A Year of Rent the Runway Unlimited
In 2011, I placed my first Rent the Runway order for my bachelorette party. After a lot of fruitless shopping, a rented dress hit every mark for me: pretty, special, and affordable - it fit like a dream, and I felt fantastic. I posted a rave review and quickly reserved rentals for more of my wedding events. Since then I've rented outfits for plenty of special occasions, from fancy weddings to holidays. For me, it's the perfect cocktail of fashion and convenience.
So naturally I was interested when the Unlimited subscription service came along: a rotating closet of designer clothes for a fraction of the retail price sounded wonderful. After whittling down to a capsule wardrobe my closet was feeling a bit stale, but I wasn't ready to actually buy much new stuff. I knew that the subscription would give me access to beautiful clothes I wouldn't otherwise be able to wear, but would it be worth it? Could it help me shop less and learn more about my style? I waffled around a bit - trying it for a couple months, cancelling, starting it up again - then I decided to really dive into the experiment.
Over the past year, I've gotten so many questions about Unlimited and how I use the service. I do still own the majority of my closet - you can't rent shoes! - but here I'll share how I use four pieces at a time to make my wardrobe a bit more fun and fancy. This is a long one, so grab a glass of rosé (or maybe coffee), then read on for how Rent the Runway Unlimited works, when it's worth it, the pros and cons, and my experience and tips.
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How it Works
For $159 per month, you can rent 4 items at a time from Unlimited, switch them out whenever you like, and cancel anytime. Shipping, dry cleaning and insurance are included in the price - so don't worry if you spill a drink. I've never had this happen, but if there's serious damage or the piece is lost or stolen, you'll be charged a percentage of the item's retail price. Even when the zipper broke on this adorable bag while I was in San Francisco, the RTR team just had me send it back to them for repair.
Once you choose your first four items, they'll be mailed to your doorstep in a clever fabric garment bag. Keep everything as long as you like, then pack the items you want to return back into the garment bag along with their hangers and plastic covers - everything will be recycled or reused back at Rent the Runway. Slip the pre-printed, pre-paid shipping label into the bag's outer sleeve and drop it off at a UPS store or dropbox. When your return is received, you're ready to choose new items.
While Rent the Runway made its name with evening gowns and party dresses, the Unlimited selection has a lot more variety. Yes, there are formal dresses for special occasions, but there are also skirts, tops, sweaters, outerwear, jewelry, handbags, etc. There's also RTR Update, a subscription that lets you rent just four items per month from a limited selection of styles, and RTR Reserve for individual 4- or 8-day rentals.
When It's Worth it
An unlimited fashion subscription certainly isn't for everyone, but it could be worth it for you if you care about clothes more than the person next to you and you identify with a few of these:
- You're prone to buying clothes on impulse or for individual events.
- You live somewhere with limited shopping options and want to try something new.
- You've spent $300 or more on clothes in the past two months.
- You have a set of closet staples but wish you had more fun pieces.
- You love being fancy, and want to wear nice clothes without maxing out your credit card.
- You're pregnant (Unlimited has an ever-growing maternity section).
- You want to learn more about what style you like.
- You're looking to graduate from fast-fashion stores and want to try something new.
- You often find yourself feeling like you've got nothing to wear for a date, party, or work day.
- You get tired of your clothes quickly.
- You have a bunch of weddings and events on your calendar.
If some of the things above are true for you, it's worth it to try Unlimited or Update for a month to see if it's a good fit. If right now you only need an outfit for a single event, try renting a dress through Reserve instead of buying one. And if you have more questions, let me know!
A Rory Gilmore Pro-Con List
- On average the retail value of my rentals each month is $3,000. That's almost double the annual cost of the subscription, and way more than I would ever actually spend.
- I spend much less time and money shopping. I don't buy clothes for a certain event or trip, I'm not shopping fast-fashion stores just to have something new, and I don't get that 'nothing-to-wear feeling'. Really.
- When I do shop, it's easier to be intentional about what I buy. When I find myself thinking "this is cute, but I wish I had ______ to go with it" I make a note. If something pops up over and over, I add it to my wishlist or plan to buy it myself.
