London’s By Rotation is taking its P2P fashion rental app stateside

Fashion rental platforms had a tough time during the pandemic as in-person events evaporated and office workers ditched their smarts to collectively slip into comfy loungewear. But as the pandemic recedes (hopefully!) and focus grows on the environmental and social costs of fast fashion, the future for clothes rentals is looking rosier again.

There are a number of rental models in play — from veteran U.S. giants like Rent the Runway, which buys stock to rent and sells consumers subscription packages based on renting a certain number of pieces per month, to hybrid models that manage some stock themselves but also allow users to list and loan out their own designer pieces, to purely P2P “rent her wardrobe” plays.

U.K. fashion rental startup By Rotation — which sits in the latter P2P category — has sought to stand out in this colorful but rather cluttered field by taking a tech-first and community-focused approach, which it likens to building a social network.

Crucially, it doesn’t hold any inventory itself; it’s truly and purely peer-to-peer, per founder Eshita Kabra, who said the app typically gets badged as the “Instagram of fashion rentals” — or the “Airbnb of fashion.”

“There’s very much this social aspect to it — and it’s really about these repeat renters who rent from the same woman, over and over again. So they follow a woman and they end up essentially having twice as big a wardrobe,” she told TechCrunch. “They’re kind of living the life of someone else, essentially.”

Domestically, By Rotation competes with the likes of My Wardrobe HQ and Hurr Collective (as well as a number of U.K. high street fashion retailers branching out into rentals) — but Kabra, who is the sole founder, is unequivocal in claiming she’s built up the largest P2P fashion rental platform in the U.K.

“We’re already the largest fashion rental platform by far when you look at our user count and our listing count versus these two [U.K.] players who’s actually been around longer than us and have probably a bit more funding than us.

“It’s very interesting that the shortcuts always end up going back to managing or buying and fulfilling rental orders. Whereas for us we really spent time — I would say it’s been a very painstaking journey —  building out the community grassroots in the beginning. And also obviously investing most of our resources into the tech, which is to build the social network-type platform. And you’ll notice that none of the other rental players in the U.K. — or again in the world — have built such a social network.

“And I think that’s where we’re doing something with a very, very fresh perspective to sharing of fashion and fashion rental.”

“I kind of see it as being the fashion app which serves more a purpose than just liking and saving,” she added. “That’s what Instagram and Pinterest are. But there’s no real commercial value to you when you use them — here you can actually make some money, or save money.

“All of the other existing, incumbent fashion rental players in the U.K. and the U.S., maybe some in Europe — I know YCloset’s also gone under recently — have all been very much focused on the e-commerce type of approach. It’s very retail-heavy; it’s very much a focus on convenience. And access to designer brands. Often the inventory’s very outdated and it’s managed from a central location. We do none of that.”

Since officially launching in October 2019, the app has grown to 200,000 users (mostly women) who are either listing items from their wardrobe for others to rent or vice versa. (The app does also include a men’s category but, naturally, it’s less popular.)

Kabra said the site has 25,000 items listed for rent with a total value of more than £10 million, which can range from a plus-size Club M wrap dress (available to rent from £10) to a size 6 full-length (and black-as-night) Vampire’s Wife dress (from £75), to a silver Miu Miu clutch bag (from £24), Manolo Blahnik blue satin bridal shoes (from £150) or Tommy Hilfiger plaid trousers (from £4), and plenty more besides.

Renting periods typically have a three-day minimum. The platform has some stipulations on what can be listed for rent — generally no high street fashion (unless it’s from an exclusive collection) — but less strict limits than some. Vintage pieces are allowed, for example, so the clothes don’t have to be from the most recent seasons’ fashion collections, which should be better from a sustainability point of view.

Kabra said the top lender on the app — a 49-year-old professional woman and mother who works as the principal of a private school — is routinely mailing out over 10 pieces a week — and making in excess of £2,000 a month.

The typical By Rotation user is slightly younger: a fashion-conscious female, aged between 25 and late 30s, with a desk job and who is “quite conscious of sustainability but she cares a lot about saving money and having access to designer, quality fashion,” said Kabra, who notes the app gets some Gen Z users renting things like graduation outfits, too.

“And that’s why By Rotation is so great because she can access high-end designers that she probably wants to tag on Instagram and social media without being able to maybe afford them or wanting to spend £500 on a dress.

