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Real men don't rent

There’s only one problem as the growing clothing rental market inches toward offering men’s wear: Guys may not buy in.

A little more than a decade ago, a pair of Harvard Business School students founded Rent the Runway, a platform for renting special-occasion evening wear that has since expanded to all kinds of wear: leopard-print blazers, bright red ski pants, Swarovski crystal necklaces and leather fanny packs.

By the spring of 2019, the company was valued at $1 billion and had spawned multiple competitors.

But Rent the Runway has never carried men’s wear. Despite the popularity of renting, there are no companies of its size that offer men’s apparel. Because aside from prom or wedding tuxedos, men do not rent — for now, at least.

Why don’t men rent? Are they fearful that borrowed clothing carries the unsanitary residue of other men? Do they dread the logistical planning required to return a pair of cuff links? Or is it just that their renting options are so few and little known that they didn’t know theycould?

The New York Times asked a dozen stylish men across the United States (and one abroad) about their attitude toward renting clothes. Nearly all were dubious, and not because of hygiene or laziness.

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Through their explanations, they provided a window into how fashion-aware men think about clothes in 2020. Their stated values — individuality, ownership and longevity — were at odds with the ever-rotating closet pushed by the rental market.

Still, leaders and new players in that market are plotting expansions into men’s wear, each on slightly different paths. Whether men know it — or want it — the race to make them rent is about to begin.

Sometime around 2007, it became easier for men to talk about their appreciation for clothing, according to Volker Ketteniss, the director of men’s wear at the trend forecasting firm WGSN. Marketers began pushing a more “technical approach” to shopping for men, he said, placing the idea of heritage brands and craftsmanship front and center.

“This became a guy’s way of being into fashion,” Mr. Ketteniss said. “The same way you could be into cars, stereos and other gadgets.” (Before that time, men who liked clothes were more often called “metrosexuals.”)

Their interest often starts with flashy accessories, like sneakers and watches. That’s how it worked for Ty King, a shoe enthusiast in Nashville.

“Especially early on, with shoes, you didn’t want the shoe that other people were wearing,” said Mr. King, a 43-year-old music and sportswear writer known online as John Gotty.

In mid-December, when Nike released the new Air Jordan 11, Mr. King decided to skip the drop. Too many people were lining up for the $220 red-and-black retro sneakers.

“Even if I did buy them, I’m probably not going to wear them for a year or two,” he said. By then, he expects everyone else will have moved on.

Mr. King’s individualist attitude extends to renting clothes, which he said he would never do. Through years of digging and researching, he has developed his own “strong sense of style.”

“I truly know what I feel works best for me,” he said.

Mr. King fears that renting will lead to herd mentality, and he’s not alone.

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“How much of truly being stylish or expressing oneself with clothing is going to be left?” said George Lewis Jr., the 36-year-old Angeleno who makes music as Twin Shadow.

Mr. Lewis said he was familiar with the concept of renting clothes, and he knows women who rent clothes, but that he personally thinks the concept is strange.

Mr. Ketteniss of WGSN has a theory about men’s skepticism toward renting: Women are accustomed to the idea because they have been swapping clothes with their friends since they were teenagers.

This pastime never really caught on with men. And the women’s wear market has always grown at a faster pace than men’s wear. Why would the renting phenomenon be any different?

On Instagram, under the handle ThePacMan82, Phil Cohen has amassed 770,000 followers, with posts that show a neat collection of clothing and accessories, styled as if for an advertisement.

Though Mr. Cohen appears on lists of prominent fashion influencers, he prefers to leave himself out of the pictures. The spotlight belongs to the clothes themselves.

In an interview Mr. Cohen, 37, expressed pride in his clothing and the work it took to obtain it. He said that renting a nice pair of boots or a hard-to-find jacket may thwart the proper way of things, which for him is a four-step process: Man wants garment. Man saves up for garment. Man purchases garment. Man wears garment.

“I like the idea that you save up and buy something that then becomes part of your life, part of your wardrobe,” he said. “I think that there’s a genuine sort of appreciation for the product when you’ve put yourself into it.”

Several men agreed. A few said that being outed as a rental customer may be embarrassing. It would be as if they were pretending to have more money than they did.

Jason Ryan Lee, a 38-year-old editor at the black celebrity gossip website Bossip, said renting feels almost like cheating.

“I would hate to walk out in a rental and get all kinds of compliments and in my mind be like, ‘This is cool, but this isn’t mine,’” he said. “‘Now I feel like an impostor of some kind. I’m not as cool as people think I am. This $2,000 jacket, I just rented for $35.’”

Through clothing, people project their wealth, status and work ethic. For men, being caught in clothes they don’t own could threaten those projections, and their masculinity.

