What if your wardrobe was empty, but you always had something to wear? Onloan is a great rental membership based fashion rental company that allows us to rethink how we own clothing. Instead of having a wardrobe full of clothes that you only ever wear 20% of. How about having your wardrobe live elsewhere and are able to switch it up monthly feeling good in the knowledge that each garment will be worn on numerous occasions, will help slow the pace of overproduction and consumption and reduce waste.
Tamsin Chislett and Natalie Hasseck set up Onloan to do this and are the only rental company who source the clothing straight from designers. Here are their stories and the story of Onloan.
Starting with Tamsin's story
D: Were are you today? Are you in the studio?
T: We are in Dalston on Kingsland Road. We have a three storey building were we sit and work, take and pack the orders. Today we are packing orders. All the clothes are stored upstairs and then we do all the washing on the top floor. So, it's a whole warehouse slash, everything else.
D: Can I ask, where you grew up?
T: In Wilshire, in a house that's not even in a village, so very bucolic countryside middle of nowhere.
D: Big open spaces.
T: Lots of climbing trees, building dens, disappearing for a whole day. I had no concept of how bucolic it was until I had my own kids, in London, and realised the contrast between the two. My parents still live there, so I get to go back there to the house I grew up in which is nice.
D: And do you have siblings?
T: Two older brothers, I’m the youngest of 3. One’s in Sweden and one’s in Cornwall now.
D: So you had plenty of pals then, to run around with in the middle of nowhere.
T: They are a bit older than me, so they were hitting their cool teenage years as I became anyway remotely interesting. So more of a solitary countryside lifestyle, which is I suspect quite common if you grow up the countryside. You have like 2 friends, but it was great, loved every bit.
D: Were there any fashion influences for you growing up? Or was it not on your radar at all?
T: It was so far of my radar, as I only have brothers not sisters. My mum always looks very nice but is not remotely interested in fashion. Living in the countryside was more practicality than anything else. I am 35 so I was growing up at the beginning of the fast fashion era. I would beg mum take me to Tammy girl at the weekends or New Look and then Top Shop when I got a bit older. But otherwise very little fashion influence at all. Pretty much until I start Onloan by the way. Between the two of us Natalie is the fashion head and she's fashion through and through and that's why we are a dream team. My background isn’t very fashiony.
D: You always had a social awareness though.
T: With social impact issues, yes. My parents are primary school teachers they, taught in state schools. I knew I would end up doing something that had a lot of meaning. Their whole career was about giving back and contributing to society. So I thought mine would be the same. The surprising thing was that I got into business and that was more of a university influence. Until then for the whole of my childhood I thought I was going to be teacher like my parents, as I only knew teachers.
D: That makes sense, it's what you know. Where did you go to university?
T: I went to St Hilda's college Oxford and studied PPE: philosophy, politics and economics. I didn't know when I applied that it was the politician’s degree. There are more British Prime Ministers that have done PPE than have done anything else. I had no idea. But having met the people doing PPE alongside me, there were definitely some ambitious political types. But I loved it. I chose it because I didn't want to narrow down to one subject at the age of 18. I wanted to keep doing 3. I also love that it was really a study of the world and what's going on in the world, from three different angles. It suited me really well.
D: That led you to work for Bain and Co.
T: I took a year out after university and I thought I wanted to go straight into International Development. My dream job at the time was the UN or DIFID (Department of International Development). So I went and spent some time in Tanzania by myself and then in Nepal and basically realised I was pretty useless to them. I could write decent essays on philosophy, (laughs) which wasn’t going to help anybody. I met a few people who said if you go get some business skills that's going to be most useful thing to set you up for coming back to an emerging market and being helpful. And that's what it did. Bain is it's an amazing place to have a business education. They invest so much in training you. You get thrown in, at the deep end on a lot of things. You get to work with some of the biggest companies in the world. They work for Unilever, British Gas and other private equity firms. That persons’ advice was very good in terms of the fact I got the business education that they promised. The flipside of Bain is that there's not much impact. You are helping big companies make more money which didn't excite me at all. You are also a management consultant which is one step removed from the action and it turns out, as proven by Onloan I'm definitely a much happier person doing the thing, as opposed to telling somebody else what they might do.
D: During your time at Bain you took some time out.
