Like Uber for clothes: Millennial startup wants to fight fast fashion with closet rentals

London-based sisters Jenessa and Madison are the cofounders behind a startup that aims to curb demand for fast fashion by helping buyers shop the closets of those around them.

The sisters behind STMNT say they love fashion, but can't stomach the social and environmental cost

Madison (left) and Jenessa (right) Olson are sisters and the co-founders of STMNT, a startup based out of Western University's "Accelerator." (Paula Duhatschek/CBC)

Londoner Jenessa Olson has always loved clothes, but she distinctly remembers the moment she realized her love of cheap fashion came at a cost.

It was 2013, and Olson's undergraduate business ethics course was discussing the Rana Plaza building collapse. The industrial disaster killed 1,100 people, many of whom were garment factory workers for fast fashion brands like Joe Fresh.

Olson says she walked out of class 'heartbroken.'

"I've always loved fashion, I've always loved being on top of the latest trends. But I was like, 'How is my demand for a $15 trendy t-shirt worth somebody's life?'" said Olson, now 27.

That moment was the germ of an idea that's grown into STMNT, a clothing rental start-up that Olson launched with her sister, Madison, this year. The aim is to reduce demand for fast fashion—without denying shoppers the pleasures of a new outfit—by helping them find pre-existing garments in other people's closets, Olson said.

"It's a way for people to participate in conscious consumption, by decreasing the demand for new items [and] increasing access to items that are already out there," she said.

Officially, the business is now just three weeks old, and has so far operated largely through Instagram transactions and a 'pop-up' shop, according to Madison Olson, 24.

At the first STMNT pop-up, renters met in-person to sift through racks of garments, and booked clothing in advance of future social engagements. The day before the event, they'll pick their new-to-them outfit up at STMNT's headquarters at Somerville House on Western University campus, then bring it back the next day. 

"It is really making income off the clothes that are literally just hanging in your closet," said Madison Olson.

So far, 'about half' of STMNT users have been sorority girls, who typically have about six to 10 events in the month of November alone, Jenessa Olson said.

"That is a lot of outfits," she said.

And while not everyone's social calendar may be quite so full, Jenessa Olson said STMNT has also seen demand from other demographics, like young professionals and moms. 

"Basically people that don't have time to shop and look for new things, because they have super busy schedules and they have financial accountability to their families and their businesses," she said. 

"So they have been a big market that we weren't initially anticipating would be so big."

Next step: going mobile

"The fast fashion industry is one of the biggest polluters, one of the biggest contributors to global warming around the world," said Madison Olson. She hopes STMNT will help reduce demand for fast fashion by pairing shoppers with clothes that are already out there. (Paula Duhatschek/CBC)

Given the current time of year, the business' focus has so far been on Christmas and New Year's outfits, but the sisters say they have broader aspirations. 

In the works for 2019 is a STMNT app, similar to AirBNB, that will ultimately serve as the main platform for the business. Lenders will post photos of their garments online, and organize their clothing hand-offs independently.

STMNT earns money and pays for overhead charges, like app development and dry cleaning, by tacking on a 15 per cent administration fee, Jenessa Olson said. They also enforce a strict "you break it, you buy it policy" for damaged garments.

Although Jenessa said the business is  turning a profit, it is also primarily self-funded ("Madison and I dipped into the wedding funds. We're both eloping!" she said).

Jenessa works on the business full time, and Madison works part-time while finishing her degree. The staff also includes six other employees, who either work on a volunteer basis or on commission, although Jenessa said the aim is, ultimately, to pay them. 

Citing the recent explosion of sharing economy platforms like Uber and AirBNB, Jenessa said she's confident STMNT will do alright.

"When we talk about being a business that doesn't own any inventory, and you give the rap sheet of these massive companies that are the behemoths of our time, it really hits home with people," she said.

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