Mary Blair-Loy, a sociology professor at the University of California, San Diego and the founding director of the Center for Research on Gender in the Professions, said that men often still see themselves as breadwinners. Owning their belongings helps support that image.

“Ownership is a sign and a signal of wealth and status and success in a precarious capitalist competitive world,” she said.

There is also less pressure on men to own extensive wardrobes. At work, they are less likely to be scrutinized for wearing the same outfit every day. And they take pride in wearing their clothes for a long time.

Dylan Walker, a 20-year-old welding student who lives in Georgia, said that he owns about 10 pairs of cowboy boots and would never think about renting an additional pair.

“Boots last for a really long time,” he said. “One pair of boots for six years. When I buy clothes, I’m buying them for the long haul.”

Stanton Coville, a 29-year-old software developer in Ohio, said that he takes a utilitarian approach to his clothing, to the point that he calculates the cost-per-wear of individual pieces. After wearing a $300 pair of Japanese jeans for four years, its cost was justified, he said. His wife makes fun of him, but he has had to get the jeans repaired only once.

Gert Jonkers, the 53-year-old editor in chief of Fantastic Manand a publisher of The Gentlewoman, spoke of the double standard women face when they repeat outfits. For women, it’s thought to be a faux pas. For men, it’s unremarkable.

Women also have a harder time getting away with informality, he said; they are more liable to be judged for ignoring fashion trends.

“Last night I was wearing a Missoni jumper I’ve had for 10 years, and people were saying ‘Oh, wow, I love that jumper,’” Mr. Jonkers said. “Nobody notices that it’s from fall or winter 2008. It just really doesn’t matter.”

Pride in ownership and longevity combine to create sentimental value. Mr. Lewis said that he appreciated the way personal possessions become “weathered by the energy of your household, or physically weathered by you wearing it.”

Of the white jeans he was wearing during an interview for this article, he said: “I love them and hate them, because two days after wearing them I have to wash them to make them fit the right way, and every time I wash them they get a little bit worse, and my mom overbleached them so they’re looking slightly pink now.”

“But it’s important to me because these have a story to them,” he added.

Major rental companies nevertheless look at men as an untapped market, even if they’re not quite sure how to go about tapping it.

Nuuly, a Rent the Runway competitor founded in 2019, is “actively looking” at expanding into men’s apparel, said Sky Pollard, the head of product.

Owned by URBN, the parent company of Urban Outfitters and Anthropologie, Nuuly is “talking to customers and trying to figure out a program that would work for them,” Ms. Pollard said. “We really see no reason to believe that they wouldn’t respond to it and love it as much as our women customers.”

Rent the Runway said it has also been thinking about men for a long time, albeit less urgently. The company believes men want variety in their closet, but it is still determining the best way to introduce men’s wear.

For example, should it advertise to men directly or target existing female members who buy clothes for the men in their lives?

Either way, Rent the Runway could give style-conscious men what it has already given to women: the ability to cycle through trendy clothes at a reasonable cost (its cheapest plan is four pieces for $89 per month), without resorting to lower-quality, questionably sourced fast fashion destined for a landfill.

Unlike other men interviewed, Khalid El Khatib, 34, was enthusiastic about the idea of renting. Ever since Mr. El Khatib, a marketing and communications professional in New York, learned about Rent the Runway from his two sisters, he has wished he had access to something like it.

A few years ago, when he went to Cuba on vacation, he brought a brand-new Reiss floral button-down shirt.

“I never wore it again,” he said. “I bought it for Cuba, I wore it in Cuba, and then I retired it.” He appreciates fashion, but he isn’t attached to owning pieces no one else owns, or owning them for a long time.

Seasons is a New York start-up that has been experimenting with renting men’s wear and street wear to a small list of customers.Credit…Seasons

In November, a New York start-up began experimenting with renting men’s wear to a list of 50 family members and friends. The company, Seasons, was founded by Regy Perlera and Luc Succés, who were also behind an app that allowed users to text each other Drake lyrics.

In an interview, Mr. Perlera said that “men are very ownership oriented.” But, he said, “the concept of ownership is changing drastically and very quickly. We used to think that we needed cars, and now we have Lyft and Uber and Car2Go. We used to need homes, and now we have Airbnb.”

Mr. Perlera hopes to make fashion more available to people for whom the cost has traditionally been prohibitive. The Seasons website says it has inventory from Yeezy, Off-White and Gucci.

But at the moment, it plans for its cheapest subscription package to be $155 per month, which lets the renter get three pieces.

Mr. Perlera said he has been studying Rent the Runway’s successes and missteps. When asked if he was concerned that these lessons may not apply to men, he said that the Seasons inventory is actually not particularly gendered, despite the language on its website: “A members only rental subscription service for menswear & streetwear.”

“It’s really a category of fashion that really doesn’t have gender boundaries,” he said.

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