T: My parents were shocked when I'd only done two years to the day, and I told them I was taking six months off already. The very first day I was allowed, I took six months off and went to Zimbabwe and worked for an organisation called TechnoServe who employ a lot of management consultants to support SMEs in emerging markets. I worked for a coffee mill in Zimbabwe. I felt a lot more useful than I had two years before. I could build them a financial model. Structure business cases for doing things, there was a lot that was helpful. On the flipside the Zimbabwean economy was in a pretty bad place. I wouldn't say we were very successful in helping the coffee mill, but I certainly felt like I had a lot more to give at that point.
D: Then you moved onto to Acumen.
T: Acumen is an impact investment firm primarily. They invest in companies, again in emerging markets, focused on businesses that have a positive impact on what they the call the bottom of the pyramid. That is people who have an income of $1.00 to $3.00 a day. They ran a fellows programme of 10 people who quit their jobs wherever they were in the world and then spent a year with one of Acumen’s investee companies. So I applied and became the only European representative that year. I ended up in Uganda, you are posted wherever they want to put you. You don’t get choose. I was immensely lucky to work for a cotton factory in the north of Uganda.
D: Was that your first experience with fashion and what we end up wearing?
T: Yes and it was the opposite end of the supply chain to everything I'm doing now. But it was my first foray into the fashion industry and understanding it. Literally from planting cotton seeds in the fields, it couldn't have been more the other end of the scale. I loved it. I was in Gulu which is the second or third biggest town in Uganda. But it's sadly been made famous by being the centre of the civil war for 20 years and Joseph Kony if you remember that whole situation? By the time I got there in about 2010 that was all over, and the World Food Programme that had been giving out food for 20 years had moved out and the first private sector businesses are moving in. It really was a phenomenal place to learn more about business, because we were the first big business in a whole region of a country. We were employing 400/500 hundred people at peak season. We were buying cotton from 18,000 farmers. It was their first ever cash crop, they had only ever grown food before. Every time I feel daunted by doing something online, I can easily think back to any day that I was working at that cotton ginnery and the problems of Onloan, seem very small in comparison. Whether it was fire risk, we had a really dry season and suddenly you could have your whole barn go up in flames. We had a couple of hairy moments with that. Or like the day that the cotton truck keeled over on the main trade route between Uganda and South Sudan blocking trade between two countries and it was my job to negotiate our way out of it. Or working with people who literally had never had a job before. They had never had an opportunity to work ever. Teaching them that you showed up at a certain time, step one. I guess it was the antithesis of my Bain education. Bain was how to operate on a high level in a really advanced economy and the cotton factory, was how to be incredibly entrepreneurial when there's no resources and no real rule of law, and you have to do everything on personal trust and relationship building. It was a great counterpart to Bain.
D: Were you able to work on soil health and the importance of crop rotation and that sort of thing with the farmers?
T: Exactly that. Out of 80,000 farmers we had organic certification with about 20,000 of them. So they were obviously learning about crop rotation and we were trying to introduce other cash crops they could rotate with. Whilst I was there, we had them start producing chillies which we were buying. Also, water saving techniques and using organic seeds. A massive education about using organic seeds. You get a lot of unscrupulous businessmen showing up and selling them pairable mass produced seeds. We became the first Fair Trade certified cotton ginnery in East Africa and I kind of lead that certification. I learnt a ton about how groups can self-organise also if I am honest the challenges of trying to fit into a lot of tick boxes which might make sense for a big organisation like Fair Trade but on the ground made no sense. Funny things like if you wanted to hold a meeting, you would have to send a letter to everyone you wanted to come to the meeting. That was more effort, a lot more effort than the actual meeting. But it was one of the boxes you have to tick. So there was a certain education in how some top down approaches aren’t helpful. All round though it was an amazing experience in terms of learning how the fashion industry, or textile industry, can have a really positive impact on a region and be a huge influx of cash and how people can be very self-reliant. Then as I left, sorry so it was 2012 to 13 because it was when I left that the Rana Plaza disaster happened. So I had, had this education about the positive impact of fashion and then, at the same time I left, this really horrible and shocking, event that made me re-evaluate my own shopping habits.
D: Because that's where the fabric was ending up. Did come back to the UK after Uganda?
T: I did, but first I spent another year there. My partner had followed me from Bain and he wanted to stay. So we stayed another year and I worked for a business that had sort of copied the Avon lady business model but sold everything you find in a pharmacy instead of makeup. So women going door to door selling, malaria treatments as well as other things. Which was also an amazing place to work. Then I came back to the UK and worked for a tech start up called Hire Space. I felt that the whole world had joined tech start ups by the time I came back (laughs). So I thought I would join the fun. Loved the team. But ultimately I had gone from helping to increase access to malaria treatments for under 5 year olds in Uganda, to a business that was primarily focused on helping corporates throw great events. So it didn't quite tick my impact boxes anymore.
