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EP16 Fashion rental Onloan’s Tamsin on why renting you should rent your wardrobe

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The Onloan founder breaks down her fashion philosophy and what inspired her to start her business 

Elsie : We were super excited and overjoyed to have sit down with Tamsin, the founder of OnLoan, the trendy and contemporary clothing site, lending and loaning great clothes on a subscription based service. 

Tamsin: OnLoan is a fashion rental site, loaning clothes to women for work and weekends from some of the coolest contemporary brands but on a monthly subscription. I started the business to help women enjoy great clothes, without treating them as disposable as we’ve all kind of come to think is normal. I had this long standing interest in sustainable fashion and an unusual background.

I started as a management consultant and then took a very, sort-of left field turn and moved to Uganda for a couple of years, and for much of the time and I worked for cotton factory up in the North. Whilst I was there, I realised that the fashion industry can have an amazing positive impact on local communities, or it can be a complete disaster. I got really interested in the topic as well as, fair trade, organic and all kinds of measures that we’re trying to make it more sustainable. I then quit buying fast fashion, and stopped shopping on the high three cause I didn’t trust the brands. But my wardrobe ended up really boring and I actually really missed the kind of variety and newness that you get from being addicted to Topshop. So, I started looking around for business models that could do both and realised that rental was really big in other countries but hadn’t really taken off in the UK, and so I started to explore why and thought there’s a gap in the market and we should go for it.

Elsie: Why do you think it hadn’t taken off in the UK? Cause that’s actually a really good point. We were like, why doesn’t Rent The Runway exist here? It’s crazy. Why do you think that is? What do you think it is about our market? 

Tamsin: I think the UK is in some ways been blessed and cursed with the best high street in the world. Topshop was so powerful at one point that it used to show at London Fashion Week and they really made it possible for everybody to access amazing and super fashion forward clothes at really accessible prices and actually for a long time quite decent quality too. And I think a renter would have found it hard to compete against that.

This wasn’t the same, perhaps in the US where the fashion forward parts of the market were much smaller. Whereas now, you know, we see people turning away from the high street in droves. Obviously Topshop is struggling, but they’re by far, not the only ones. And I think people are hungry for something that’s a bit different.

Dominika: So for our listeners that are super interested in renting clothes, what are the kind of pushbacks that you get with potential new customers? You know, is it around the cleanliness or the quality of the clothes? And how do you kind of mitigate those, as you’re growing and you’re leasing out clothes at a high volume?

Tamsin: Surprisingly we haven’t had much pushback on trendiness or just kind of icky-ness from wearing clothes that other people have worn. I think that’s also something that has changed a lot in the last few years. When I was growing up, it was quite unusual for people to buy a secondhand piece or vintage. I think we’re now in the era of Depop and Vestiaire Collective and it’s totally normalised for people to buy second-hand clothes and wear clothes that other people have worn before. I think people also trust that we clean to a really high standard. Everything arrives in impeccable condition and that reassures them.  I think that’s less of an issue now than it might’ve been before. People are still on a journey from owning stuff and having a big wardrobe that you open and feels really full and exciting, to this idea that you have a kind of temporary ownership of something and a sort of fleeting relationship with it.

But again, that’s very much a trend at the moment we’re in an era of Marie Kondo, and people are clearing out their houses and are wanting far less clutter. And again that is something rental speaks to really well. I think the main thing for us as we grow is just awareness. Getting people to know that it’s a possible idea. Then making it as slick and easy as possible. People don’t want any kind of extra hassle in their lives. They don’t want any extra stress. So we make it really simple. I think that the main thing that it always comes back to is still having great product. So ultimately people want to enjoy fashion because they are beautiful garments, because they have fabulous materials, great designs and that’s what we have  to deliver. Great product. 

How Onloan is keeping your wardrobe fresh without breaking the bank 

We run a monthly subscription, our customers can try us for a month and pause accounts or cancel at any time. So it’s pretty flexible. But most of our customers are renting month to month and they will start by taking a style survey and then we send them an edit of clothes. So that’s put together by our stylists and our experience of what people might like from the edit. They select a few items to borrow and then we post them out in beautiful reusable packaging. They will then wear them and enjoy and enjoy them for a month and then send them back and repeat the whole process to swap for something new. And customers are renting all sorts of items.

Our clothes are from premium contemporary brands, so not super high end luxury, not Gucci, but more premium than what you find on the high street. So we’re really proud to work with some sustainable front runners like Maggie Marilyn, who are exclusive within the UK for rental. Then we’ve got some great contemporary names like Alexa Chung and we’re adding more all the time.

Dominika: So obviously your mission first and foremost is sustainability. But in terms of cleaning and even transport, how do you start to filter sustainability through the physical mechanisms of your business as well?

