Style Theory, Singapore's first clothing subscription rental platform will change your relationship with fashion
Fashion people can be assholes. There, I said it. Fashion people can be assholes. I said it two times for the reason that it's twice as true now as it was 10, 20, 30 years ago, because we didn't know then what we're certain of today — about how clothes, the thing that we wear to protect ourselves, is literally killing the planet. About how we can celebrate diversity on the silver screen, denounce animal cruelty in elaborate campaigns and fight for gender equality on a global stage in 2018 alone, yet we can't seem to pause and pay attention to what we're really buying into when we're buying something, much less stop long enough to pay the people handling the needles and threads a fair, living wage.
Fashion people can be assholes. Maybe that's why it takes a tech person — two tech persons, technically — to fix our problems. Introducing Raena Lim and Chris Halim of Style Theory, the co-founders of the first day-to-day fashion subscription platform in Singapore and the region advocating wearing more, not owning more clothing. With 20,000 items spanning 250 brands local and international on rotation, they want you to rent, wear, then return. Rinse and repeat without the actual rinsing.
It's not complicated. A monthly fee entitles you to as many rental cycles as you wish, with three pieces of clothing of your choice (a library as pregnant as theirs guarantees variety) sent per order. Once you're done with them — whether that's in three or 13 days — schedule for a pick-up, and you're once again eligible to order your next three items. The delivery is free, dry cleaning is included, and yes, you can cancel your membership whenever without being penalised.
If it sounds almost too good to be true to you, hear straight from Lim below, who gets candid about the realities of rentals, why fashion's biggest enemy is our addiction to ownership, and if Singaporean women are really that basic after all.
How did Style Theory come about?
My co-founder Chris Halim and I realised that women are always complaining about how they don't have clothes to wear. That was just a very bizarre problem for Chris, yet it was a normal thing for me. I was always going, "I don't have anything to wear" and Chris was like, "Are you crazy? You have a wardrobe full of clothes." We started talking to a lot of friends — especially my girlfriends — and it seems everyone has been "suffering" with this problem for a long time but no one is really doing anything about it. Through conversations, we also noticed that 50% of a women's wardrobe won't be worn more than twice in their entire lifetime (the clothes' not the women's). We felt there has to be a better way that we could share some of these clothes that have been so under-utilised. From there, we looked into business models like Airbnb and Uber. That's when we decided to adopt the sharing economy model into the fashion industry.
Tell me about this sharing economy within fashion.
Neither of us both have background in fashion (I used to be in banking and Chris was an analyst) so when we started approaching this business, it was really about how can we solve this problem, how can we get the right kind of clothes for people. Hence the team invested a lot into data analytics to figure out what is it that people want. We see ourselves as a technology company because renting clothes, daily clothes on a regular basis through a subscription model, you wouldn't be able to able to pull that off without the latest technology stack, the logistics and the operations that we invest in right. More than just a fashion company, we are a technology, data company.
How do you solve a fashion problem using technology?
We have around 100 people in the team and quite a lot of them are in technology and data, not fashion specifically. Every piece of item we collect is tagged using as many of the 60 data points that are applicable to the item — from the length of the sleeve to the colour of the garment to the type of fabric it's constructed with. These 60 some characteristics form the "DNA" of each piece of clothing. From this DNA, we aggregate customers' behavioural data and their aesthetics data. With it, we find patterns that lead to unique findings, for example, "25-year-old women wearing size UK 10 like wearing short-sleeved white lace dresses because they pick one about every third box that they order". Data like that allow us to plan ahead, and know what to order and how much to order from the 250 designers we work with.
Is clothing rentals the future?
We believe so. In the mean time, a lot of different things need to catch up first. Our logistics need to catch up, operational infrastructure needs to catch up. Because we are the pioneer in this industry in this region, we are building a whole lot more than a fashion ecosystem. We need to also set up logistics fleets that can support this kind of lifestyle, where you want something and I can pack it within a few hours and get it sent out to you.
As a consumer, how much can I rely on Style Theory to not just supplement my closet, but by my main source of clothing?
Ideally, you shouldn't have to buy more than 20% of what you wear. That 20% should consist of things that you really love and you want to invest in, really good quality pieces, unique finds, and let Style Theory take care of the rest. We want to be your wardrobe rotation, where you will always have something to wear regardless of occasion.
Can style be truly understood by data? Can a program be built to predict trends?
It's really hard to do that completely and freely. A percentage of our buys are based on data and its based on sort of; about 50% of what we bring in are based on behavioural data we've collected based on previous orders. But stuff people used to like can't really tell you what people will like in the future. So 40% of the clothes we bring in are based on calculated predictions of what people will like. As for the remaining 10%, our buyers go out there, try out cool stuff and experiment. It's like art and science — it's always through experimentation that we'll know what sticks with people.
Wouldn't it be easier to just ask people what they want?
