When one wedding requires four outfits, try renting

(Field Notes)

When the wedding invitation arrived in the spring of 2021, Sonya Patel, an entrepreneur who runs a small spice business in Cleveland, was in custody.

It was for an Indian wedding, which can last several days and requires not just one dress, but an entire one wardrobe: four outfits, perhaps for weekend festivities; two pairs of shoes; three wallets; and bracelets and earrings to go with it.

Patel, 40, usually relied on lehengasor the skirts and sarees bought by her mother during her regular visits to Jaipur for these events; Patel herself has not traveled to India in over a decade. But that spring, “no one went to India to shop” because of COVID, she said. “I went to try everything on at my mom’s house and nothing fit. I was in a panic.”

A frantic Google search led her to Borrow the Bazaar and Preserve, two rental shops specializing in South Asian formal wear. After a flurry of emails and Zoom call, chose a white mirror lehenga from Preserve for the sangeet, an exuberant pre-wedding celebration. “Then I put it in a box and sent it back and I didn’t have to think about it — it was amazing,” Patel said. The price was $110 for a seven-day rental.

Weddings in South Asia seem like the perfect opportunity for a fashion rental juggernaut: Traditional clothing can be expensive and take months to custom-make; such delicate pieces are also difficult to clean and store. And once one look gets on Instagram, who wants to see themselves in it again next time Diwali gala?

For many, renting is the next logical solution. Preserve and Borrow the Bazaar, along with sites like AllBorrow and Pakistani designer-focused Almari360 — all introduced in the last five years or so — are part of a new generation of businesses trying to solve the logistically demanding and expensive dilemma of dressing Wedding in South Asia.

Rent the Runway, which has made borrowed fashion a staple in the mainstream, announced in February 2020 that it would begin carrying Indian designs from North Carolina-based label Sani.

“Parts were completely sold out within 48 hours; then two weeks later pandemic hit,” said Niki Shamdasani, who founded Sani with her sister Ritika. The partnership has yet to expand beyond a few clothing options that are often unavailable because they are rented out.

Lindsey Chakraborty, founder of Preserve, a clothing rental company that specializes in South Asian wedding attire, makes one of her affordable dresses in Manhattan (Source: The New York Times)

Demand can be high, according to Sonal J. Shah, a New York wedding planner who has overseen nearly 2,000 high-end South Asian weddings in her two-year career. “Post-COVIDI would say there are 6,000 to 6,500 South Asian weddings a year in the US alone, she said. (Translation: dresses for nearly 20,000 events.) She says the average budget for her clients’ multi-day pageants is $350,000 to $400,000, and designer pants can cost as much as $60,000.

Of course, guests don’t have to spend nearly as much, but also for something less extravagant weddingsthe numbers keep adding up.

“Everyone is tired of spending thousands of dollars on clothes they only wear once,” said Lindsey Chakraborty, founder and CEO of Preserve. “In my personal experience, everyone you know is invited to every one weddingso you can’t repeat the same lehenga for another couple of years – and then it’s out of style.”

Chakraborty, 36, came up with the idea for Za Preserve when she was dating her husband Shiv and found herself shopping for three Indian weddings in one year. “As a basic guest plus one, I needed 15 outfits,” she said. When she went the “budget online route”, she said the clothes that arrived were poor quality and looked nothing like their pictures.

Using her experience in business, Chakraborty began researching the market and discovered how overlooked it was, especially considering the rate of intermarriage in the Indian community. (She is white; her husband is Indian American.)

Shah, a wedding planner, estimates that more than 60% of her couples are interracial, meaning there’s a diverse group of guests who want to dress up but are also interested in respecting tradition by choosing appropriate clothing and colors—and may lack a personal saree collection , from which she could be pulled out. For the recent wedding she was planning MexicoShah said, “We probably filtered out 60 to 70 emails just about clothes and jewelry.”

The more Chakraborty researched, the more convinced she was that intervention was needed. So she put all her wedding money into the Preserve and eloped to her Tribeca rooftop in August 2021. That summer, she teased the Preserve with two Instagram stories that she said generated 500 rental requests.

As of fall 2021, Preserve has attracted more than 1,000 new customers, half of whom rent two or more outfits per order, she said. Chakraborty estimates that half of her clientele is not from South Asia.

Aletheia Orphanidys, a 31-year-old lawyer in the Bay Area, is one of Preserve’s non-Desi customers. When she was invited to a law school classmate’s wedding in 2021, she was devastated. “Everyone else knew what sangeet was against. mehndi looks,” she said. “I had no idea what the events were, what colors were appropriate. I had no idea where to start.”

After a text consultation, Preserve helped her design a designer wardrobe of five ensembles for a total of $500 — a fraction of the thousands it would have cost to purchase them — for a seven-day rental period.

Even women who maintain their own Indian wardrobes say they enjoy the freedom of experimenting with rentals. “It gives you the confidence to try styles you might not have tried on your own,” Patel said. “I’ll rent clothes that are much more fashionable and that I would never buy in my life.”

While rental platforms in South Asia have proven themselves, they still face a unique set of challenges. For example, Patel said there can be a stigma around unworn clothing in some South Asian families: “My mom was horrified,” Patel said, recalling how she first came up with the idea of ​​renting with her mother.

Then there’s the issue of cleaning delicate pieces: Indian and Pakistani clothing often includes ornate fabrics and handmade beading, which can deteriorate quickly if not cared for properly. Rental brands tend to focus their inventory on richly woven fabrics like banarasi, beadwork that’s more durable, and bold silhouettes like sari-dress hybrids—a slight shift from patterns customers may be used to.

And it can be difficult for rental companies to streamline sizing—even more so for South Asian clothing, which is typically tailored to a highly individual fit. To address this, Almari360 and AllBorrow work with seamstresses to add adjustable features such as ties and snaps to each garment; Keep in touch with its designers to standardize sizes, and Chakraborty said she is developing technology solutions to further eliminate the guesswork.

But even as these companies work to streamline their services, clients’ busy post-pandemic social calendars are keeping them in business.

“I’m 100% on rent again – I was on both sites two days ago picking out clothes for a wedding in March,” Patel said of the Preserve’s and Borrow the Bazaar websites. She became a repeat customer of both companies.

She also spreads the gospel out of rent, much to her mother’s displeasure. “I told the people I rented from and my mom said, ‘Why are you telling people that?'” she recalled with a laugh. “I thought, ‘Because it might help someone else!’

(This article originally appeared in The New York Times.)

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