“Our proposition is that you can rent a £500 contemporary branded dress for £50 — or £45 — the same price as Zara, for example. And you can return it back to the person who owns it after wearing it to your friend’s wedding and you get your photo with it and — look — you’ve been sustainable at the same time and you’ve made a new acquaintance on the By Rotation app.

“There’s just a lot of reasons to rent, right? Saving money, making money, making new friends, looking good and saving the planet,” she added, describing the marketing vibe they’re striving for as intentionally more approachable than aspirational. “It’s cool, it’s fun to be a part of this vibrant and friendly community — it’s less aspirational, it’s just very approachable.”

It follows that the intended By Rotation user is “not a fashion insider or a journalist or an editor or an influencer or a celebrity,” Kabra said. “It’s actually just regular working women, professional women, who have great taste — they’re quite conscious of their fashion consumption and they’re quite pragmatic; they know that if they’ve bought something that they have to share it and cover the cost of that investment.”

So the focus is relatively broad, on renting fashion for more day-to-day needs (workwear, dinner dates, parties, etc.) — albeit with more glamor/expense than if you just stuck to your own wardrobe — instead of catering to extremely high society events.

Community front and center

The individual user who is offering the fashion pieces for rent on By Rotation can get even more play in the app than the designer items themselves because its community-building work extends to producing glossy magazine-style mini-profiles of some of its top renters (it calls them “rotators” or even “super rotators”) who are opening their ample wardrobes for others’ sartorial scrolling pleasure and/or the chance to float around in designer gear for a few days.

The intended social network feel extends to having an Instagram-ish feed of photos showing off the wares for rent and/or how their owners (or renters) have styled the pieces.

Users can follow each other on the app — and there are handy “by size” filters for profiles so you’ll know the stranger’s clothes are at least likely to fit you, even if their taste may be a little outré — idea being to turn a vicarious admiration of another woman’s style into actually paying her to borrow that dress you’re thirsting on.

Another feature By Rotation has in the app to pad out the experience — and try to avoid it feeling too nakedly transactional and e-commerce-y — is the ability to create Pinterest-style mood boards. It’s also working on more gamification features to keep users engaged, Kabra said.

The overarching strategy is to dress the app with richer social content that can draw in visitors who may not feel ready to rent pieces or list their own stuff yet — encouraging them to tap around, be inspired by the fashion they see others sporting and get comfortable with the whole clothes/style sharing concept.

Kabra is emphatic when she speaks about the app, stressing it’s a “proprietary” native app experience — not just a limited website wrapper, which she suggests is what some other fashion rental rivals offer.

“We are the only [fashion rentals] app that’s offered in the U.K. Anyone else that has an app or claims they have an app has a website wrapper,” she said. “That’s one of the things that we’ve spent a lot of resources on technology. We’re tech-first; we’re a digital community. We’re also the only pure peer-to-peer for fashion rental. Anyone else who has done fashion rental or is doing fashion rental in a P2P model they’re usually doing it in a hybrid model where they end up managing items where they go on to subscription and full inventory management eventually — which is what we saw in some of the American startups.”

Another distinguishing feature she points to is lender analytics — where By Rotation is providing tools for users to help maximize their renting revenue.

“This is where the data and analytics piece really comes in,” Kabra said. “And there’s some real B2B potential here — not that we’re chasing it right now. But AI is something that we’ve thought about from day one, given our chief analytics officer — also my husband — has been very much our adviser.

“What we’ve really been showing to our lenders, much like a professional creators dashboard on Instagram, you can see how much money you’ve made on the app since you started listing items, you can see the yield on all your listings — so kind of like, almost, your investment calculator. And you can also see the top performing brands for you, the top performing categories, the colors. So basically it’s kind of like a tool to help our top lenders become much more strategic when they go shopping.

“We’ve actually been given this feedback from some of our top users that they’re just thinking twice whenever they buy a new Zara dress or something from Asos or whatever. They’ve now started moving onto buying more quality pieces and fewer of them, and then they always end up listing them on the app,” she added, giving a personal example where she has been able to make over £1,000 on a dress she bought on sale for £350.

By Rotation is preparing to size up by launching in the U.S. this year — and today it’s announcing the close of a $3 million seed round to fund this international expansion — so its profile looks set to rise, even as it will be squaring up to a new set of fashion rental rivals over the pond (including on the P2P side).

The seed round is led by Redrice Ventures with other investors including Closed Loop Partners, True Global, Magnus Rausing, Bill Holroyd CBE, DL, June Angelides MBE, Dinika Mahtani (principal at Cherry VC) and Riccardo Pozzoli.

