Satoshi Amanuma recalls his wife standing in front of her closet full of clothes before they went out, muttering she had nothing to wear.

“She had many more clothes than I had,” Amanuma said. “Then I realized most of them looked quite similar.”

Amanuma realized that, like his wife, many working women and mothers with young children don’t have much spare time to shop for themselves or keep up with new looks, so they end up choosing the same styles.

That is when Amanuma came up with the idea of a business renting out women’s wear. And Aircloset Inc. was born.

As sharing services like Airbnb and Uber set up shop in Japan, the fashion industry followed suit, offering people the option of renting clothes instead of buying them.

Aircloset is one such company, renting out everyday clothes for women for ¥9,800 a month.

“I want to offer people, especially busy women who don’t have spare time, to buy clothes, more opportunities to encounter new clothes and apparel brands, and to enjoy fashion more,” said Amanuma, CEO and founder of Aircloset.

The company rents out three articles of clothing that its fashion stylists selected based on customers’ registered preferences. Subscribers can hold onto the pieces as long as they wish or send back the styles they don’t want for an exchange. Users don’t have to wash the returned clothes because dry cleaning and delivery charges are included in the fee.

Fashion rentals used to be mainly for special events, such as wedding parties and graduation ceremonies. But in recent years, new services like Aircloset have popped up, changing people’s perception of daily wear — rent rather than own.

And they are steadily attracting customers.

Aircloset’s registered members now number about 120,000, up from 25,000 in January 2015, a month before service’s official launch, according to Amanuma. Members are in their mid-30s on average.

As the customer base grew, Aircloset expanded its apparel brands to 300 from 80 in 2015, he said.

Hundreds of returned clothes are inspected at its distribution center in Kanagawa Prefecture before they are dry-cleaned at seven factories located nearby. The cleaned clothes are then rechecked before being stored, and made available to be rented out again.

Each item is tagged with a barcode to track how long and how many times it had been rented. The information is used for pricing if customers wish to buy their favorite rental pieces.

Toshihiro Nagahama, a chief economist at Dai-ichi Life Research Institute Inc., said the domestic fashion-sharing market has huge potential to expand along with other sharing services.

During Japan’s bubble economy in the 1980s, luxury brand apparel was seen as a status symbol for the rich, Nagahama said. But that mindset has changed in past decades as people grow less inclined to spend money to own not only luxury brands but also other products, including cars, he said.

“Fashion rental makes sense for such people. If you don’t have a desire to own things, it’s cheaper and more efficient to rent a wardrobe to update your fashion,” Nagahama said. “The fashion rental market will grow.”

Tokyo-based market research firm Yano Research Institute predicts the entire market size of the domestic sharing industry, including fashion, will expand to ¥60 billion in fiscal 2020, up from ¥28.5 billion in fiscal 2015.

Such expansion of new rental services, however, could deal a heavy blow to already ailing traditional retailers, Nagahama said. Apparel retailers need to think of ways to adjust their business to the changing landscape of the industry, he said.

Rental services for daily outfits are not the only robust business in the industry. A luxury bags rental service is also flourishing, as more people find that they enjoy borrowing and switching up designer bags rather than spending thousands of yen to own.

Laxus Technologies Inc. launched an app for renting out top-brand luxury bags — such as Chanel, Fendi and Hermes — for ¥6,800 a month. Like Aircloset, customers can change bags as often as they want.

Since its launch in 2015, the number of members has grown steadily to 13,000, according to Kei Babazoe, vice president at Laxus.

To increase its current stock of 18,000 bags from 52 brands to keep up with the growing demand, the firm recently started calling on luxury bag owners to send bags that are just gathering dust in their closets. Laxus will clean and mend those collected bags and store them in a temperature- and humidity-controlled room for free. If those bags are rented out, the lenders will get ¥2,000 a month.

Seeing growing potential in rental services, apparel maker Stripe International Inc. launched an app named Mechakari in September 2015, to rent out its own private brands for ¥5,800 a month.

Similar to Aircloset, Mechakari users can rent three articles of clothes of their choice and return them when they want to receive a new batch. But unlike many other fashion rental services, Mechakari rents unused brand new clothes.

Returned clothes are dry-cleaned and those that pass its screening will be sold on its online shop as used clothes.

Masaki Sawada, head of Mechakari department at Stripe International, said they launched the service partly to expand the apparel business.

“Apparel, in general, is about making and selling clothes. And that’s it. But if you look at automakers, like Toyota, they not only make and sell new cars but also maintain, rent out and sell cars,” Sawada said. “We want to make the fashion business like that.”

Noting young people are becoming less interested in purchasing clothes these days, Sawada said, so Mechakari wants them to get into the new rental service.

“In order to attract young people, we need to increase the number of users,” and make renting clothes a part of daily life, Sawada said. “We want fashion rentals to take firm root in society, and to become part of our culture.”

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.