- If the exact item I wanted isn't available, I can always find something to wear for whatever I have planned - even when I'm looking for a festive cocktail dress in December or a wedding-guest dress in June, when you might think they would all be rented.
- You can have items shipped anywhere in the US, which makes domestic travel a breeze. Have items shipped to your destination, and mail them back before you leave - no suitcase space required.
- It's fun, and you get lots of compliments. Maybe it's not your #1 priority for your wardrobe, but it is really fun to wear new, stylish things all the time. Some things arrive new with tags, and I've tried so many designer brands and styles that I wouldn't have worn otherwise. It's a great way to learn more about what you like to wear.
- They've made good improvements lately. Adding a fourth item to the subscription, working to speed up shipping, and giving subscribers 25% off other rentals are all steps in the right direction. Customer service is wonderful, and they're always open for suggestions to improve the program.
- If you want to buy something you've rented, you get a certain percentage off the retail price - 10% for items that are new or in really high demand, and up to 70% or more for pieces that are from past seasons, more worn, or less popular. I've purchased two things from Unlimited: this red Milly cape and a pair of statement earrings.
- At $159 per month, the Unlimited subscription is not a budget option. The RTR Update subscription costs $89 per month, with just 4 items monthly (no changing them out for four weeks, and fewer option to choose from) but it's still an indulgence in my book.
- If you don't live in New York - or nearby - the downtime while orders are in transit is a bummer. Delivery time in NYC is a day or two; for the rest of the country it's 3-4 days, which feels like a long time when you're paying for a subscription and really want to wear that floral dress. RTR has recently become more transparent about this, letting you filter available items by a couple different delivery dates.
- For international travel, renting 4 items, packing them and returning them when you're home just feels clunky. I would almost rather use RTR Reserve for an item or two and pause my subscription.
- On that note, there's no 'pause' option for RTR's subscription services. You can cancel entirely and then re-enroll, but I would so appreciate the flexibility to send back my four pieces and suspend Unlimited for a month or two out of the year, whether I'm hibernating in February or traveling for weeks in September.
- Occasionally, items are quite worn. These pieces go through a lot of wear, shipping, and dry cleaning - it makes sense that they aren't always in mint condition. Thankfully the customer service team is great about sending you another style while you ship the notably worn or damaged piece back. Silver lining: you'll have an extra garment bag now, so you can have two pieces at home, one on its way to you and one on its way to RTR. It's a hack that helps negate some of that transit downtime.
- When sizing is off, you simply trade out the item as usual - no replacement is shipped when you realize it won't work for you.
- They're still missing some of my favorite designers. I'm a style lover, and RTR's collection can be a bit homogenous. Of course they're stocking the styles that get rented the most, but I'd love to see more independent, fashion-forward brands like Staud.
How I use RTR Unlimited
With Unlimited I rent about six items each month, and on average the total retail value of those pieces each month is $3,000. I tend to skip over the less expensive brands, because my subscription costs the same whether I choose a $500 dress or a $150 one. I also tend to keep pieces longer, rarely wearing something just once and sometimes wearing a piece I love for weeks on end. On any given day, I'm probably wearing one or two rented pieces in my outfit. Trading things out more frequently might maximize the retail value of the subscription, but holding onto an item means less time lost in transit, and I'd say that's an even trade.
For example, I've had this dress on repeat for a while, sending it back a couple times to be cleaned and ordering it again. The 70% discount off the retail price is tempting me, but the original $550 retail is way more than I would spend on such a trendy, distinctive piece. Who knows how soon the bell-sleeve will start to feel tired, and after I've worn this dress everywhere, I might not want to wear it anymore.
Because I can rent most of the mainstream parts of my closet, I'm shopping less - and differently - these days. It's easier to be intentional about what I buy when I can test-drive a variety of styles and don't feel like I'm in a rush to add something new to my closet. When I find myself repeatedly wishing for a certain piece (like a stack of Roxanne Aussoulin bracelets), I add it to my wishlist or set a sale alert and plan to buy it myself. Shopping like this means that I know in advance that my new purchases won't languish in my closet after I buy them. Most often, I'm shopping for shoes, vintage clothes, or pieces by independent designers - the things that feel most like me to me.