D: It must have been a huge shock.
T: The culture shock coming back was probably bigger than the culture shock going out. Part of that is that you are not prepared for it. You think, Oh, I'm going home. I remember first getting back and feeling very overwhelmed by London and then a bit confused about my purpose and my work.
D: After the tech start up was Onloan next?
T: There was one more move to Clearly So. So, I was one of those classic millennials, who you know hopped around every year or two in my 20s.
D: But that's a great thing. The expectation that you stay in one place for say 20, 40 years or whatever until you retire, is not the way it works anymore.
T: No at all anymore. And that is something I have to remember as a founder, because people will come in go from Onloan as well.
D: What did Clearly So do?
T: If you wanted to make sound cool, they are an impact investment boutique. They are really a corporate finance house. They help businesses to raise capital which I had, had a bit of experience of in Uganda for the cotton ginnery and I knew a bit about from my time at Bain. They primarily do it for young start ups and solely for businesses that have a positive social or environmental impact. Their reason for being is to try to link those businesses with investors who both want to make money and have an impact. They really want to have their cake and eat it, and their view is that you can. I did various things with them, I tried to launch them in up in Manchester and expand their work there. I headed up origination for a while, which means finding new companies to raise capital. Originating deals is what you call it, which meant that I ended up talking to hundreds of impact based start ups and that was when I thought actually, that's what I want to be doing.
D: Are you still doing some volunteering now?
T: I’ve been involved in a couple of things. One as a trustee for the charity called Bootstrap. That are really a co-working space here in Dalston but they pride themselves on getting together really interesting groups of either, social enterprises or creative enterprises and then they have a quite well known bar on the roof called Dalston Roof Bar. I was a trustee there for a couple of years. If I'm honest I would like to do the trustee thing again, but I realised I can't combine it with Onloan it's just too much work. The other thing I've been doing which I've really enjoyed is, I’ve been on the investment committee for a fund run by Unlimited which is one of the UK's biggest organisations supporting social entrepreneurs. They had a debt fund and I spent the last three years lending money to social enterprises. They are particularly focused on getting people back into work one way or another. I have been an investment committee member, which meant reviewing applications for debt as they come along and again it's really helped with Onloan, you really learn an awful lot formatting other businesses. It's been a privilege to have a Birds Eye view into some of them.
D: Before I speak to you both, what led you to want to set up in business on your own, with Natalie?
T: I think it had been brewing away for a while, for me. I thoroughly enjoyed the experience in Uganda, being in the thick of the action, rather than consulting and being one step removed. I really enjoyed aspects of working for Hire Space and the fast pace of a tech start up and how I love the fact that you never know what’s going to hit you on a particular day. That suits my temperament completely. I love that you have to work everything out as you go and again whatever the opposite of a routine is that's my happy place. It had been brewing and then I thought lets really go for it. I was meeting all these really focused impact entrepreneurs, who truly showed that you can be building a business that was going to improve the status quo. And I thought that actually, that’s how I'm going to make my mark on the world. My first thought was, what if I join one at a really early stage as I was speaking to a lot of them. But this idea started to percolate about fashion rental and I thought let's go for it. Natalie was the first person I called, and she always laughs because she said that’s because she is the only person I knew who worked in fashion. Which is kind of true, but I have known her for a while, and we got on. She is married to a guy that I worked at Bain with and knew at Oxford before. So we had, had this friendship for a few years. We weren’t close, close friends, but we used to go on holiday in extended groups together and would end up talking about sustainable fashion, so I knew she had all the credentials, but was also quite dissatisfied with the industries direction. So I called her up and invited her to do it with me. She said no, (laughs) and then about six months later and she said yes.
D: Brilliant well you know if you hadn’t asked.
T: Well, you know the idea didn't go away, it kept hounding her in her head. She only needed time to think.
D: Natalie where did you grow up?
N: I grew up in East Finchley, North London, super suburban part of London but my secondary school was in Kentish Town which is a bit more inner city. Which meant that from quite a young age I was travelling from the suburbs to town frequently.
D: Do you have siblings?
N: I have one sister called Lauren who is 4 years younger than me. She is a Yoga instructor so very, very different.
