For decades, people have been renting suits and festive wear for special occasions. Customers appreciated not having to buy expensive clothes that they might only wear once. For daily wear, on the other hand, the market for rental solutions seemed slim.
In the past few years, however, we have seen an increasing number of fashion rental platforms arise. Most of them operate as small local businesses (Share a Look, lena …). A smaller number have been able to crack the code to work at large (inter)national scale, (Galeries LaFayette, Mrs Mrs collection).
Whether operated as mono-brand (Scotch Select, SKFK) or multi-Brand, (Rent the Runway) finding a rental business model that works is challenging. Few customers still see fashion as something that could be ‘consumed’ as a service rather than an owned product.
When researching fashion rental platforms a little over a year ago, it was difficult to find good examples of rental companies offering every-day wear. Today, however, the landscape appears to be changing rapidly; From shoes to office-wear, from bags to casual wear, diverse rental offerings are sprouting up on all continents.
In november 2020, during our expert round table on The Value of Fashion Rental, pioneering entrepreneurs from the United Kingdom, India, France, Portugal, and The Netherlands engaged in an insightful round table, sharing their experiences and vision for the future of fashion rental.
As I was following black awareness week in Brazil, my eye fell upon an article about a successful ‘black-owned’ business. It happened to be a company pioneering a fashion rental platform in Brazil. The company recently received a lot of attention, and growth capital for being a black-owned business. But mostly for their innovative fashion rental solution, with international ambitions.
I spoke with the founder of WeUse, Carlos Alberto Silva. In the interview below he shares his insights on how he started as impact entrepreneur and conquered the challenges of building a circular business model.
After studying economics and obtaining a post-graduate degree in innovation management, Carlos started his career as business innovation consultant for international firms in the economic heart of Brazil, São Paulo. Having grown up in the periphery of Sao Paolo, where high-level job opportunities were rare, the opportunity to work in the financial centre of the city opened up possibilities.
Insights from Carlos Alberta Silva, founder of WeUse, a fast-growing fashion rental platform based in São Paulo.
1. What sparked your initial idea to develop a fashion rental platform?
The idea came up among myself my brother, and one of our closest friends. We used to regularly lend each other clothes. It became so frequent, that my brother once said “wouldn’t it be cool if we could create a platform that would allow other people to exchange and lend clothes to us also?”
His suggestion made so much sense to me; many of us own more than we can wear, yet sometimes we just want to wear something different, for a specific occasion, or just for a change. I looked into the possibilities, both in Brazil and abroad and didn’t find any existing solutions that would work for us. For three months I did a lot of research, studied the different concepts around virtual storerooms that would allow people to share a wardrobe of clothes.
2. From fashion consumption to fashion service; Rental businesses are popping up everywhere. But we see also that for many entrepreneurs it is a challenge to find the right business model and proposition for their customers, especially with rentals for daily wear.
There are already many subscription-based online platforms, but none of them are renting clothes here. We found and studied several traditional rental companies, here in Brazil. In parallel we looked at fashion rental platforms in Europe and the US that were already offering clothing rental in the form of a virtual clothing library.
If we were to challenge these models, we had to come up with a different proposal. We needed to find one that, from the start, was designed to be accessible for everyone. And scalable not only within our city or country, but in the future, also abroad.
3. How is your business model different than others in the industry?
One of our key differentiators is that we want to make sure our platform is for everyone; not just upper middle-class women sized 34-42, but really for everyone, regardless of age, size or gender. I did so much research in what drives our potential customer, how they shop, what they wear. I am determined to understand their needs, so I can keep optimizing to get and keep our model right, especially at scale.
We don't just rent clothes. It is a very complex system on our end. Our operational model unites technical solutions, operational intelligence, adequate logistics, laundry and management. We are now 3 years old and we are ready for growth.
4. What are the main drivers for your customers to subscribe to your services: environment, budget, style, service?
One the major challenges we faced was to find a break in the consumer paradigm. This is a great challenge, especially in Brazil where already there is hardly a market for used goods. In the USA or Europe, it is much more common to buy or resell used clothes.
Our customer clearly chooses convenience. Through our app, they choose what they would like to wear; where and whenever this is convenient for them. WeUse takes care of everything. For the price of one fast fashion item, our customer can borrow up to 16 different pieces of clothing, per month. Delivered at home, washed and ready to wear.
We design our collection catalogue to allow our customer to mix their personal wardrobe with our virtual closet. This reduces consumption and decreases the number of unused garments at home, while allowing to frequently change outfits. WeUse is for both conscious consumers and those that enjoy maximum convenience and without compromising on style.
