Since Wear The Walk was born in 2017 many people have described it as the future of fashion. A clothes rental service that gives us the option of a revolving wardrobe. So, how far are we from renting rather than owning the clothes in our wardrobe? I spoke to Zoe Partridge the founder of Wear The Walk to find out. Zoe is also speaking at our event next week. So, if you’d like to hear from Zoe in person about how we can be glamorous and sustainable at the same time find out more here.
For anyone who doesn’t know Wear the Walk how would you describe it?
We’re going through this new stage of redefining who we are but traditionally we’ve always called ourselves the go-to platform for renting emerging brands. I guess, following on from that, we’d also call ourselves a revolving wardrobe which promotes sustainable or conscious consumption.
How did you get to here? What brought you to renting clothes, sustainability and emerging designers?
I started at Mulberry, working in established, corporate, luxury fashion. I think initially that sparked a bit of frustration with the industry. Not necessarily just with the luxury but fashion in general; inaccessible, way overpriced, archaic, lack of adoption of new technologies…That really started my thinking “is there a way to disrupt this industry or to do it better?” And then I joined a predictive analytics and tech company. My secondary passion is really learning and getting insights from data. Understanding why we behave in the way we do.
The data company was sold in 2016 and that gave me a bit of capital to go and start my own thing. I looked at models in the US and Rent the Runway was doing unbelievably well at the time. I used their model to bootstrap my own. I realised that none of the established brands would give me clothes for free so that’s largely why I started with emerging designers. But then actually realised that the most sustainable groups of designers are the emerging brands.
I’m really fascinated by the shift in mindset that it takes to go from someone who buys clothes to someone who rents clothes. I was reading recently that there’s been a big rise in clothes rental in Japan. Which is unexpected in a country that’s traditionally been very fastidious and hygiene conscious. Where are we in the UK in that mindset shift?
The hardest thing when I started this business was educating people in trying to change behaviour. Yes, this concept has been going well in the US but I think they’re less asset concerned that we are and potentially less conservative. So, for Brits, it has been hard to get over the idea of not owning something. Obviously, we’ve had questions about the cleanliness, whether the clothes get cleaned, what if I spill something on the clothes, etc. I think we are inherently more cautious about new ideas and the adoption of those. It has been tough but I would say over the past 6 months I’ve really seen a massive change in the way that we are willing to adopt new innovations and change behaviours. I think we’re getting there. The focus on sustainable fashion which has largely been a buzzword of 2018 has really helped propel us forward. My hope is that this isn’t just a fad that disintegrates. It’s about keeping the conversation alive.
My assumption would be that people mostly come to you for a special occasion. Is that true?
What we’re really pushing, and have been since January, is the subscription side of the business. That, I think, is a far better way to start promoting this revolving and sustainable wardrobe than doing a one-off hire. I’d say people come to us because they’re looking for something specific but it might not necessarily be for a wedding.
Part of what we’ve been doing is trying to normalise some of these events in our lives. Whether it’s a client meeting or a best friend’s birthday party. These are important times for you when you want to look and feel great this is a good place to rent things. On average we might have two important things within the month we want to look good for. So really what we’re doing is trying to serve that need.
I was at an event last week about the future of retail. They were saying that actually brands are coming around again to the realisation that they need a physical shop. Do people still come to your studio to look at your clothes?
Yes, big time. I actually find it’s more effective. Particularly in the initial instance when we’re working with new customers – they come in and get to know us, the brand and the designers. Then they try a load of stuff on and they can do the rest online. For us it’s really important, as it’s a new concept, to keep people engaged by having a physical presence. And I think for brands as well it’s equally important but just the old system wasn’t working. So, having these high street shops is not the model. It’s becoming more about the experience. We do private appointments and people have an hour with one of our stylists. It’s that kind of approach to physical retail as opposed to just drop in whenever you want.
Lots of us have great business ideas but very few people actually bring them to life. What is it in you that pushes ahead and makes it happen?