D: Did you have any early fashion influences at all? Anyone in the house interested in fashion or was it only something you were interested in?
N: It's definitely in the blood. Mums, mum was always incredibly stylish and very eccentric and definitely used fashion as a mode of self-expression. So, I grew up seeing my grandma wearing lots of different amazing outfits. Every time I saw her, she was wearing something wonderful. She lived in New York, so she would visit us in London, or we would go to her. The whole thing was just so glamorous, but not the wealthy glamour. Glamorous in that she always did a head-to-toe look. It would be things she found in a flea market; she loved a flea market. She loved vintage she was always put together in a really interesting way. She was a Milliner in the Fifties, 40s and 50s when she was living in Australia with her ex-husband before moving to New York. Then on my dad’s side, my grandpa had two cousins and they both owned boutiques in London. One cousin owned Browns and one cousin owned Feathers. That’s where it all started for me, working at Feathers. It’s where I learnt who all these important designers were and was spoiled from such a young age in the understanding of what quality meant and how much quality cost. It meant that while my friends were buying cheap clothes from the high street, I was saving up, to buy really nice clothes that a 16/17 year old wouldn't normally be buying yet. But once you understand fabric and cuts and texture it's really hard to undo that learning. So that’s a bit about fashion in my blood.
D: It’s completely in your DNA. Did you go to university at all or not?
N: I really wanted to carry on working at Feathers and wanted to do it full-time. I was learning so much and had also started doing all the window dressing. It got to the point where Suzanne and Peter trusted me with all the visual merchandising. After creating this one window, a stylist walked in and asked ‘who made this window?’ I said ‘it was me’ and she said ‘it's really great, have you thought about doing any styling assistance?’ and I said ‘no’, at that time I didn't even know what a stylist was, but she gave me her card and said ‘I'd love for you to come and work with me’. Having asked permission from Susanne and Peter I went to assist her, her name is Jilly Murphy a really good stylist in the 90’s. So, my first ever job with her was doing the cover of Good Housekeeping magazine with Sharon Osbourne and carrying Sharon's Pomeranians around, it was quite funny. I decided that’s what I wanted to continue doing, assisting stylists and working, but my parents were really keen on me having some kind of formal education. To make them happy applied for Marangoni an Italian fashion school in London, at the time it was the only place that offered styling as a course. I do wish I'd actually done something like English though, there's so many things that I feel I'm missing. It's funny being a founder figuring out how to structure certain things that I probably would have learnt on another course. But hey, ho I am on a different path.
D: Did you do anymore styling and fashion assisting?
N: I did loads. There was a point where I was assisting so many different stylists, I can't even remember all their names now. I reached out to everyone. I wanted to be on set all the time and learn how that whole operation works. It's definitely my comfort zone being on set probably because of all the assisting. Then I started to understand my personal taste, I had been busy absorbing as much as possible that I actually hadn't taken stock of what it was I actually liked. I started to become obsessed with W magazine which was amazing back in the day. W in the late 1990s to 2009 for me is still one of the best, best magazines that has ever existed. I became obsessed with it and the fashion director at the time. I became obsessed with her style and how she put things together. I applied to go and work with her and planned to live with my grandma in New York so the cost of living would be fairly low. Actually, I have missed a step. After I finished Uni, I got an internship at Women’s Wear Daily. W magazine and WWD were owned by the same publishing house. I thought if I work at WWD then I would be one step closer to W magazine, not thinking of course that this is a trade publication with real fashion journalists. So, I took this fashion journalism internship which was ridiculous as I was not interested in doing anything journalistic at all, I really only wanted to be with stylists. But I used it as a tool to get me to New York. The WWD office was in Covent Garden and all the assistants from New York would call and ask the London office if they could organise clothes for editorials and shoots. The fashion editor had commissioned a styling story about Barbarella and the assistant called me saying ‘I’m too busy, I can’t do this, just find me some clothes I want this, this, this and this and I need it by the day after tomorrow.’ So, I found what he needed and sent it. Then my boss got a call to say I had done a really good job, without any real brief I had got what she needed. That was me inching towards eventually going and working in New York.
D: How long did you stay there?