5. In your opinion, what is the biggest environmental benefit that your service provides?
Clearly, by sharing a wardrobe, people will need to buy less, without compromising on their style. Using individual garments more frequently has a major impact on the environment.
6. People regularly point to the environmental impact of cleaning, and especially dry cleaning, clothes. How have you managed to reduce your impact on that front?
We have set up our own in-house cleaning service using professional machines that use upto 70% less water and energy than domestic washing machines. Our collection does not need dry-cleaning, allowing efficiency in the washing of all returned clothes. Also, we set up our cleaning process to protect the quality of the garments, so we can rent the items out over a longer period of time.
When garments no longer pass our quality check, we make sure that they find their way towards social projects, prolonging the lifecycle of the garment or fabric, and making a social impact. Clothes that can still be worn, but cannot be sold or rented are donated to a project that cares for homeless people. And when the garments are no longer suited to be worn, they are donated to a social workshop. There they are upcycled to new clothes, bags and other accessories, to be sold in support of the local community.
7. About your collection - How do you select pieces for your catalog and how do you determine which items to send to your customers? Do you have your own (white label) collection or does your catalog also include famous brands?
We do not have the illusion that customers will stop buying clothes entirely. But we encourage them to buy less. By combining items from our virtual wardrobe with their personal pieces, they will be able to decrease the number of unused garments at home. People will continue to buy the most basic and personal items: underwear, basics, jeans etc.
In our research we also found out that most women do not really care about brands. They want to have well-designed, nice clothes with a good fit and on trend. Men are keener on wearing from respected brands. Our catalog includes a variety of white label items, as well as items from mid-range small labels and some more known brands. Our current plan value does not allow for us to include premium brands in the offer, but this might change over time.
8. About diversity in the fashion industry - As an organization, we often speak with impact entrepreneurs about the challenges they face in growing from a start-up to scale up. Purpose-driven companies seem to have extra obstacles to surmount. So do those companies founded by women, minority groups, or those in other ways outside the world of white-collar businessmen. Based on your journey, what are the learnings you would like to share with other social impact entrepreneurs in fashion and retail?
I was born and raised on the outskirts of São Paulo. I grew up with little access to resources and had to solve my own problems. WeUse, was entirely designed and developed by me. Fuelled with a start-up mentality, passionate to find the right model for the concept, I worked on the business next to my day job as consultant for the first two years. It was only after I had taken the business from idea to operation that I could work on WeUse full-time.
I will not say that that I had more difficulty compared to others. Though, through my education and in working for an international company, I had the advantage that I understood how to get access to capital and partners.
Although I did not have to deal with prejudice myself, I know there is a structural problem. Many black communities have limited awareness about the available opportunities for support and can therefore not access these. Today, there are some wonderful initiatives focused on black-owned start-ups in the city of Sao Paulo.
And there are specific accelerator programs for start-ups from the periphery and more remote areas. The Google for Startups Black Founders Fund for example, was set up to expand racial diversity in the startup ecosystem and to support entrepreneurs who are building businesses with high growth potential.
Initiatives like these give entrepreneurs of color and /or from underserved communities the opportunity and support to pursue their business idea.
But, mostly, getting to success is a matter of preparation, dedication, education and training. I worked hard, researched and improved my idea until it was perfect. And I gained valuable business experience in large companies through my work as consultant. This, together with a dedicated, committed and skilled team like ours, is essential for business success too.
9. Outlook for 2021 - 2020 was a challenging year for everyone, for many reasons. Looking back, which moments of this past year have sparked hope for 2021?
Well, 2020 was supposed to be our year. We celebrated the fact that we received a great investment that would help us accelerate and grow. And then the pandemic hit.
Imagine sharing your clothes amidst a pandemic. Who would want to? But you know what? We did it, and we managed to grow. The pandemic provided us with the ultimate baptism of fire.
For 2021 our expectations are very good. We are ready for growth and will expand our operations to other regions in Brazil, and who knows, by the end of the year abroad.
Against all odds… or maybe because of what happened to all of us. We need to be able to rely on each other, and the communities that we are a part of. This past year, we have been made to see again, the importance of being able to connect with friends, family and the communities we are a part of. Without having formulated this as a strategy, WeUse offers its users a sense of community through its shared wardrobe. And in addition, also a feeling of care by ensuring that the clothes they provide are well curated and cared-for.
WeUse is a virtual wardrobe service for men and women. Using a subscription-based business model, WeUse delivers clothes to the customers’ homes or workplaces in an eco bag, exchanging the items weekly. Subscribers have access to a wide variety of clothes. For the price of one fast fashion item costumers can rent up to 16 pieces per month, without having to pay or worry about transportation and cleaning as these service are already included in the monthly subscription prices. More information on: www.weuse.online