Commenting on the raise in a statement, Tom March, the founder of Redrice, said: “By Rotation’s P2P focus allows for an obsessive commitment to serving its community. The result is a super loyal family of renters and lenders with the highest standard of user-led quality control. Above all, what truly binds this purpose-driven community is a shared thirst for joy — there is a deficit of hope out there, so time for ‘Rotators’ to spread the joy.”

International expansion presents both opportunities and risks for a community-focused startup, of course.

While Airbnb — the P2P platform to which Kabra said the app is often compared — began with a bewitching pitch about being able to “live like a local” in exotic foreign cities, the reality of scaling into a global travel juggernaut quickly saw that enticing facade slipping as professional landlords moved in, repurposing housing stock to list en masse and grab higher-yield short-term stays than they would get renting long term to local people, leading to regulatory blowback and a bunch of goodwill crushed.

So the risk of scaling P2P communities can be the death of quirk alongside fake profiles and commercial transactions that feel far more clinical. (There was never any sign of the “flamenco dancer” called María who once rented me an Airbnb apartment in Sevilla, for example, only a graying middle-aged man in workwear who hastily handed over a set of keys.)

How, then, will By Rotation scale its carefully cultivated and engaged grassroots community of professional women rotating wardrobes of beloved clothes while keeping things, well, real — and not feeling pressured to slip into inventory management and centralized subscriptions as other formerly P2P turned hybrid rental platforms have?

“Growth is definitely very important to us and we’re going to continue doing the network effects piece where our renters are becoming our lenders. And our lenders are becoming super rotators,” Kabra said. “It’s kind of crazy how much [our top lender is] earning on the app. So we’re going to continue accelerating by all these sort of super users and converting our lenders into renters, renters into lenders. And tapping into their own networks.

“Because we truly believe that anyone who’s been a customer of ours, they have the potential to convert other users to become customers. So it’s less so much about performance marketing, which anyone will do anyway, but for us, it’s using these network effect type of strategies to promote growth. So things like ambassador programs, which we already run, where you can see very, very diverse women who are our ambassadors promoting the app.

“Even things like looking at your phone contact book and inviting everyone who’s not on the app already to come join the app because you liked your friend’s outfit last week at a party that you attended together. So really things like that is the way we’re going to be growing and scaling up.”

It also sounds like By Rotation will be taking a targeted approach to crack the U.S. market — likely going after key cities such as New York, where it can tap into the same sorts of well-dressed, professionally driven communities of women it’s already been able to locate in hubs like London to further fire its growth.

“If you look at who’s backing us — [New York-based] Closed Loop Partners, they only back circular business models and obviously [managing partner] Caroline Brown, who’s going to be on the board, is ex-DKNY …  and I think you can pretty much guess where we would operate when we do expand to the U.S. first. But yeah, you’re right, there will be a very regional approach — even maybe a citywide approach to begin with, but we do think there are some really, really interesting cities over there where people have quite a lot of disposable income … where this would make a lot of sense. Where people are spending quite a lot of money going out for dinner and drinks and they would love to save a bit of money on their outfits.”

“I think what’s really exciting about our completely scalable business model — since we’re not hybrid and we’re not inventory — is the fact that all we really need are local communities and local ambassadors who help kick start the By Rotation community locally,” she added.

Renting versus buying secondhand

While the fashion rental field is already quite a competitive patchwork, it’s important to consider the secondhand fashion sales market, too — which at least indirectly competes for customers who may be weighing up whether they really want to splash £75 just to rent a designer piece for a couple of days versus spending rather less to buy and own a secondhand (albeit probably not designer) fashion item on Depop or Vinted. Or shell out maybe a little more than £75 to wholly own a secondhand designer piece that’s been listed on a resale platform like Vestiaire Collective.

In short, fashion lovers are spoiled for alternatives to buying new — and all these choices could be dressed up as more sustainable than consuming fast fashion at throwaway volumes.

But Kabra argues that fashion rentals and resale are essentially different and potentially complementary markets. (By Rotation’s app does let renters offer pieces for sale, but she said there’s relatively low uptake of that feature.)

“We’ve seen some of our top lenders’ Depop, Vestiaire, eBay and Vinted profiles. And the items they’re listing on these other marketplaces, they’re so different to what they’re listing on By Rotation. On By Rotation, they are listing items that are new season, that they still love, that they still want to wear and own. It’ll be the new season Réalisation Par or the last season Réalisation Par, for example,” she said.

