It’s fun to borrow clothes from siblings and friends. But imagine if you had lots of siblings to borrow clothes from, and that those siblings own Prada, Comme des Garçons and hip young designer pieces. As of now, you don’t have to imagine thanks to fashion rental service Higher.
Founded by Sara Arnold, the start-up Higher works on the premise of a circular economy. One of the winners of Business of Fashion’s Future Voices 2016, Arnold proposed her idea after reading about the competition in the website’s morning newsletter. In 250 written words and 60 seconds of video, she argued that the sustainability problem is the biggest opportunity facing fashion today.
Sara Arnold: the fashion entrepreneur
Sara herself is a small, bubbly person with an interest in creativity and style. “I like design with integrity, statement pieces, but also simple things like the brand Hockin. The seams are beautifully sewn and each garment carefully constructed. I like to meet designers and hear the thought behind their design, it adds depth to the clothes.”
She likes to have fun with clothes. “I’m not looking to be beautiful. I enjoyed looking different from a young age, but I learnt the balance between looking different and attracting too much unwanted attention.” She recalls an incident when she was in boarding school and wore a high neck, white fleece dress with a waterproof silver overdress from Roxy. “I thought it was a cool dress!” she says, and then tells me how everyone at school stared her down.
She likes to change people’s perspective on clothes, distorting ideas of what we ‘can’ wear and not, while respecting individual views. Clothes are an effective tool of expression.
Sara is Singaporean by citizenship, but grew up in Jakarta, Indonesia, with her family. After boarding school, she went to study fashion history and theory at Central Saint Martins, but dropped out after one year. Instead she began the school’s fashion design with marketing course. The marketing aspect of the course helps students take a holistic approach to design.
After presenting her final collection in the press show, the plan was to keep it rolling and start a label. The problem was that she struggled to join the principles of creativity and sustainability she lives by. Starting a fashion brand, producing new clothes, simply isn’t sustainable. Instead she did a 180 and went to Imperial College Business School. During her MSc in innovation, entrepreneurship and management, the idea for HIGHER appeared.
“I wrote my dissertation on the circular economy with the conclusion that rental is the solution.” Rental businesses reduce the amount of idle stuff lying around, while it allows consumers to be experimental and designers to be more creative. “HIGHER ticked all the boxes,” she affirms.
The circular economy
For those unfamiliar with the idea of a circular economy, it’s an alternative system to current streams of consumption by which products are made, bought, used and disposed. According to Ellen MacArthur Foundation, a circular economy is restorative and regenerative. Focus lies on innovation, to redefine products and services to increase longevity, eliminate waste and minimise negative impact.
HIGHER provides reusable products – highly desirable, good quality clothes that are more affordable when rented – and reusable service. Customers can pay-as-they-go, or subscribe to a monthly deal, prices depending on how many pieces they want to rent.
Clothes are an experience, the value you get is you wearing them, not having them hang in your clothes.
Not only a rental model, it’s partially a monthly subscription service. Many of the most successful companies today provide subscription based services, for example Spotify and Netflix. Other start-up ideas run on subscription such as food delivery, beauty boxes and urban car rental services. It’s trustworthy business for customers who require convenience.
The Independent wrote about the possibility of clothing rental on the high street. “The shrinking size of homes in cities such as London could also make renting your wardrobe – and then giving it back – appealing for some,” says Nivindya Sharma, clothing and footwear analyst at Verdict Retail, in the article.
It’s a new-thinking concept, so I ask Sara if people struggle to understand what HIGHER is. “Yeah definitely, it’s about getting people to try it and experience renting goods rather than owning them. Clothes are an experience, the value you get is you wearing them, not having them hang in your clothes.”
Initial customers got addicted to renting clothes, and wanted to continue. She says, “I have a friend who was very sceptical when I first explained the concept to her. I met her again, showed her things she would like, presenting them in a scroll on the computer. That made her realise it could be an everyday, wardrobe extension.” HIGHER provides ‘value on an everyday basis’, as Sara phrases it.
Accessibility versus luxury
HIGHER also enables accessibility. Few people can afford designer clothes, but with an affordable rental service, everyone can enjoy the high fashion they really love. The world of fashion is notorious for being inaccessible. While high street and social media have made it more available, luxury designer fashion is still out of reach for most.
“Luxury is not just a price point, it’s about limited edition, the exclusivity of something and where you market it”. She goes on to explain that “There is one demographic of young people today that won’t likely earn as much their parents, but a rental service gives them access to luxury. If luxury brands want to attract young people, they need to be more accessible without cheapening products.” A desire for high fashion, cool fashion and designer goods is also seeping down the ages. Up until a decade ago, the reasonable goal was to work until you could afford a designer bag. Now, teenagers, even kids, want these goods to prove they are in the know and on trend.
Initially, the idea of HIGHER was activated by a few Comme des Garçons pieces which Sara stored for some friends. “I thought I might as well earn some money from it and rented out the pieces.” To test the business, HIGHER had some customers, but the pause buttoned was pressed in order to set up infrastructure.
In April, the start-up had a showcase in central London with pieces from designers HYDRA, Phoebe English, Samuel Gui Yang, Ovelia Transtoto, Minki and ASAI. It wasn’t an official launch. The plan is to be up and running by Christmas.
HYDRA is a current collaboration. The brand makes exhibition pieces in transparent latex, made exclusively for rental. The collaboration is setting up a framework, helping designers work towards longevity rather than quantity. Sara wants to support young designers as HIGHER’s mission is to promote creativity, and to push creativity new things must be innovated.