I think it was just serendipity; it was a culmination of factors that made it possible. My previous boss was a natural entrepreneur and he definitely pushed me towards this. I was 25 at the time. I was nowhere near ready to start my own business. It was never part of the plan. I think I’m just unbelievably competitive and I refuse to fail! That’s probably why I’m still here now. It was the right circumstances, it was interesting doing primary research and looking at the nature of the fashion industry. There was already talk last year when I started it about how there was this level of uncertainty. That plus looking at Rent the Runway. Plus having a bit of financial backing.
And an openness to the possibility?
Absolutely there are a lot of people who think that starting their own business is terrifying. And don’t get me wrong it is! It’s hard and it’s stressful. If it doesn’t work out you’re not fucked! There is a tomorrow. If anything, it helps you identify more what you want to do or how you could add value to another business. I don’t think starting a business and failing is detrimental to your life of or career suicide in my opinion. You learn so much and that’s the most important thing.
On the tough days when it’s hard work and you think “fuck it I’m going back to bed” – what keeps you going? Is there a secret to getting out of bed and doing it anyway?
I’ve definitely had days like that. I think the reason why I’ve now shifted and what motivates me more is having a great team. The girls that I work with are insane; their enthusiasm, their attention, drive, and energy… I am now accountable to them as opposed to them being accountable to me. For me showing that I am just going to take a day off and not tell them or things like that I think it sets a bad example and a bad precedent. We’re all being paid nothing so the one thing that we’ve got is that we all show up and we’re all in it together. I think that’s the thing that motivates me most.
How far away are we from not owning clothes and just renting them?
I don’t think we’ll ever get to the point where it will just be rental. I think we’re more likely to go in the direction of a capsule wardrobe where you have a few lovely pieces or your basics that you buy and then you rent the rest. I still think we’re about 10 years off that, of seeing that change in the Western world. I might well be wrong.
In my opinion, 15 or 20 years ago we were all educated that you could buy a t-shirt for £1.50, wear it a few times and then throw it away. However, it feels like there’s a counter-revolution happening at the moment. Have you seen evidence of that change in thinking back to slow or sustainable shopping?
It’s been very grass roots this education. It’s very much stemmed from independents or disruptive companies or innovators. It’s come very much from the bottom and it’s filtering into the mass market. Larger corporates are being asked about their sustainability practices, their ethical production side and so they’re being forced to be more transparent. It might have started from the bottom but it’s very much these major corporations or influencers within the fashion industry that are being help to account more. I think it’s great.
I think things like the Burberry scandal where they were caught burning clothes has really led to that exposure of these types of things. Obviously, sweatshops and factories being exposed in China has led to a build-up where people are saying actually this isn’t acceptable. And largely because of social media. There’s a lot more awareness and a lot more access to information that previously that was not necessarily denied but inaccessible. The flow of ideas and information was a lot harder and controlled by the minority.
I like the counterbalance. A lot of people blame social media for the wear it once phenomenon so it’s nice to have the flip side of that and remind ourselves of the positives – that social media is an enabler too.
I’m guilty of riding off this wave that people do only want to wear things once. That’s arguably why a lot of people come to us. It’s a bit sad because you want them to be driven by purely sustainability. Really, it’s driven by our own selfish desires. But that’s what we’re like as humans. As long as they’re using systems which are more sustainable I think it’s still doing good.
Where do you see Wear the Walk in the future?
We are massively looking to grow globally. We’re based in Europe and we’ve had quite a lot of interest from places like Paris and Barcelona. So I definitely think that there’s the international approach as well sticking to the subscription model. It seems to be the one that’s going the best. I’m a bit nervous about the US but definitely within Europe there’s huge potential.
If you’re interested in the sustainable fashion world chances are you’ll also have met Zoe. She seems to have the energy to be everywhere spreading the word about this different approach to sustainability. She seems to be overflowing with drive and determination. Although perhaps from now on I’m going to call that unstoppable, competitive spirit. What’s been interesting in this series of interviews with speakers for our event is that each of them has mentioned how much they relish a challenge. How they saw something that needed fixing and so started looking into ways to fix it. I especially liked Zoe’s encouraging attitude to starting a business even if it might not be “part of the plan”.
So have you rented an outfit yet? Do you have a couple of events a month that you’re looking to dress to impress? Have a look at the latest range of sustainable, emerging designers you can choose from. Check out their Instagram @wearthewalk