“And they don’t want to sell these pieces so we end up having nicer pieces, basically, than all these other resale platforms where, let’s face it, even if it’s Vestiaire, people are trying to get rid of their stuff. You won’t find old Gucci bags on By Rotation. You’re going to find the new desirable Gucci Marmont velvet bags. Or the Dionysus bag because everyone wants to rent it because it matches everything. So these are all the items that people are willing to hold onto while they’re not wearing it this weekend.”

Plus, even if there is some overlap, Kabra suggests By Rotation’s particular fashion focus means it can slot neatly in as the place where a woman who maybe wouldn’t mind selling a designer piece (for the right price) on a resale platform like Vestiaire Collective can list it for renting on By Rotation’s app in the meanwhile — with the chance to make money loaning it out while she waits for a sale.

“We launched a resale feature earlier this year on the app — it’s just so, so, so interesting that what people rent is very different from what people want to buy secondhand. Which is why we totally believe that we do exist alongside these resale platforms — it’s completely different, the product mix,” she added.

Returning to the sustainability of fashion rentals point, this also bears some critical attention. The claim looks solid if you’re comparing renting versus purchasing a new item that you’re going to wear once or twice. However, rentals require energy to ship — unless you’re literally walking to meet the renter in person, which is likely only going to happen for a minority of transactions as the vagaries of taste mean you’re unlikely to love and fit into exactly the clothes of your closest rotators.

Rentals also require energy for scrupulous cleaning after every single rental — which may well be more often than you’d clean your own clothes.

Clearly renting is not a carbon-neutral activity in and of itself. It is still a form of consumption. So what the activity replaces (or doesn’t) is key to whether it’s actually shrinking someone’s carbon footprint or not.

If a woman “rotates” an existing (long-held) piece from the back to the front of her own wardrobe, perhaps restyling it with a piece of vintage jewelry she also already owns to freshen the look, that might be a more sustainable twist on staying fashionable than all the procedural rigmarole entailed in sharing someone else’s relatively newly bought designer clothes, for example.

So basically a sustainability claim boils down to a demand question: By making relatively high-end designer fashion more affordable (renting versus buying outright) is By Rotation helping to generate new (extra) consumer demand that wouldn’t otherwise exist — which implies a net increase in energy consumption?

Again, if the rental demand that’s being stoked ends up supplanting multiple fast-fashion purchases (and helps shrink the size of the fast-fashion industry) it’s likely a net positive for shrinking the overall carbon footprint.

But if the app is encouraging more people to do more energy-intensive dressing up than they otherwise would, it’s hard to see how that sums to the levels of sustainability required to actually save the planet.

For that, we might all need to get a bit more comfortable with dressing in boring old Zoom pants most of the time.

Asked about this, Kabra deflected the question onto the easier-to-answer comparison versus buying new — citing a study done by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, a U.K. charity that’s focused on accelerating the global transition to a circular economy — which she said found the P2P fashion rental model to be 60% more efficient in relation to resource use than the production of new garments.

“We do nudge people into realizing they’re doing something good by renting rather than buying,” she added, describing in-app features that seek to quantify estimated resource savings for the user (again, compared against if they were buying new). “But I would say that first and foremost people are using By Rotation — and any other rental service — for the affordability side of things. And I think that’s important to highlight because sustainability is still something that a lot of people cannot afford.

“It’s a ‘nice to have’ but a lot of people cannot afford it, which is why By Rotation is making it so accessible. We’re saying you can still enjoy fashion but you can do that by spending the same amount that you would do at Zara or Asos anyway by putting that money towards borrowing it from somebody else. So I think it’s really about making the messaging very inclusive and not scaring people away and saying hey you can never go and buy fast fashion again — you can only rent. Or you can only buy sustainable brands.

“We encourage vintage pieces on By Rotation,” she confirmed. “And they rent quite a bit. We recently had a bride — she rented a gown for her actual wedding, so not just a civil ceremony, from Molly Whitehall, she’s [comic] Jack Whitehall’s sister. And Molly wore a 1940s silk vintage gown that she then gave to us to rent out — so it’s doubly sustainable, right? It’s already vintage and this new bride is actually borrowing it from another bride. And it’s just really interesting the way that people actually value vintage much more — as long as there’s a story around it.”