N: Just under a year, and it was the worst experience of my life. The best thing but the worst thing. I couldn't believe that people were capable, I still can't believe that people are capable of behaving the way they did. It was, it was just horrific, it was fashion 15 years ago, before there was any kind of ‘woke’ reckoning or ‘me to’ reckoning. It was abusive and status driven, in a way that you can't even imagine. It was so insane to me. I was never allowed on set because I wasn't well dressed enough, and I wasn't thin enough, and all these other things. As a result, I was in the library the whole time, the fashion editor would say ‘I want to do a 1970s story, I'm thinking, these colours’, you know something like this, and then I would go and find the references and would then present the references. So, I spent that year learning who everyone was, every photographer in history. I developed a brain for visual referencing, I could watch a movie and be able to say, that frame comes from that photograph and that's what I spent the year doing. I had the most phenomenal time by myself in the library. I was in the Vogue library, sometimes sitting next to Hamish Bowles and all these other amazing people. I learnt who every designer, every photographer and every artist was, I voraciously lapped it up. That was my education.
D: Hopefully those stories have changed or are changing.
N: I really wish I could say they have but I had this really strange experience in a later job, I had an intern who I absolutely loved and she ended up going and working for W too even though she knew my back story before she went. I said ‘well, surely it will have changed because of the cultural conversation and this shift that's happened. It's really not cool to be mean anymore and also ultimately people are scared of being outed on social media.’ So, off she went, when she came back, she asked to meet me and said ‘I don't know what to tell you, it was also the worst experience I have ever had in my life. I she came back after three months, she couldn't hack it, she couldn't believe I had managed to stay a year. She's a beautiful mixed-race girl, and she had to deal with the whole race experience on top of it too, it is awful.
D: How long ago was this?
N: It was a year ago.
D: Oh, my goodness, with all the conversations that are going on now this was her experience too.
D: When you came back to London you worked with Mario Testino was that experience better?
N: I came back to London with my tail between my legs. I felt like I'd failed. I went back to Feathers and went back to working on the shop floor. I decided to start a blog called Layers and Swathes. I was writing about culture and trends where all those references I had spent a year becoming obsessed with came into play. The blog became a place to be able discuss all those references. I found that after delving into so much fashion history I was able to predict what was going to happen and because I was able to understand cycles of fashion history, I was able to make predictions of the future as well. So, I started predicting trends on the blog, it was kind of nuts. I was writing in tandem with journalists about things I thought might happen, then watching them happen, it was really cool. Then my blog was picked up by Susie Bubble who was the biggest blogger at the time. She had started reading my blog and spotlighted my blog on hers. She had a top ten blogs to watch list in the sidebar. I remember going out with friends and having a really big night, coming home and of course being a total geek, checking my stats which I did obsessively. Suddenly there was this huge spike. Soon after I got email from Mario Testino’s people saying that they wanted to meet me to talk about a trends related role.
D: Wow, that's something you would have never expected.
N: It was so wild, I will never forget seeing that email. I'll never forget that feeling. I remember just sitting at my parents, (I had moved back in with my parents,) sitting at the dining table, which is where I used to work, and almost wondering if it was a joke. I met this phenomenal woman, Georgina Godling who was Mario's right-hand woman and helped him set up his agency. She was reading the blog and felt that Mario needed to have someone feeding research into him, culture and trends and all the rest of that. That’s how I became Mario's researcher, picture research, trend researcher looking at new faces, models. That's how it started.
D: That's amazing, you unwittingly created this role for yourself.
N: Yeah, and it was really weird, no-one knew what to call my role either, but I was really happy to be there. At first, I was on a trial and then when they offered me the full-time role and I remember sitting there trying not to cry.
D: Did you manage to be on set there, with Mario?
N: Eventually I became an art director which meant I was mainly at a desk putting concepts and briefs together, but I was so happy, I wouldn't complain about not being on set, because it was it was so much better doing what I was doing. In my opinion anyway. It was great and I ended up staying just under four years.
D: You worked freelance for a while how was that?
N: Mario was asked to invest in a beauty start up, called Mina. He said he would invest in it if his team worked on the creative. Eventually I went on to become the Creative Director at Mina. It was really good timing, because I had already started to see cracks, in fashion and I could see the industry heading in a really bad direction. So I thought the side step into beauty would be a really smart move for my career. I spent a year doing that, but I don't really care about beauty as much as I do about clothes. I'm not a lipstick girl, I never paint my nails, it just doesn't talk to me, I'm not beauty orientated. So, I left and was freelance for maybe a year or two. Freelance was hard, but it was amazing, I look back at my lifestyle then and think ‘my god you had it so good’. I was able to do yoga 3 or 4 times a week, cooking for myself every day and not the rush of everything, but I was constantly scrabbling about financially.
