Neiman Marcus teams with Rent the Runway: the future of fashion?

Neiman Marcus is teaming up with Rent the Runway, a startup that allows users to rent designer clothes for a fraction of the price, in an effort to attract younger shoppers. 

John Gress/Reuters/File
A shopper enters a Neiman Marcus store in Oak Brook, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago, on May 2, 2005.

Neiman Marcus shoppers will soon be able to rent – rather than buy – their clothing, the department store announced Wednesday. 

The luxury retailer is teaming up with Rent the Runway, an e-commerce startup that allows users to temporarily rent designer clothing for a fraction of the price. Neiman Marcus will open the first Rent the Runway boutique at its San Francisco location this week, with more locations slated to be announced next year.

The boutique, which will feature a rotating selection of items available for rent as well as personal stylists to suggest other items for sale to complete the look, is in part an effort by Neiman Marcus to attract a younger clientele, store executives say. The average shopper at Neiman Marcus is 51 years old, while the average Rent the Runway customer is 29, according to Bloomberg. And, as Fortune reports, younger shoppers are less likely today to go shopping for the sake of shopping. 

"One of our primary goals is to attract new customers to Neiman Marcus, and I think that because Rent the Runway has developed relationships with these young women who love fashion, we’re going to learn a lot," Neiman Marcus chief executive officer Karen Katz told Bloomberg. 

"We’re in some ways running toward the shared economy instead of running away, because clearly the shared economy is here to stay," she added. "Whether it’s Rent the Runway or Uber, any of the ways people are participating in the shared economy, it’s part of our world today."

Industry experts attribute some of Rent the Runway's success among millennials to the effect that social media has had on the way people shop, as fashion critic Robin Givhan writes for The Washington Post: 

Rent the Runway has thrived, in part, because clothes – at least for special occasions – have become costumes. We don’t consider them part of a reliable wardrobe that reflects who we are and that may, over time, be infused with warm, golden memories.

Folks go to a wedding, gala or a charity ball "and we’re performing for the visual pleasure of others instead of living in the moment," says Kit Yarrow, author of "Decoding the New Consumer Mind: How and Why We Shop and Buy."

Social media has only exacerbated that sense of performance, with likes and retweets serving as applause. "My life is not the point; it’s how my life looks to others," Yarrow observes. 

But while the increased pressure not to repeat an outfit, especially on special occasions, may be feeding into millennials' desire to rent temporarily rather than buy, some industry experts are skeptical that our wardrobes will someday be entirely dominated by rentals. 

"Part of the attraction [of fashion] is wearing a creation for the first time … the sense that the item is new," Michael Munger, a professor at Duke University, told Business of Fashion, pointing out that some customers may feel uncomfortable wearing something that has been worn by a stranger. 

"People are still interested in buying apparel," adds Robin Lewis, chief executive officer of the Robin Report, a retail strategy publication. "I can’t imagine that they’re just going to rent and share forever and forget about that."

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