Julie Kalinowski, CEO of the dress and gown rental store The Fitzroy, is photographed in her Toronto store, Friday, Sept. 23, 2022. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Alex Lupul

To rent or buy? What’s in store for the clothing rental industry in Canada

TORONTO — A few weeks ago, Carly Soares needed a dress for a wedding and fast.

“I tried going shopping at the mall, but noticed there was a scarce collection of formal dresses,” the 30-year-old said. “It was actually very surprising. It’s still the pandemic-loungewear kind of vibe throughout a lot of retail stores.”

The dresses she did come across were either too casual or too expensive, so she decided to rent one from a dress rental boutique, something she had never tried before.

And after a positive first experience, Soares said she would definitely do it again.

Clothing rental has become more mainstream over the last decade with the rise of the sharing economy, but the COVID-19 pandemic wasn’t kind to these types of retailers.

As pandemic restrictions lifted, however, some Canadian rental businesses saw a boost in traffic.

While experts believe there is still more opportunity in the space, they are warning that growth might be subdued as Canadians change their shopping habits and priorities in an environment of hot inflation and rising interest rates.

There are other challenges as well, including getting more people on board with the idea of essentially sharing clothes, people’s mindset around the type of clothing suitable for rewear, environmentally-conscious consumers questioning how environmentally-friendly fashion rental truly is, and the logistics of inventory.

“We’ve been conditioned to purchase something, wear it, throw it out. Changing that to appreciate that rental opportunity is something that does take quite a lot of time,” said Daniel Drak, assistant professor at the Parsons School of Design.

One of the most prominent clothing rental businesses, if not the most, is U.S.-based Rent the Runway, founded in 2009, which quickly became a hit with women who wanted access to designer clothing but didn’t want to spend tons of money on outfits they might wear once or twice.

In Canada, a rush of new clothing rental businesses began popping up in the years leading up to the pandemic, offering everything from special occasion wear to workwear to maternity wear to everyday wear, but like many companies in the small business retail sector, getting through the last two years was a challenge.

Canadian companies like Rent Frock Repeat, workwear rental business Dresst and Montreal’s Station Service have all ended their run over the last couple of years.

It’s a “very challenging” market to be in, said Julie Kalinowski CEO of Toronto-based The Fitzroy, which offers special occasion dress rentals at a more affordable price.

According to Drak, Gen Z will be the generation that really moves the industry forward because of their excitement around shopping resale, whether it’s for economic reasons, aiming to reduce clothing waste or to find one-of-a-kind pieces.

He said now is the time for existing and emerging Canadian clothing rental businesses to lean into that popularity and make resale a part of their business model, which some have started to do.

The global resale apparel market was valued at US$14 billion last year, according to Statista, and is projected to grow to US$51 billion by 2026.

Toronto Metropolitan University (TMU) assistant professor Anika Kozlowski said making genuine efforts to reduce clothing waste and reduce emissions stemming from clothing production, and operating as a local business in order to do so, might also be a good strategy, especially considering Canada’s smaller population.

This would involve a strong understanding of the community the business operates in, the use of high-quality Canada-made items from ethical brands, finding ways to clean and repair clothes in a way that isn’t harmful to the environment, and avoiding long-distance shipping.

That’s something Blyth Gill is working on with Vancouver-based Tradle, an e-commerce baby clothing subscription business that allows parents to rent and exchange clothes for each growth spurt.

“Because babies outgrow clothes quickly, the need to have and exchange clothes has a really short cycle,” he said.

Tradle works with local, high-quality brands, avoiding fast fashion brands. And when the clothes can no longer be reused, they won’t be thrown away, but instead recycled or broken down.

The company launched right before the pandemic, which Gill said was definitely a learning experience.

“Naturally, when we didn’t know as much about COVID-19, people were probably thinking, ‘sharing clothes? I don’t know,’” he said.

But Gill said he’s happy that phase is now behind them and is excited for the next stage of the business’ growth.

The Fitzroy’s Kalinowski is quite optimistic as well.

“Since the last reopening, it’s been crazy, it’s been a boom, it’s been probably our best sales yet. It’s been a big year for weddings, all the events are back on, all the galas are back on. We just had the Toronto International Film Festival, one of our busiest weeks. So it’s been crazy busy.”

Gabriella Iamundo, 31, uses fashion rental for special occasion wear, but doesn’t really see herself using it for everyday clothing, athleisure wear or workwear, or subscribing to a service, a sentiment TMU’s Kozlowski said is likely pretty common across the board.

“I rented (special occasion wear) for the first time probably four or five years ago, maybe a little bit longer than that, and it just became something I thought was good for events,” Iamundo said.

“To be honest, it’s pretty common in my circle of friends to check (rental services) out to at least see what the options are, especially before having to go buy something.”

When looking further ahead, Parsons’ Drak sees bigger, traditional brands starting their own rental segments – which U.S.-founded Urban Outfitters has done – or acquiring existing businesses in the space, which would shake up the market.