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Check me out: the library where you can borrow clothes instead of books

Dutch startup Lena offers an alternative to fast fashion, by lending out designer outfits on a subscription basis






Inside Lena, Amsterdam’s fashion library where members are loaned clothes.
Photograph: Bo van Veen

Would a golden leather jacket give you a dose of daily joy, or €575 (£510) of regret on a hanger? One Dutch company believes there’s a simple answer: borrow it for a week and see.

Lena fashion library is a store and web shop, set up by three sisters and a friend, that wants to ditch the idea of fast fashion and encourage people to borrow clothes instead.

The store, on a busy shopping street in central Amsterdam, feels like an ultra-cool boutique, with its stripped-back walls, fridge of green juices, hip sofas and Eminem’s music playing in the background. I’m greeted by beautiful clothes everywhere, from an extravagant, royal-blue fake fur MSCH Copenhagen coat or that Alexandra Frida €575 gold leather jacket, to interesting vintage dresses, simple tops and vegan handbags.

Although it stocks vintage clothes, bought wholesale, Lena also has new stock from local designers such as Alexandra Frida, Filippa K and studio JUX.

The idea is that subscribers typically pay €25 (£22) a month, for which they are given points that they can use to borrow items of clothing: a €25 subscription will get you 100 points, while a bump up to the highest subscription rate of €50 (£44) yields 300 points. To give some idea of what that transfers to, a simple T-shirt is 25 points, while a coat is 100.

Swapping at the flagship Westerstraat store is unlimited, or people can use points from partner stores once a month – six stores in Amsterdam and a further four in other Dutch cities that are participating in the service. There is no maximum loan time.

“Our ambition is that borrowing is normal for everyone,” explains co-founder Elisa Jansen. “Our dream isn’t to have 1,000 Lenas. We’d like to facilitate a whole borrowing system for other companies, in fashion, toys, tools – it doesn’t matter.

“There is some awareness of how wasteful fashion has become, but a lot of people don’t know what to do – there are sustainable brands, but they are kind of expensive, and what if you’re not sure about their style and end up throwing it, is it really sustainable? It’s hard for a consumer. We thought this would be a fun way of being sustainable.”

In recent years, more attention has been given to the waste and pollution involved in the clothing industry. An Ellen MacArthur Foundation report, launched with Stella McCartney last November as part of the Circular Fibres Initiative, claims that “an estimated $500bn value is lost every year due to clothing that’s barely worn and rarely recycled.”

So, while big companies ponder their next move, small innovators such as Lena are testing out alternative business models: offering clothes on a rental or subscription basis, for example. In the spirit of not turning anyone away, they do also give customers the option to purchase outright.

After running a successful secondhand store called Doortje Vintage while studying fashion, sisters Angela, Diana and Elisa Jansen got together with Suzanne Smulders and launched Lena in Amsterdam at the end of 2014. They won a Dutch best startup award in 2015, and Elisa says they are now “almost at break-even” point.

“The biggest problem is keeping subscriptions,” she says. “It’s not that hard to get new subscribers, but keeping them is hard. When people borrow something, it’s really nice, [they] wear it at home but then comes the point they have to return it and choose something else – in the beginning people are enthusiastic, but they are so busy. We are still working on optimising this.”

The business, which has had €150,000 (£133,000) of investment, is now looking for more cash and is taking part in an Impact Hub Amsterdam accelerator programme – “because if you don’t make money, if people don’t borrow, you don’t make impact,” Elisa adds.

Gwen Cunningham, who leads Dutch social enterprise Circle Economy’s drive for a less wasteful clothing industry, is one keen customer. “I live in a tiny apartment in Amsterdam, and don’t need to have so many clothes,” she says. “It has changed the way I view fashion, as there’s more experimentation. You also start to feel like you are part of a community, when you walk down the street and see someone in a jacket you were wearing three months ago.”

There can be hiccups when clothes are irreparably damaged or simply not returned, but even so, Rob Opsomer of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation believes borrowing could be better than buying. “For customers desiring frequent style changes, subscription-based models can offer an attractive alternative,” he comments. “Subscription models are already disrupting the market, with brands such as Le Tote, Gwynnie Bee, and Kleiderei. The American start-up Rent the Runway had revenues of over $100m in 2016 [and] YCloset in China secured $20m investment to scale up in March 2017.”

Back at Lena, a volunteer comes in to help with repairs, followed by a stream of tourists – and the next time I look, the gold leather jacket is still glittering on its hanger, but the fake fur blue coat is out walking Amsterdam.

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