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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 18 June 2018

For time-poor female workers in Japan, renting clothes is a boon

As more women enter the workforce, companies have sprung up to offer them an easier way to dress for an occasion

Byun Hyejin, an engineer with SK Energy Co., a unit wholly owned by SK Innovation Co., works at company's office in Ulsan, South Korea, on Thursday, Nov. 9, 2017. Asian firms, which lag behind other regions in gender diversity, are now catching up, with SK and Japan’s Showa Shell Sekiyu K.K. focusing more on female workers. Photographer: Jean Chung/Bloomberg
Byun Hyejin, an engineer with SK Energy Co., a unit wholly owned by SK Innovation Co., works at company's office in Ulsan, South Korea, on Thursday, Nov. 9, 2017. Asian firms, which lag behind other regions in gender diversity, are now catching up, with SK and Japan’s Showa Shell Sekiyu K.K. focusing more on female workers. Photographer: Jean Chung/Bloomberg

In Japan, if a working woman wants to wear a nice dress for an evening out instead of her ordinary office clothes but doesn't have the time to go shopping, there is now an answer: she can rent.

Clothing rentals used to be solely for such things as tuxedos, wedding dresses and, in Japan, kimonos for special occasions. A new trend there is for people to rent everyday or evening clothes instead of buying them. Companies are springing up to cater to the demand.

For ¥9,800 (Dh322) a month, one such - Tokyo-based airCloset - rents out three articles of clothing that its fashion stylists select based on customers’ registered preferences. Subscribers can hold on to the pieces as long as they wish or send back the ones they don’t want for an exchange. Users don’t have to wash the returned clothes because dry cleaning and delivery charges are included in the fee.

Presently employing about 50 people, airCloset was officially launched in February 2015 by the chief executive Satoshi Amanuma. Mr Amanuma was baffled when his wife complained she had no clothes to wear, despite a full closet. He realised that as a working woman, she basically only had office clothes all in the same style.

Young woman talking a photograph of her friend on sofa.
Companies have sprung up to offer working Japanese women clothing rental services.

The company's subscribing members number about 120,000, up from around 25,000 at airCloset's beginning. Through online social networking services and viral media, airCloset recruits members who can join by filling out a form on its website. They can then place their orders from the website, choosing among more than 100,000 items from over 300 brands, the company's co-founder and chief operating officer Yusuke Maekawa tells The National.

Hundreds of returned clothes that airCloset buys wholesale from makers are inspected at its distribution centre in Kanagawa Prefecture, neighbouring Tokyo Prefecture, before they are dry-cleaned at seven factories located nearby. The cleaned clothes are then rechecked before being stored, and made available to be rented out again.

Each item is tagged with a barcode to track how long and how many times it has been rented. The information is used for pricing depending on how popular the items are.

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Rental services for daily outfits are not the only robust business in the industry. A luxury bags rental service is also flourishing, as more people find that they enjoy borrowing and switching designer bags rather than spending thousands of yen to own them, The Japan Times reports.

Laxus Technologies, also based in Tokyo, launched an app for renting out top-brand luxury bags such as Chanel, Fendi and Hermes, for ¥6,800 a month. Similar to airCloset's service, customers can change bags as often as they want. Since its launch in 2015, the user base has grown steadily to 13,000, says the company vice president Kei Babazoe.

To increase its current stock of 18,000 bags from 52 brands in a bid to keep up with the growing demand, the firm recently started calling on luxury bag owners to send in bags that are just gathering dust in their closets. Laxus will clean, mend and store them in a temperature and humidity-controlled room for free. If those bags are rented out, the lenders will receive ¥2,000 a month.

Another Tokyo-based company, the apparel maker Stripe International, also launched an app named Mechakari in September 2015 to rent out its own private haute couture brands, as well as some popular brands the company buys in retail shops, for ¥5,800 a month.

Like airCloset members, Mechakari users can rent three articles of clothing of their choice and return them when they want to receive a new batch from the company's distribution centre in Shin-Narashino, in Chiba Prefecture next to Tokyo Prefecture.

But, unlike other fashion rental services, Mechakari rents unused brand new clothes. Returned clothes are dry-cleaned and those that pass its screening will be sold on in its online shop as used clothes.

Stripe has promoted its services through television commercials in March last year and last September, and does online advertising, the company information officer Yuyu Kimoto tells The National.

Toshihiro Nagahama, a chief economist at Dai-ichi Life Research Institute, a Tokyo-based market research firm, tells The National that because of young people's high internet use, opportunities for success are great for companies that can effectively use that medium. That goes not only for clothes, according to Mr Nagahama.

"Owning a car used to be a status symbol, but car-share is becoming more and more common among young people," he says.

The current Japanese retail apparel market size is about ¥10 trillion, the fashion daily newspaper Senken Shimbun editorial deputy director Tsuyoshi Yano tells The National. Although no figures are available specifically for online fashion services, if for example that sector amounted for 5 per cent of total retail sales, the figure would be ¥500 billion, he points out.

"I think it will take quite some time for it to grow up to that point, but it is not necessarily an unrealistic outlook," Mr Yano says.

For consumers, wearing fashion at low prices is a great attraction, especially for ceremonies and special events, so uptake of rental services online has been rapid, Mr Yano says. "Until now, consumers have not been able to borrow clothes unless they go to a rental shop, so it is a great advantage that they can easily choose products that match their size on the internet," he says.

About 5,000 people presently use the Mechakari service, Ms Kimoto says. "We want to soon grow that figure to 10,000 members," she says.

For airCloset, plans are even more lofty. They include expanding to rental of accessories and bags for total coordination with apparel, as well as clothing for males, older people and children, Mr Maekawa says.

"We are considering expanding outside Japan, mainly in Asia."