The price of fashion – economically and environmentally - has led to the rise of a new way of dressing, and it’s beginning to take off in Australia, too.
With the fashion system experiencing growing scrutiny for the pressure it puts on the planet – both at the supply chain production level and the end-of-life phase of garments, particularly as people choose to wear more clothes fewer times – clever new practices have emerged that seemed unimaginable even just a few years ago. Whether that’s opting for natural fibres, such as cotton and wool, over non-biodegradable synthetics for workout-wear; choosing wet-cleaning over traditional chemical-laden drycleaning methods; or designers creating collections with minimal fabric waste, or indeed from waste, consumers and the industry alike are moving quickly to find solutions to fashion’s incredible footprint.
For Tanya Perilli, the lightbulb moment came quite by chance. “I was trying to find a dress to wear to a charity gala, and there was just nothing around that suited me, or that was in my price bracket, or that I wouldn’t be worried that someone else was going to be wearing,” she explains. “So, of course, I turned to online shopping, but some of these types of pieces are thousands of dollars, and without being able to touch the fabric or get a sense of it on my body I was cautious.” It was in her online searching that she stumbled upon Rent the Runway, the American online marketplace which, as its name suggests, allows women to rent garments rather purchasing them outright, providing a less expensive solution to one-time event dressing. “I thought it was just an amazing idea,” says Perilli, who launched Fashion Alta Moda in late 2019.
The concept is certainly not new – men have been renting suits and tuxedos for decades – but for female shoppers, it is just taking off. A 2019 market report by Grand View Research estimated the global online clothing rental market to be worth $US1.12 billion, a conservative estimate next to that of investment bank Cowen, which was quoted by Vogue Business as estimating the market at $US5 billion, with growth forecast at close to 10 per cent for the next five years, which it attributes to “technological advancements, internet penetration [and the] increasing popularity of online shopping portals over the last few years… Fashion-conscious individuals who lack finances to purchase clothes of their choice are anticipated to make use of the available resources to the fullest.”
This clothing-as-service model follows the broader societal movement towards shared economies and subscription markets, such as the streaming of movies or GoGet-style car services, and in the case of fashion, relies on digital technology and operational logistics, such as the shipping, inventory and cleaning of products, to be successful. While still the best known, Rent the Runway has been joined by countless others, particularly in the US, over the past decade, including Le Tote, Nuuly and Trunk Club, while traditional retailers, such as Banana Republic, Levi’s and Bloomingdales, have added rental services to their offerings.
As the Grand View report states: “Renting a product is always cost efficient, and more so in this industry where the trends keep changing and consumers do not prefer repeating clothes. As a result, consumers prefer renting clothes to stay trendy.” And certainly, price plays a part. A Valentino cocktail dress, for example, is offered on Pirelli’s site for $650 for a four-day rental, while similar new-season pieces sell on Net-a-Porter for upwards of $5000. For garments often destined to be worn once or even only a few times in their lifetime, the maths speaks for itself.
As Perilli explained: “That notion of wastage, of buying something to wear once and the guilt of that environmentally and financially, encouraged me to change the way I interacted with fashion.” And today, she says, customers look past the fact that something is second-hand and focus instead on the fact they have something unique and aren’t contributing to landfill or overstuffing their own wardrobes. “It’s such a smart choice to rent: you save money and you’re living more mindfully. Fashion is one of the biggest polluting industries in the world, and because it’s something that touches everyone it’s also helped to make sustainability more prominent.”
Perilli points to the recent BAFTAs, where the dress code encouraged celebrities to wear garments already in their wardrobes, a practice already adopted by Cate Blanchett and her stylist Elizabeth Stewart, and to Australian actress Margot Robbie wearing vintage Chanel to the Academy Awards. “Everyone is catching on and it’s so positive to see,” says Perilli.
Before launching Fashion Alta Moda, Perilli had built a career as a construction manager, having studied engineering, and worked for such brands as Marks & Spencer and the Emirates One&Only Wolgan Valley resort. Her interest, however, was always fashion. The great-granddaughter of a Polish seamstress, she grew up in North Queensland and learned to sew at a young age, her mother recreating outfits from the pages of Vogue using local fabrics. After time out to raise her young family, Perilli sought a return to work, and fashion seemed a natural fit. “So much of setting up the business has been serendipitous,” she explains. “The connections I have made have almost entirely been coincidental and I just love shopping, so to be doing this every day for Fashion Alta Moda is a dream really.”
Thanks to the foundation laid by other clothing rental services, Fashion Alta Moda’s entry into the industry has been relatively smooth, with designers such as Stella McCartney and Johanna Ortiz working directly with the business for its garment sourcing. “You’re only buying perhaps one dress to then be worn by five different people, as opposed to five dresses to be worn only one time each, but the beauty of it is that we’re introducing some of these lesser-known international brands to an entirely new audience,” says Perilli. And beyond online retailers, such as Net-a-Porter, the vast majority of pieces Fashion Alta Moda loans are not available from local stores, making them preciously unique for fashion-savvy customers. “We really try to educate our customers on these designers, and often you’ll find they gravitate towards certain brands after wearing one or two of their pieces. It’s this idea of trying before you buy, of finding your fit and what suits you.”
Perilli is taking that a step further, with a styling suite in Sydney’s eastern suburbs providing a more personalised experience. “We offer really special pieces, things you might wear for a wedding or gala, and so we not only want this experience to be special as well, but also want to make sure the garment is perfect,” she explains. Personal styling consultants and seamstresses, for reversible alterations to garments, such as hemming, are on hand. So far, designs by luxury ready-to-wear label Delpozo have proven most popular – many of the pieces comprise layers of soft tulle and silk in a pastel colour palette – and Perilli hopes to encourage her clients to select garments like these for typically less dressy occasions. “We’re wearing jeans to the Opera House and it devastates me,” she says. “I want to inspire people to elevate the way we dress here [in Australia] and bring back that concept of dressing up to go to dinner or to the ballet, because why not?”
Events and overseas travel might be on hold at the moment, but Pirelli is planning ahead and will launch a VIP program for her top clients when life returns to some kind of normal. It will include a premium selection of garments available for first-time rentals. “I have some vintage Dior and Chanel pieces, some still with tags on, and I can’t wait to share these pieces with our clients,” she says. She’s also looking beyond occasion dressing to more relaxed resort collections, which she plans to package as capsule wardrobes for travellers, such as those headed to weddings abroad, with a longer-term rental period. “I really want to make this work for people’s lives today, and I know that doesn’t always mean returning a dress on the Monday after a special weekend,” she says.
Wish, The Australian
Story MITCHELL OAKLEY SMITH
Portrait NICK CUBBIN