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Can a clothing subscription service cure unhealthy shopping habits?

| Sunday, Jan. 21, 2018, 9:00 p.m.

Once upon a time, I was an underpaid magazine journalist with expensive taste.

Saturdays were spent scouring Twin Cities thrift stores and upscale consignment shops for deals on designer wear. Proudest discoveries include a gauzy Oscar de la Renta dress ($70), a painted Pauline Trigère frock ($60) and an asymmetrical Yohji Yamamoto jacket plucked from an overstuffed rack of wrinkled castoffs ($25; regular price, maybe $800).

It was a good run (lasting more than a decade) but that time-consuming lifestyle came to a halt in 2012 with the birth of my daughter. Suddenly, I found myself underslept and overscheduled, practically sprinting between office and day care. As a working mom, I still craved the designer clothing that made me feel polished and professional. There just wasn't time for shopping anymore, let alone excavating treasures from secondhand shops.

Soon I was dropping hundreds of dollars a month online. Bad day at the office? I blew off steam surfing my favorite boutiques during the bus ride home. Need a break from political news? I slumped on the sofa till midnight, scrolling mindlessly through pages of $400 dresses.

At the office one day, a well-dressed co-worker told me about her Rent the Runway subscription. For $159 per month, she explained, she can “rent” four designer items at a time — blouses by Halston, blazers by Jason Wu, handbags by Zac Posen.

I immediately wondered whether the “sharing economy” could work like replacement therapy for my online shopping problem. Could I feel fashionable and hip without overspending? Could I even save money with the service? I resolved to sign up and find out.

Financial breakdown

Rent the Runway got its start in 2009, leasing expensive dresses for weddings and other special events. As co-founder and CEO Jenn Hyman has explained, the target market was middle-class professional women in their 20s and 30s. For $30 or more, they can rent top-of-the-line dresses by Valentino or Monique Lhullier or Proenza Schouler.

The New York company branched out in 2016 to include monthly subscriptions for everyday wear. They call it “closet in the cloud.” And there are other digital startups selling similar services. Le Tote offers more affordable monthly subscriptions (starting at $59/month) for rentals on less upscale apparel. Stitch Fix is another option, with its regular shipments of stylist-selected goodies. But I didn't necessarily want a personal shopping service. My closet was already packed with clothes I hardly wore.

It took 15 minutes to sign up for Rent the Runway one day while home recovering from the flu.

Then I spent hours poring over photos of handbags, earrings and dresses. A few days later I was sporting a $695 Derek Lam blazer, garnering dozens of compliments. I also took a few chances on trendier styles. Realizing they weren't my thing, I quickly sent them back with more ease than returning another regrettable purchase.

The service definitely has drawbacks. The clothes don't always fit. It takes too long (up to a week) to make an exchange between Minnesota and the company's New Jersey warehouse. And the selection is too girlie for my minimalist tastes, with lots of florals and fussy embellishments.

But when the urge hits to ogle expensive clothing, I simply open the Rent the Runway app on my phone and start scrolling. I haven't visited another shopping site in weeks.

Yes, I saved a little money — about $200 on my first credit card statement — by eliminating all those impulse purchases. I more than halved the household's dry-cleaning bills (Rent the Runway operates the nation's largest dry cleaner, so they handle that part for no extra fee).

It's not the perfect solution. It doesn't make me want fewer clothes — it makes me greedy for more. But at least it put the brakes on an unhealthy (and expensive) shopping habit.

Christy Desmith is a writer for the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

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