Tamsin: My whole reason for doing the business and having the energy to be an entrepreneur is to try and create something better than the status quo. Obviously the main reason is to lengthen the lifetime of a garment, which is one of the biggest ways that you can affect the environment is the impact of a single garment. We also do it in our cleaning as well, so we don’t always follow the labels. Some of the most premium garments will say dry clean only. But we’ve actually found that’s really just the brand covering themselves and you can clean in much more sustainable ways. So most of our garments go through either a cool hand-wash or a steaming process, which is more effective than dry-cleaning at deodorising and sterilising and making them look brand new again. We’re developing methods of doing that ourselves, but also working with partners to explore that. In terms of postage, so we currently work with Royal mail and Collette Plus, it’s not the ideal solution but I don’t think they’re the worst. We’re really exploring working with more sustainable careers.

Elsie: I’ve just completed my first month of on loans, which was fabulous. It was a great experience. It was actually quite interesting that during the consultation process it was mentioned that you aren’t trying to replicate an experience in getting an outfit for a more special occasion but instead it’s about getting the idea of loaning into your everyday wardrobe. So one of the things I was thinking about is, in terms of some of the brands you work with as well, is if renting scales In the UK, will we start to see a push back?, will brands start to sell less? What reactions have you seen from some of the brands you worked with? 

Tamsin: We’ve had a really great response from quite a few brands and then others who are kind of pausing and waiting to see what happens. The great response comes when brands realise that the customers we’re targeting are very unlikely to be customers who are buying that brand regularly anyway. Our customers tend to shop on the high street, maybe upper end of the high street brands like COS or Whistles, that sort of level. And we are switching them over to wearing slightly more premium brands on a rental basis. So for a brand like Alexa Chung, this is just a really exciting way of accessing new customers. People who might have been interested in Alexa Chung designs, but find it quite hard to try one out for the first time when the average price point is sort of 200, 250 pounds.

That’s a huge commitment if you haven’t tried a brand before but you can rent it, try it out, experience it, understand how great the quality is, how fun the designs are, and then maybe you’ll save up and buy a piece. And so the brands that are more forward thinking have kind of jumped on this as a customer acquisition strategy and a kind of marketing tool really. 

It’s also about giving feedback to the brands and asking the customer, how durable was it? How long lasting was it? I’m really excited about feeding that back to the brands so they can start making clothes that last a long time, and basing it on data at the same time. 

How Onloan is helping to change the industry

Dominika: While loaning is a phenomenal initiative, on the off occasion it doesn’t always work. Say if you have an event the next day and suddenly you need to get something or some items don’t satisfy some of our fast fashion needs. Do you have any key takeaways about that?

Tamsin: I’ve been a second hand shopping for a long time but occasionally I of invest in some pieces from brands that I really trust. So, I have staples in my wardrobe and it’s about a mix of trying to buy better quality from sustainable brands for things that I know will last a long time. Right now I’m using secondhand shopping mostly through EBay and Vestiaire Collective. 

Elsie: And from your experience, working behind the scenes in the cotton industry, when you do want to buy something permanently, what should we be looking for when it comes to the types of fabrics, is there anything that we can look out for on labels?

Tamsin: I wouldn’t profess to be an expert on it, but you know, from working in the cotton industry, we did develop the first Fairtrade certificate for cotton in East Africa and I still think Fairtrade is a really reliable marker of suppliers that are making an effort. It definitely has its challenges. But for the community I worked with in Uganda was really important as a way of making sure the farmers got  more money.

Dominika: So we spoke to our friend Sarah recently, about of the future of fashion. And I would love to get your thoughts on where you think the industry’s going and where we might end up potentially with a positive spin. 

Tamsin: I’m hugely optimistic. But then, I don’t know if it’s possible to be an entrepreneur if you’re not also an optimist. You have to believe that it’s all going to happen the way you think it is. I’m really excited about the growth of the various models that extend the life of garments. So that could be rental but also resale. I mean, luxury resale is growing faster than the luxury market, which is just amazing. There’s so many exciting companies getting really big now and I think for me, having sustainability built into a fashion brand is really important, and it’s going to matter for every fashion brand, which is really exciting.

I think that’s driven by the younger generation who are even more tapped in than the millennials, which I’m part of.  I also think that the fashion brands that are going to be most successful are going to realize early on and are going to embrace the full lifetime of that garment. So it’s no longer going to make sense to be a brand that produces a garment, sells it and never thinks about it again. There’s going to be brands that will take back garments, dismantle them and put them together in interesting ways. I just think this produce, sell, never-think-about-it-again model is going to die quite quickly and that’s really exciting to me. 

Tamsin : With renting clothes you’ll get all the constant newness and variety that you do with fast fashion, but without any of the accumulation of stuff or the waste or the guilt. And that to me it’s a no brainer and you should do it with Onloan because we have the best brands, because we care about sustainability all the way through the business. And because we’re making it really easy, it would be just as easy and slick as your accidental pop into Zara, except without the guilt!

Elsie and Dominika: Brilliant. Thank you so much. That was great. Online details into the show notes for everybody so that they can click through and sign up and give it a try.

Thank you so much, that was a fantastic insight into the rental business.