D: Yep, the joy of freelance. Was the process of working with the make-up brand creatively similar?
N: Oh yes, it was mostly art direction, coming up with concepts, also I'm so used to working in a more esoteric….more…….I don’t what to sound too lofty, but I really love taking the temperature of how people are feeling, and then translating that into a concept that's quite emotionally driven. There's something quite functional about beauty and I would say by default I'm not functional person.
D: You have done some brand consulting. Who did you work for?
N: The biggest project I worked on was John Lewis and John Lewis’s big rebrand, which they did a few years ago, when they completely repositioned their womenswear offering. That was a nice big six month chunk of freelance work. I also tried to help Topshop out, but I only took that as a money job because at that point, I hated it as I was already into sustainability. Then I my trend research took quite interesting direction, because I was working with a few big brands eyewear suddenly became a bit of a niche. I worked with Chloe and Givenchy on their eyewear, and it was cool as I was sending them trend reports on shapes and materials and finishes and colours and it such enjoyable work. I could go to places like the Serpentine Pavilion and be able to say ‘oh it's all about cubes, or it's all about waves, it was so enjoyable, and then to seeing how a sculpture would suddenly become a pair of glasses.
D: You said that by that point you had become interested in the sustainability side of things what had triggered that?
N: The sustainability side had started while I was still at Mario, quite early on. What triggered it in particular was, there was a season I was putting a trend report together for Mario, and I noticed that far too many designers were coming up with exactly the same look-a-like collections and I thought this is just stupid. All this sh*t is going to be produced, I could literally see that they were running out of ideas. Nothing was new. Fashion was becoming entertainment. The Kardashians were becoming the most important thing ever, design was becoming almost redundant, quality, everything was bleugh, horrible. It turned my stomach, the thought of all this inconsequential rubbish being produced and being brought into this world. I started to pick that apart a bit more. Then I watched ‘True Cost’, I can't even remember how I found it, I wanna say it's 2014 or 2013 and that was the start of the end for me. Which is also why I went into beauty. It was too gross, I had to figure it out.
D: That kind of brings us up to Onloan doesn't it?
D: You are a good combination of talents, you've got operations, process, strategy, trend forecasting, fashion consultancy and art direction between you. How did you both meet?
N: We met because my partner and Tamsin went to Uni together. They met at Uni and then they went on to work together. Then through the years Tamsin and I were meeting at a festival in the South of France that we all went to together.
D: So when did you set up Onloan? It’s a great name for what you do, how did it come about?
T: In the summer of 2018 I quit my job in order to start a business and I was looking around for great ideas and knew it would in sustainable fashion as its area I was super interested in making impact in, and realised that rental was about to have its moment in the UK. When that happened, I got going on the business whilst also working part time elsewhere and signed up our first two customers, by essentially saying to them, ‘I'm gonna buy something from Net-A-Porter and am going to give it to you to wear. Then you're going to give it back to me in in about a month and you're going to pay me for that pleasure. So, I had about 5 -10 customers running, and it seemed like there might be something here that could be turned into a business. That’s when I spoke to Nat about doing it with me, this was towards the end of 2018. She said no, the first time I asked her, famously said no. However over the subsequent months it became all she could think about and plotting and she realised, she needed to jump in, so started working on it with me, in early 2019. Then, we really launched the business September 2019, that's when we had a website and had some clothes, and our first set up. Of course, that was six months before a global pandemic.
N: The name Onloan comes from my retail days working at Feathers. We always had a rail which was the on loan rail. What that meant was that our super VIP customers would get to take clothes without paying for them, try them on at home, mixing them with their existing wardrobe to see how they felt about them. Then either keep and then pay for them, or return them, if it didn't suit. And I always thought that the privilege of doing that was the most fabulous thing ever. So, with the context of Tamsin’s ideas around rental Onloan felt like a really cool, succinct description of what it is that we're trying to do.
D: What are your aims with Onloan?
T: We really want to build a platform that becomes the way that women of a generation enjoy fashion. We want to enable customers on mass, at a big scale in the UK, to really love clothes again. Not be weighed down by this feeling that they are participating in an industry which cycles through fashion so fast that the garments aren't loved or looked after and don't last, and have a big environmental impact without much without much pay off for the consumer. So we want to bring all that freedom and joy and frivolity back, and do that by building a business that has the very best clothes and who works the best designers. One that has a really great skill set in terms of keeping those clothes in great condition for a long time. And along the way building a phenomenal brand that really speaks to a modern woman and takes her on this journey with us.
