via video chat, of course — when I’ve attempted to explain my continued allegiance to the £128-a-month membership that they’ve all paused. I’m wagering there’s a chance that you, dear reader, may be making a similar facial expression right now.
My reluctance to rely solely on my own, certainly sufficient wardrobe may have something to do with the pyjamas. A few weeks ago, at the beginning of the shelter-in-place order, I rented an abstract printed silk pyjama suit from Peter Pilotto. You probably know the style — slouchy, and meant to be worn with heels by someone with the flare to make them seem distinctly un-pyjama-like, even though they are, most definitely, pyjamas. I probably wouldn’t have felt like I could pull them off in my regular life, but I figured, if I’m gonna be cooped up in my apartment, I might as well do so with absurdly fancy pyjamas, right? I accessorised with gold chains (marking the first and last time I have bothered to put on jewellery in lockdown), and proceeded to rack up compliments from the comfort of my own home. Someone DM’d me after seeing me on a company Zoom call to ask about them. I forced my boyfriend to help me document them on Instagram, where I found out that, funnily enough, an old acquaintance had been wearing the very same thing that day. I’ve never felt so good about an outfit I didn’t leave the house in.
I’ve since returned the pyjamas in the hopes of getting a cute little matching sweatsuit, like the ones all the influencers seem to suddenly have an endless supply of. They’re hard to get these days on RTR, the way a new-season dress from Khaite or Proenza Schouler might have been in the before-times; a reminder that some of us unabashed clotheshorses still stand. (And that in the midst of everything, we’re all just trying to get our hands on those damn Pyer Moss track pants.)
There are a lot of suggestions floating around about how to maintain a sense of normalcy during this time. A lot of them ring hollow to me, personally. I don’t want to put on my usual full face of makeup. Why would I do that? I never wear makeup at home. I don’t want to continue waking up at 7:30 when I don’t have to do anything until 9:30. That’s just torturing myself. Even though those are things I normally do, they wouldn’t feel normal to me to do right now (though it is, of course, totally fine and great if they feel normal to you). Continuing to rent clothes, however, feels both decadent and practical. I still need clothes, even if they’re not the kind of clothes I’d usually wear. And, as silly as it may sound, renting designer clothes has brought immense joy and excitement into my life for many years, and I feel at a loss for those emotions right now.
While I, personally, prefer to keep my WFH wardrobe largely loungewear-centric — even if said loungewear is extremely extra — plenty of RTR subscribers are taking advantage of the abundance of usually-rare pieces, as well as their newfound freedom to wear whatever they want during the day. Turns out, not everyone gravitates towards sweatpants when left to their own devices. “The quality of the selection is way better than it ever has been before. I am constantly rolling into my meetings in dresses that retail for upwards of $2k and having a great time with it,” shares Bailey.
Beck, a 35-year-old from San Diego working in public relations, who has been using Unlimited for two years, was wearing a sequin dress on the Monday afternoon when we spoke. “It's a part of my life that is ‘normal,’ and I enjoy getting dressed for work every day,” she explains. “For me, clothing is a little piece of art you get to change every day that expresses you, your mood, your culture, your setting, your attitude, and so much more. I can't let that piece of expression die.”
There are understandable concerns about the safety of wearing rented clothes right now. According to the CDC, while COVID-19 is mostly transmitted from person to person, it can live on surfaces for hours to days. In an email to subscribers on March 4, Rent the Runway attempted to quell fears by explaining its intense dry cleaning process: “All garments go through a wet or dry cleaning process. They also go through an additional steaming process which heats items to between 248°F and 302°F with the exception of faux fur, select outerwear, leather and faux leather garments, which still go through our standard cleaning processes. According to the CDC, flu viruses are killed by heat above 167°F. Every garment is then enclosed in plastic for protection and cleanliness, which we ask customers to return for recycling.”
Even so, it’s bringing non-essential packaging that someone else has touched into the house, and placing more demand on delivery workers. For those reasons, I am still considering pausing my membership before my next billing, and will certainly heed any instructions by officials to limit my use of delivery systems. That being said, all of those concerns also exist when you’re buying anything online right now.
“I go back and forth with thinking about the amazing team that is in the warehouse preparing my items for me to just wear around the house, and if it is really worth it for them to go in. Is it helping to keep them working and have income coming? Or would they be better off staying home?” says Melissa, a 33-year-old New Yorker who works in tech and has been using Unlimited since 2016. “Ethically, I go back and forth on this. I pray that those in the warehouse are being treating like royalty in this time as they are putting their lives at risk while keeping the company going.”
I’ve long compared being a Rent The Runway subscriber to being part of a sorority. I can’t count how many conversations I’ve started with words like, “I love that dress! Rent The Runway?” Sharing clothes has always brought women together. The only difference is that now we do it with people we’ve never met, across the country. And in a time where we’re physically far apart but craving community more than ever, many have discovered a newfound appreciation for the built-in sisterhood RTR provides, even if it’s just through leaving product reviews.
Even outside of the RTR coven, fun new clothes are an easy conversation-starter. They’re something to riff on at the beginning of a slightly awkward Zoom meeting, or post to Instagram instead of the standard self-deprecating memes and depressing news updates. “I've been Instagramming Zoom screenshots of my outfits and a lot of my friends have been giving me really fun feedback and comments on what they do and don't like,” says Bailey. “I'm basically on my own during this time, and I've been looking for ways to connect with people in my life in all kinds of ways to help me feel connected. It might sound silly, but I have heard from a lot of people I haven't talked to since college or high school (more than 10 years ago!) and it's nice to connect.”
In reporting this story, I’ve received dozens of messages from women waxing poetic about their love for Rent The Runway. Unfortunately, way more than I can possibly include here. The obvious thing, to me, is that it’s about way more than clothes. It’s about pulling at whatever we can find to try and make what’s happening feel bearable, and like something resembling an altered version of the lives we’ve worked so hard to build for ourselves. It’s about envisioning a light at the end of the tunnel, even when it doesn’t seem like there is one right now. It’s about supporting a business that many of us would feel bereft if anything happened to.
But mostly, it’s about looking at all those beautiful dresses, lined up and waiting on our phones, and reminding ourselves that one day, this will be over. It’ll be safe to go outside again, maybe meet up with friends in the park and drink wine, or even go to a restaurant, museum, or party. And we’ll need something to wear; something perhaps very different than what we’re wearing right now. And with the future so uncertain, and so many plans cancelled or postponed indefinitely, I find I desperately need something to look forward to, even if it’s just the prospect of wearing a really gorgeous dress.