[Laughs] Data is unbiased which is really good because when we ask people, "What kind of dresses do you like?" they'll say, "I want to rent only loud dresses, like the red, the prints...". But their behavioural data on our app will tell you a different story. These are the people who will choose the black, they're choosing the navy because these are the things they feel comfortable wearing everyday.
So you're saying what people say they like and what they actually buy are very different things.
It can be. People think fashion is always very trendy, and they feel the pressure to buy new things. So we tested with a lot of the trendiest items in the market but we don't actually see people adopting them. People end up going back to the classic styles, the pieces that complement their bodies best. If you look at behavioural data, you'll start to understand that you can't take customers' words point blank. You need to feed them fashion and see how they react to it.
Why do you think we say we like something but we actually go buy something else? Like why is this happening?
We did some research within our focus group where we asked them how often they'll wear a trendy dress they just said they liked. A majority of the answer was on the annual scale. So I think the answer to your question is related to the frequency of the wear. Just because they like a dress a lot, it doesn't mean they'll wear it on a regular basis. And if they don't think they'll wear it often, they're likely not going to buy it. With a service like ours, they can wear a fun piece once when they want to, and on other times go back to pieces that are more in their style that they will feel confident in.
Does the stereotype that Singaporeans are boring when it comes to fashion hold water?
On average, a Singaporean shopper will go for things that are on the basic side 70% of the time. The pieces may have a twist, but it's slight, like a blue dress with some lace and ruffle detailing; they're unlikely to wear a saffron colour like what I am wearing today. This wouldn't be something they're comfortable with. Having said that, there are also groups of customers that gravitate towards very outlandish stuff. We haven't been able to cater to those groups of customers as well as we'd hope; it's something we're working on.
Are Singaporean women brand-minded?
Not really. When it comes to work clothing, people are a little bit more brand minded because they have brands that they associate quality with already. They're not very fussy about casualwear.
They don't care about brands?
No they don't.
Are people more drawn to the more expensive pieces?
Surprisingly no. We ran a few experiments to see if people would try to rent things that are more expensive and we realise that throughout the last two years, people don't really care about the prices. We show the retail price of each item for transparency, but people don't really try to rent things that are the most expensive because no matter how much they would cost to purchase, the value is the same to the renter — it's one slot in your box of three. So people are just looking for things they want to wear, for an occasion they want to wear it to, that fits their body shape. That matters most to Singaporean customers, which shows that Singaporean customers are quite utility-minded; they are very practical, they're very realistic with what they want, they don't always go for that top dress featured in a magazine.
Is your business solely focused on giving people what they want or is there also a desire to shape the fashion scene in Singapore?
The team is having a debate right now to figure out what is it that we really want to do because at this point we are in the most part catering to what customers want. But do we want to be a little bit more adventurous, to tell customers what they should want? A good example is streetwear. Street wear is not very big yet in Singapore but all across the world, Gucci, Fendi, they're adopting a lot of streetwear into their collections and we see that in abundance in South Korea as well. Should we start to bring more of those? We tried it didn't seem to fly. Is it because people don't know how to style it. If that's the case should we be teaching people how to style it? We're piloting a styling programme right now; with that, we're hoping to see whether it'll help people explore out of their comfort zone.
Style Theory could really reduce the number of clothes that we purchase as consumers. Is conservation in any way important to Style Theory? Is that something you guys consciously think about?
When Chris and I started the business, it was really just to create a smarter solution. We didn't think about the environmental component, we just wanted to create that perfect product, that ideal dream wardrobe. Along the way, as we dove deeper into the industry, how designers are disposing of clothes, how it actually contributes to not just environmental waste but also a lot of slavery because of people being underpaid in the industry, it opened our eyes in many ways.
Fashion really is the modern slavery.
It is. And it's sad the more we engage with designers, the more we see how we can play a big role in this. We're actively going to bring on-board brands that are more ethical, we're also going to relook at all the different plastic wastes that we're generating, to put our foot forward in this whole vision of being more sustainable as a whole. To protect the clothes, we're currently using boxes and plastic packaging to transport our products to customers but we are looking into reusable garment bags in order to be totally can rid of plastic, fingers crossed, in a couple of years' time.
What are other kinds of problems do you see in plaguing the fashion world and how can Style Theory be part of the solution?
We are very used to having a lot of options to choose from, we want to be able to buy that dream wardrobe but obviously there is a financial constraint. To fulfil this need, we buy cheaper and cheaper items. What Style Theory wants to put forward this idea that you don't need to buy everything, and you can actually wear really quality pieces, support local designers, be on a more sustainable mission at a fraction of the price, because you don't have to own what you wear, you don't have to clutter your wardrobe. That is what we are trying to educate people on but it's such a different idea that it's taking a lot of our resources to go out there. That's why we need help of people like you to tell our story and hopefully people would really understand what Style Theory is here to do.
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