D: How did you go about it and who do you work with?
T: As I mentioned at the beginning the very first move was to go and get some customers, literally buy them some clothes asking them to pay for them, and ask for the clothes back, which is a bit confusing at first. Of our first ten trial customers, nine are still customers which is good. We had customers renting, we were trialling different ways of working with them, different lengths of time, and different types of items. But we really settled on the idea that it was going to be a subscription service, with fairly long-term rental periods, to be able to enjoy the clothes and will mix them up their wardrobe for a while. We started in early 2019, building simple technology around that idea, and also bringing on our first designers. We started in February 2019 without much, I think we had a website, I can't member if we had the name of the business then. We definitely didn't have a chequebook, but we went off to Paris to pitch to a whole bunch of designers to come join the platform. Very lucky for us a whole number of them did and they became our founding brands. From there we built our website, added more customers, raised a our first bit of capital and headed towards a September 2019 soft launch. In many ways I feel like we've never launched, so we might yet have a lunch party.
D: Can you tell us how it works?
N: Our customers rent either two or four items, they get to wear them and enjoy them and integrate them with their existing wardrobe for a month. At the end of that month cycle she has a couple of options, she can either, if she's really enjoying the pieces, keep them and rent them for another month. Rent them really until she has decided that she is ready to move on, or she can purchase preloved, or she can pause her subscription if she's sort of had her dose of newness and has decided, actually I'm going to keep things simple for a moment. We never charge damage or loss fees, Tamsin quite rightly recognised that this was a serious barrier to entry when you're trying to convert such a big behaviour pattern. And we didn't want anyone to be fearful of rental. It felt obvious to us to engage in a very trusting relationship with our customers. It's something they really like and pays off for sure.
D: I guess it makes them feel more comfortable about wearing the clothes and enjoying them in the same way they would wear a piece of clothing that that they had bought.
N: It really encourages our customers to love and enjoy the pieces. To really feel that they are owning them for that month and technically they are.
D: You have some collaborations with the Onloan Lab, how do they work and why is this important to you?
N: Onloan Lab is on pause for the moment. Right before the pandemic we met with a High Street manufacturer who had a window into how dire the situation was on the High Street and had decided they wanted to set up their own brand, but wanted to do it very consciously very presently. Not following the usual trend cycles as they would for the High Street, but wanted to develop a product that could stand the test of time. So, they came to us because they thought that we could be a really great way to test their ideas first, before putting anything into production and being wasteful in any way. It's something that we would love to pick up again but it is on pause for now because our other brand partnerships are growing and taking over which is incredibly exciting. I imagine that Onloan Lab at some point will actually extend to our existing brand partners, they are not just people who are looking to start a brand from scratch. We do know from some of our brands that they might test say one piece of knitwear if it's the first foray into that category, and through us they find the confidence that it's a winning product and can go and develop more. So yes, I guess Onloan Lab could be used as a framework for that too, it’s super interesting.
D: As you have said you are a relatively young company, and you touched on the pandemic, how did you cope over the past year and a half?
N: It’s weird because occasionally I get a flashback to that period of time, and am like ‘Oh yeah’, Tamsin and I had one yesterday on the bus where we remembered something that we were meant to do during the pandemic that we'd obviously parked, came back in our mindset. I feel that having each other was probably the most instrumental thing to getting through, I cannot imagine what solo founders must have been going through. We had moments where it was dire, but we also had moments where it was absolutely hysterical, because it was just completely insane, you know it was unfathomable. Periods acknowledging how rubbish it was, to also just having a laugh. It was super instrumental in the survival of it.
D: And Tamsin what's your perspective on that?
