With the recent strife and organizational difficulties for Rent the Runway, the industry is wondering how sound the apparel rental model can be.
Armoire is one apparel player in that field that wants to remove any doubt. Ambika Singh’s title may say chief executive officer, but by her words she is actually “chief boss lady” at Armoire, a Seattle-based apparel rental business that formed in an MIT incubator in 2016.
Armoire’s customer base is also called “boss ladies,” assuming a broader range of women between the ages of 16 and 87 with an affinity for “stylist-driven” wardrobe access. Alongside brands such as Equipment, Rag & Bone and Diane von Furstenberg are a selection of woman-owned, small-batch designers.
While still a fledgling in the apparel rental space, Armoire is a proponent for the “tech-first” rental business, and its warehouse management system is “built from the ground-up” with every item being barcoded.
Three years prior, Armoire was incubated in MIT’s “Delta V” premier competitive summer accelerator program, whereby the team spent hours just tracking movement of inventory through the system.
Early media comparisons of Armoire were of a combination between Rent the Runway, being a subscription-rental business, and Stitch Fix, offering data-driven styling services.
Today, Singh wanted to make it clear that they were a different business model than Rent the Runway. “When I launched Armoire, I intentionally created a very different service than Rent the Runway,” said Singh, citing “customer data” as key to scalable growth.
In the last six months, the business has grown three times. Armoire’s team counts Cynthia Houlton as head of revenue who joined nearly a year ago. She is the former head of luxury bags and accessories at StockX, with executive positions at The RealReal and Entrupy prior.
According to Singh, “30 percent of our apparel will change state every day.” She added, “This stuff is not sitting in a warehouse.”
Customer-informed and data-driven personalization is crucial to that. “Instead of showing them all to you at once, we are literally your personal stylist,” said Singh. A combination of humans and algorithms cater to styling suggestions to consumers — who ultimately have the final choice. Except where the human stylists fail to remember, machine-learning-powered technology “has infinite memory.”
Rental Is Real-Time
As with many apparel retailers operating e-commerce channels, Armoire aims to take the objectivity out of fit, what Singh calls a “patriarchal fit,” using data from its customers that is matched against the larger data set of those with similar preferences.
“Rental is a just-in-time product,” reiterated Singh, stressing the importance of data for personalization, inventory management and agility for just-in-time delivery. Singh also believes rental models will have to continue to be proactive in customer-centricity and “incredible operations,” which includes great customer service.
Using a loose comparison to Amazon’s warehouse on Black Friday, Singh informed how Armoire uses demand to staff up “from a human resources perspective.”
What Could Go Wrong?
WWD asked her insight on the recent logistical strain put on Rent the Runway. Singh surmised, “I think one of the challenges for them is it’s a fully-automated system,” speaking on the new 300,000-square-foot fulfillment center in Arlington, Tex. The facility uses radio-frequency identification tags, so garments are more quickly routed back into available inventory and processed so customers can order new selections.
Of course, with any rental or resale business, there are humans involved, with quality-assurance analysts being a top proponent for satisfaction in garments.
Calling Armoire’s operations a “handshake between humans and operations,” Singh aims to foster a culture whereby jobs improve employees’ lives and vice versus. She also developed a structure whereby customer support teams report directly to the head of product and technology.
Rental Still a Nascent Model for Apparel
Singh believes “rental will take over a significant share of the retail,” and that by sequestering apparel production it is “better for the individual, industry and environment” extending the individual utility of each garment. But as apparel rental is still growing into itself at scale, there are still questions left as to the impact of activities such as garment laundering.
“A lot of our customers are sustainably minded,” added Singh, who accredits Armoire’s brand partners, out-sourced local dry-cleaning partner and local delivery network and drop-off centers as important to the business.
Singh stressed that Armoire has “no wait list” for its subscription service and is opening a second retail location in Seattle with plans to open more in 2020.
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