Living in the middle of the country with pretty limited shopping options, a fashion subscription meant that the clothes being delivered to my door were things I couldn't even shop in person. While there are a handful of boutiques and vintage stores I love in MSP, being an Unlimited member unlocked a new and ever-growing closet of not-from-around-here style.
SIX Tips: my best advice
1. Read the Reviews
There's a bit of a learning curve with designer sizing - each designer is different and they tend to run smaller than retail brands - so when in doubt, round up. The reviews for an item are your best bet for picking the right size or knowing if it will work for your body. They'll tell you if the cut or color is different than it appears online, if it runs small in the shoulders, if the material is heavy - all the details. If an item has tons of reviews it's more likely to be a bit worn, but is also probably a great piece. If there are none, it's probably brand new. Leaving reviews for items you've rented helps your fellow renters, too.
2. Build 'Hearts' Lists
Building a few lists of items you love makes it so much faster to find your next piece when you have an open spot to fill. I keep seasonal lists of things I've loved or want to try (Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter), an "Up Next" list for things I want to wear soon, and a dedicated list when I'm planning for an event or a trip. Being able to pick new items from my lists keeps me from scrolling endlessly through everything that's available.
I find that it's easier to build and manage lists on the RTR website - to start, settle in with a cup of coffee and spend a while exploring the collection, saving things that catch your eye. For browsing each Saturday's new arrivals and placing orders, I prefer the mobile app. It's so easy to filter everything and choose new items on the go - just yesterday I ordered this dress while waiting on the subway platform.
3. Find Your Favorite Styles & Designers
On Rent the Runway, you can try so many different styles and designers, so don't just stick to what you already know. Some of them won't work out, and you can send them right back. But I've found a handful of favorite designers and pieces that I wouldn't have tried otherwise - sometimes I'll keep a piece for months, or rent it over and over again. For example, I've rented every color of this Saloni dress at least once, rented this cheeky Anya Hindmarch bag in two colors (each for months at a time), and if you saw me anytime in March I was probably wearing this Tanya Taylor dress. Some of my favorite brands have been Milly (everything), Rebecca Taylor (dresses), and Oscar de la Renta (the best earrings).
4. Rent What You'll Actually Wear
If I let myself build a wardrobe based entirely on impulse shopping, it would be a giant collection of feminine cocktail dresses with one perfect pair of green velvet pants. When you're renting, you should absolutely have fun trying new things, but pay attention to what you'll really wear in daily life and any gaps in your wardrobe you could fill with a rental. Think about what you'd want to wear on a Tuesday afternoon or out for a mid-week happy hour more than what you'd wear to a fancy party. Rent a travel tote, a spring handbag, a winter coat - instead of buying one, at least for now.
P.S. If you do rent fancy outfits and wear them everyday, please send me your Instagram handle and let's be friends. I love to overdress, and we could really start a club that meets up for drinks in formalwear while everyone else assumes we've just come from a secret masquerade - we'll call it Black Tie Casual.
5. Don't Return All Your Items at Once
To get the most out of your subscription, try to keep at least one thing in your closet as you rotate out for new pieces. Returning all four pieces at once leaves you with nothing to wear from your subscription for up to a week, depending on where you live, and that's when it starts to feel like it's not worth it.
If an issue with an order leads to customer service mailing you a second garment bag, you can really maximize this system by having two pieces at home, one on its way to you and one on its way to RTR at any given time. You're effectively cutting out some of that dreaded transit time, and wearing even more pieces each month.
6. Use Unlimited for Special Occasions
As an Unlimited member you get 25% off Reserve rentals, but you know what's even better? 100% off. With some advance planning, I've been renting my special occasion outfits through Unlimited because I'm already paying for the subscription. Give yourself enough time to order a few different options, and exchange for a different size or style if you need it - probably 2-3 weeks before the event. I recently wore this fantastic ML Monique Lhullier dress to an equally fantastic wedding, avoiding a $100 rental fee.
Still have questions? Leave a comment below!
Use this link for $30 off any rental or subscription from Rent the Runway.