Fashion’s biggest challenge is also its biggest opportunity. Sustainability is key for the industry (and the world) to succeed. “The fashion industry is moving in the right direction, but we need to hurry up. The past has been terrible, and it’s hard to make up for what’s been done. Predictions on what will happen if the world gets hotter are conservative. The Paris agreement is in place to minimise the raising temperature with two degrees, but even two degrees is a disaster,” says Sara.
Companies must stop planning obsolescence to sell more.
It’s refreshing to speak to someone who is frank on the subject. Discussing the sustainability effort and what changes can be made, Sara has a clear answer: consumption patterns, the amount of things being consumed needs to be reduced. “I was at the Kering Awards earlier this month, when Gucci announced that it’s going fur-free. My thought on that was ‘yeah, great, but what about leather and other materials that negatively impact nature?’ Companies must stop planning obsolescence to sell more”.
Companies and those in powerful positions need to take the big, difficult decisions, soon. Stopping the current, unsustainable production of fabrics, plastics and dyeing, will put many out of work, and damage brands financially. Until solutions are invented, there will be an uncomfortable transition.
“While it’s great to put emphasis on conscious consumption and pressuring consumers to do the right thing, it’s small part of the solution. The effect but be greater if consumers put pressure on the legislation. Mobilising politically brings widespread change,” says Sara.
Enforcing laws on transport, material usage, export, import and emissions is the only large-scale effort that can prevent companies from continuing their business models. A law prohibiting throwing out clothes would drastically contribute to more recycling.
“Also, using ‘sustainability’ as a selling point won’t last much longer,” she says. Everyone needs to work sustainably now, it can’t be a unique edge for the enlightened. Instead, Sara thinks inventive products such as tissue-engineered leather should be used to market the future.
Looking at current shopping trends is terrifying. Amazon is growing by the second, customers expect next day delivery, free delivery, and order goods from the other side of the world arriving in excessive packaging.
Sara hopes we will reach peak consumption in the West soon, but points out a forthcoming issue, “Brexit will lead to isolation, while the UK won’t stop trading completely, it will start trading more with partners further away than EU countries. Meanwhile, we should actually trade more with close neighbours.”
“There is also a huge rising middle class in the Asian and African continents, hopefully they will skip a step in consumption where wealthy nations already went wrong, and rise in a sustainable way,” she says.
In an article published earlier this year on Business of Fashion, Sara argued that companies must stop selling goods. Many start-ups work with circular business models, but this would change profit margins. Largely, the reason companies aren’t making greater changes, is because it would damage profits, which seems unthinkable in our capitalist world. When will focus shift from growing revenue to working on maintenance and existing resources?
“Economies can still grow without selling goods, I know it sounds idealistic, but I believe it. Working on a product’s durability and adapting to a rental model, will lower costs but continue revenue,” she says. While she can’t guarantee it will work, she thinks that if done right companies can still grow while using less resources. “I talk about the performance economy, which, unlike a sharing economy, maintains growth. If we share everything, yes, the economy will shrink. We need to move resources in a circular motion, rather than linear.”
In terms of other circular concepts such as vintage shops, I ask what that sector can do to sharpen up. Sara definitely thinks it can improve, “People want to feel like they buy new things.” It’s true the majority of vintage shops would do with a polish.
“I hate the word ‘vintage’, it’s ugly, and rings old like it has a bad smell. I see people buy vintage, looking very out of date, as if they’re living in the past. Fashion should be relevant to today, it’s a cultural phenomenon.”
Kudos to buying vintage, but don’t strive backwards in time. Sara buys vintage herself, and is interested in picking garments apart and putting them back together.
On the American market, clothing rental service Rent the Runway exists. The company experiences growth, making a bold bet that closets will become obsolete. As recently as last week the company announced expansion of their services, including launching a cheaper price option for millennials.
Circular fashion and the press
Sara wants customers to experience fashion, appreciate the craft and feel the emotions that can only come through a human’s unique touch in creating the garment. “Mechanised fashion world is pointless,” she says. We need to connect to clothes, otherwise we throw them away.
I wonder what her thoughts are on joining circular movement of clothes with the constant flow of new products we’re used to seeing in media and in store. “Media needs to learn to create newness with old things. Very interesting things could happen in media. Take HYDRA for example, the products are designed with lifespan in mind, and in with thought of what they could be later on. Part of the performance economy, is to in the conception phase, think of the potential modification of a product.
Instead of creating fashion imagery with new stuff, we could revisit and savour history, which in turn could spark creativity.
The press loan system functions through lending. A new season Givenchy suit travels from shoot to shoot to be photographed. From insider experience, many stylists personally use pieces they call in for a shoot, whether it’s for an event, private dinner or overseas holiday. Afterwards, they return it to the brand or PR. It seems just fine for stylists to loan fashion, then it should be for the rest of us.
With a vivid and innovative imagination, Arnold’s advice for thinking outside the box is to take the road less travelled. “People make bad decisions everyday because they follow the mainstream, while it might not be right for them. Go the other way of where everyone else is going. It’s worked for me… but I also find it very hard to follow the crowd,” she says with a big hard smile on her face.
HIGHER is currently in beta phase development and will launch later this year in London higher.studio.
Originally published on www.shiftlondon.org. The article has been modified.
All images courtesy of HIGHER.