T: It was such a crazy period for anyone to live through, but there was certainly an extra layer of craziness because we were trying to run a business which is dramatically affected by the pandemic. We did have people still renting during the whole period and we would always grow quite a bit when everyone was allowed out the house. Our growth spikes directly correlated with when the rules relaxed and then would drop again when rules were tightened. We also had some customers who rented even when they really, really weren’t allowed to leave the house, which is a lovely proof point about how much joy rental can bring just to yourself and not for anyone else. But even despite those sort of moments of levity it was really tough, but we kept each other sane and you know kudos to Jess our colleague who did the same for both of us. We also tried to remember the big picture the whole time, and I also tried to be proud of ourselves for surviving it. Every month felt like an achievement. Admittedly there were a few false dawns, I think for all of us, not just Nat and I running this business, but a lot of times people thought we were near the end and we weren't. I hope we are now, I think we are, we have lived through a couple. So it’s best to be cautious. But feel really proud that we made it, and that we were smart about some of the business decisions we made that allowed us to make it. Proud that we stood by our partners, one of the first things we did when the whole pandemic came was to pay all our designers for the collections that we were due to receive. Which was a big moment in terms of our decisions for our cash. But super proud that we did it, when some of the really big businesses that buy from them didn't. Really tried to keep doing the right thing and keep our head above water, because we knew we were doing the right thing, and that we had a bigger mission that we needed to hold on for. And here we are which is great.
D: How do you care for the clothes, cleaning, delivery etc.
T: We are the only UK rental company that does it all in house, we operate all end-to-end garment care and logistics ourselves. Clothes come back in from the customer, they are quality checked, there are reviewed, then depending what they need, they might have repair done, a stain removal treatment, they might be gently machine washed, they might be treated with ozone, and then they are quality checked again before going back on the rails. Then steamed, packed and enjoyed by the next customer. And we're really excited to be experts in it. My hunch is, that in this century one of the big strengths that will generate a lot of value for private companies, is being able to keep assets in really great condition. We have to move to a scenario where we all produce and consume less stuff, so the people who become experts in preserving the things we already own will do really well and quite rightly.
D: At the end of the life of the clothes that you have, and obviously there are still seasons happening for the designers that you are collaborating with, what do you do with the stock that you already have?
T: It's less seasonally driven, we are very particular about buying into styles which are not just one season wonders. We are resolutely not hype driven, and yes of course we buy into trends, it's impossible to avoid them. But we are we are not trying to have that one hit piece that people will be so sick off by the end of the summer they never want to see it again. With that in mind our clothes are bought to be enjoyed for multiple seasons. We do however pass them on in a couple of different ways, so, first of all our customers can buy the garments, at any point in the life cycle, so they could be the first person to rent it, fall in love with it after trying it out for a whole month and realise it really deserves a place in their wardrobe, they can buy it from us. That happens when a piece is one month old, or 28 months old, it could be either end or anywhere in between. Then there are pieces where there is wear and tear on them, which is far fewer than people think, as most things are lasting really, really well and for those pieces, again they sometimes are sold if they are in a condition where a customer might want to own them. We are also looking at other ways to complete the circle if you like. The one we are particularly excited about is talking to a fashion college, we are aware that sustainability, could not be more top of mind for most students coming through fashion colleges right now. They are always looking for fabrics. So there could be the potential to repurpose our garments into something which, potentially could even be rented again, that would be the absolute dream. A lovely way of making sure that nothing is going to landfill, that is very much closed loop and you can put back into the circle again.
D: Also, students and even big designers learn from unpicking garments don't they to learn how they were made.
How do you both see the future, the next year, five years, 10 years?
N: I feel like we were already living in the five year plan. It feels like wanting to shift to access over ownership is a no-brainer. The feeling of, all the joy of fashion without physically owning it is too good. It feels like time is speeding up in a way, Tamsin and I had anticipated the educational piece around rental taking us much longer, but it feels like it's speeding up. With every new brand that we bring on board, with every new partner we work with, with every new piece that convinced a customer that rental is absolutely the smart way to enjoy clothes, it feels like we're getting one step closer to rental being the largest portion of a customer’s fashion budget. The future is rental. It does feel inevitable with every step that we take forwards. Which is a great feeling, it doesn't make it any easier, but it does feel like the inevitability is just so great.
D: When is your Pop-up shop going to pop-up?
T: We're just trying to secure dates hopefully 5th of November to the 21st so just over two weeks. Super excited about it, for so many reasons. It's going to be a chance for us to meet all our community, it's going to be a chance to involve our designers who we have become really good partners with. It's gonna be a chance to talk to customers, which we do online the whole time but it's just not the same. Also, to allow people to see and feel the clothes, we have lots of lovely pieces that don't always sing on a website, because its website. It's going to be so nice, to have a physical space for that. But also it's been a long time coming you know, we thought we would be here such a long time ago and the pandemic really meant we had to tread water for 15 months or so, so to be at this point, where we can physically have a store in super cool location and invite down everybody who's helped us t get to this point and thank them just feels so nice.