Can We Talk About Rent the Runway's Unlimited Service?
Women have been using Rent the Runway since 2009 to borrow fancy dresses for a fraction of their retail price. Years ago, you may have been willing to buy and repeat the same gown, but—in the Instagram age—major looks now tend to be one-and-done affairs. That’s unfortunate when you consider how pricey formalwear can get. Then again, that’s why RTR is booming.
What you may not realize is that RTR isn’t just a party resource. In Spring 2017, RTR started offering a monthly unlimited service to set you up with clothes for everyday life. For $159 per month, you can borrow up to four pieces at a time, including formalwear. In Fall 2017, RTR added a second, cheaper plan called RTR Update. For $89, Update customers can borrow four pieces for a month. At the end of the month, you can either purchase your pieces, or return them for a new box.
When the unlimited service initially launched, I received an invitation for RTR’s try-on event in Neiman Marcus, and immediately signed up to test all the things. (I was their first client for a try-on session.) I spent about an hour in the fitting room to build a list of my favorite looks. Between the pieces I liked in person, those my RTR stylist added to my closet (after my very specific “don’t give me lace or ruffles” instructions), and a few that I found online, I now have 58 items stored. Most are for day, like dresses and jackets, but I threw a couple of ballgowns into the mix because there was a grand Monique Lhuillier number on the floor, and why wouldn’t I try that on when I have nowhere to go? (I might just borrow it and wear it around my apartment for funsies.)
If you can’t spare an hour to play dress up and pepper RTR staff with questions on the minutiae of the program, I’ve got you covered.
RTR ships subscription boxes via ground delivery, so it can take about 5 days to get a box. I don’t think that time frame is ideal, so my stylist suggested that I could ship items to Neiman’s instead. Because the RTR department gets daily shipments, subscription pieces can arrive in as little as three days if you choose to pick up your box at the store. (If you live or work near Neiman’s and can pop by during store hours, that may be more appealing.) You can either return garments to the RTR inside Neiman’s, or ship them back via UPS. It’s your call.
My favorite option, though it comes with limited offerings, is to pick pieces straight from the RTR rack in the San Francisco Neiman’s and borrow them on the spot. That way, you know the fit is perfect and the item is in wearable condition. (Occasionally, subscription pieces might arrive with a frayed hem or broken zipper.)
Once you have your Unlimited picks, you’re welcome to keep them as long as you want, but you won’t get a new item from your closet until you return one of the old items. (You can return all at once, or piece by piece.) The $159 fee is auto-billed to your credit card each month, but you’re free to cancel at any time. Based on my past rental service experiences, I think I could manage about 9-12 pieces in a month, which would bring the cost-per-borrowed-item down to $11.56–$15.44 per piece. If you generally go the fast fashion route to keep your wardrobe fresh, this would give you a comparable number of pieces per month, but you wouldn’t have equity in your wardrobe. (While I know that H&M and Forever21 pieces aren’t especially valuable, you can still resell them, so I’m counting that as partial equity.)
For the Update service, you can hang onto your items for one month for $89.
RTR subscriptions include dresses, jackets, tops, bottoms, jewelry, accessories (like scarves, hats, and sunglasses), and bags. The service applies to most items on the site, but bridal and vintage accessories, any dresses with a retail price of $3000+, and items from select designers are excluded. Unlimited customers can pull from more than 450 RTR brands, while Update customers are limited to more than 200 brands. While Unlimited extends to some of the more upscale labels like Proenza Schouler, Update's caché maxes out in the bridge label range. You'll find DVF, Tory Burch, and Opening Ceremony, but those are the most expensive brands included in the lesser-priced service.
RTR carries both standard and plus sizes, but I didn’t see many plus sizes in the boutique inside Neiman’s. (The largest size I came across was a 12, but, admittedly, I didn’t look at every tag in the shop.) Most pieces were available in the 4–8 range, but there weren’t full size runs of any of the pieces. With that in mind, even if you’re trying on pieces in the shop, you’ll be working with a staffer to guess that size you actually want to order.
If you’ve ever borrowed from RTR, a subscription is probably looking pretty good right now. I paid $125 for the last jumpsuit I borrowed through the Reserve service, which is now available on the $159 subscription plan. My inner math whiz looks at those numbers and screams, “Eureka! For only $14 more, I could have the jumpsuit and a bunch of other clothes.” That’s not necessarily true.
The traditional RTR service lets you book an item weeks in advance. With that full-price rental service, you also receive a backup size for your rental. With Unlimited, you can only borrow a piece that is not currently reserved, and there are no backup sizes.
I like examples, so let’s use one here to demonstrate the subscription reality.
Pretend I’m going to a gala next week. If I want to borrow that Monique Lhuillier ballgown that I tried on, I can only get it through Unlimited if no one else currently has a reservation for the dress. If Tracy in Tennessee has it reserved in a month, I can’t borrow it now because RTR doesn’t know when I’ll send it back. (Remember, Unlimited members keep pieces for as long as they want.) If the ballgown is currently available, the only way for me to guarantee that I can have it for the gala is to borrow it right now, which would take it out of rotation for the other RTR customers. But while I’m hoarding the ballgown, I can only swap out the three other pieces on my Unlimited subscription. Then my cost-per-item increases. Still, it’s likely more cost-effective that a traditional RTR rental.
If you’re really committed to securing a party dress in your subscription box, your best bet is to order it on Friday when the new pieces go live. You’ll still have to deal with the hoarding problem, but at least you’ll know that you’re literally covered for your event.
Overall, I’m pleased with the RTR subscription offerings. Some of the brands, like BB Dakota, are cheaper than I would expect from RTR, but there are enough luxury and contemporary labels to justify the cost. I could snag a Proenza Schouler midi (retail $1695), a Veda leather jacket (retail $990), David Koma separates (retail $580), or an Adeam maxi dress (retail $1600) without fretting over my cost per wear. I’ve been trying to clean out my closets without going full Marie Kondo, and RTR Unlimited seems like the perfect solution.
Editor's Note: This article was originally published in February 2017. It has been updated to reflect Rent the Runway's new pricing models, including RTR Unlimited and RTR Update.