Instagram influencers constantly need new clothing. This startup wants to rent it to them.

Before Rent the Runway launched in 2009, the idea of sharing clothing with a bunch of strangers may have seemed off-putting and possibly unsanitary. But in the 10 years since its founding, a crop of copycat startups have popped up, usually going after a market that highbrow Rent the Runway has yet to corner. Le Tote and Stitch Fix, for example, each send customers personalized boxes from slightly less upscale brands. Tulerie, a slightly newer service, lets customers rent individual items but is aimed at those who find Rent the Runway’s options a little too “mass-market.” Even Amazon has gotten into the clothing rental game.

And now there’s FashionPass, a clothing rental service that specifically targets influencers.

Clothing rental is generally pitched as an alternative form of “shopping” for those who can’t afford or don’t necessarily want to pay full price for luxury goods. More recently, it’s also been framed as a sustainable alternative to fast fashion. But FashionPass isn’t zeroing in on accessibility or sustainability. Instead, its marketing strategy points to another facet of consumer culture: the social media-fueled desire to always have new clothing, especially for those whose livelihoods depend on looking good online — and for the wannabe influencers who emulate them.

FashionPass is like Rent the Runway, but for influencers

Brittany Johnson didn’t create FashionPass with influencers in mind. She first came up with the concept in college, she told me, because she always wanted new outfits to wear to parties. After trying Rent the Runway and Le Tote, she began looking for alternatives whose offerings better fit her style. “I felt like they weren’t speaking to me or any of my friends,” she said. “I didn’t like their product offering, I didn’t like the way they talked to their customers, because it didn’t feel like a friendship — it felt more like this big company that you’re borrowing from. I was like, ‘I just want to borrow from my friend’s closet. I want to borrow from someone who feels like me at the other end of this.’”

Like other subscription services, FashionPass sends users a certain number of items for a flat monthly fee, regardless of their retail cost. It has three tiers: Socialite ($79/month), which lets users rent two articles of clothing and one accessory at a time; Trendsetter ($109/month), which lets them rent three articles of clothing and two accessories; and Wanderlust ($139/month), which is four articles of clothing and three accessories. Users can swap out the items as many times a month as they want. In this way, FashionPass is similar to Rent the Runway Unlimited, except the focus is less on high-end brands and more on pricey fast fashion — more expensive than H&M or Forever 21, but less durable than designer pieces.

The brands FashionPass carries, like Free People and For Love & Lemons, have a decidedly beach-y, music festival-y vibe. All the offerings look like something a Bachelor contestant would wear on a date — and several former contestants have served as brand ambassadors, Johnson told me. Kendall Long, who appeared on the 22nd season of The Bachelor and the 5th season of Bachelor in Paradise, began using the service after Johnson’s team reached out to her. “It’s hard to constantly have new looks for interviews, events, and photo shoots,” Long told me in an email. I try not to wear the same thing more than once or twice, maybe because everyone else always seems to know fashion so well and have new looks!”

Johnson said FashionPass’s target audience is women between the ages of 24 and 32. “The girl that’s living on Instagram, that’s shopping at Revolve and Planet Blue and going to festivals, dating. She’s going through all these big life changes, whether it’s getting married, or having friends who are getting married. She’s going to weddings,” she said. (FashionPass’s website lets users browse for outfits in six categories: Work, Vacay, Festival, Night Out, Weddings, and Bridal.) “She’s also having lots of fun and posting everywhere on Instagram all the time.”

And, Johnson assumes, the target FashionPass customer is also spending a ton of money on the experiences — and outfits — she posts online, even if she’s not an influencer. “I fully believe Instagram is driving the rental economy,” she said. Not sustainability. Not a desire to consume less, but a need to consume more on a constrained budget, all for the sake of portraying a certain social media image and, for some, leveraging that image into a lucrative career as an influencer.

The trickle-down effect of influencer marketing

To some, the notion of building a business designed to cater to influencers’ need for endless content may seem ridiculous. But it makes perfect sense, especially when you consider all the fledgling bloggers who are just starting to build their followings. In 2018, BuzzFeed News interviewed several aspiring influencers, many of whom had Instagram followings in the five figures — anyone with a following below 100,000 is considered a mere “microinfluencer,” at least when it comes to securing brand sponsorships — to see how much it costs to build a personal brand. Igee Okafor, a men’s style influencer, told the site he spends a little less than $2,000 a month on clothing. According to BuzzFeed, influencers can generally only charge 1 percent of their follower count for a sponsored post; in other words, someone with 50,000, like Okafor had at the time, could charge just $50.

It’s not hard to go into debt while trying to keep up appearances online — and some people do. Lissette Calveiro, a 27-year-old blogger and influencer, made headlines last year after she admitted to racking up more than $10,000 in credit card debt in 2013 trying to build her social media brand. “I wanted to tell my story about this young millennial living in New York,” Calveiro told the New York Post at the time, adding that she’d buy clothing every month so she wouldn’t be seen wearing the same outfit twice online. “I was living a lie. Debt was looming over my head.

“At the time, ‘influencer’ wasn’t a thing, but I was trying to create this online persona,” Calveiro told me. “It’s not that I was into expensive stuff — I’m not a designer kind of girl — but I spent a lot [of money] online shopping. I would spend frequently and wouldn’t really keep up with how much, and I was also traveling a lot.”

Calveiro said she wasn’t trying to be an influencer at the time. “I didn’t really think to be Instagram famous,” she said, but she did want to portray a certain lifestyle online. And, “of course, over time, creating this lifestyle did give me a following.” But the desire to look like you’re living a more interesting, luxurious life than you actually are isn’t limited to those trying to monetize their Instagram followings. “People want to create this visual-forward lifestyle because of social media,” Calveiro said. “There are so many people — not just influencers or wannabe influencers, but even consumers — who are seeing what these influencers are posting, and there is a pressure to want to emulate that.”

That, of course, is the point. “Influencer” wouldn’t be a viable career track — and it is, at least for a cohort of preternaturally beautiful people who know a thing or two about branding — if there weren’t people to influence. The reason why some people can make a living off shilling FabFitFun boxes and at-home teeth whitening kits is because there are plenty of people out there who will buy what influencers tell them to. In the world of influencer marketing, “brand loyalty” means loyalty to a single human being’s personal brand and a desire to emulate it.

This also explains why most FashionPass users — approximately 75 percent, according to Johnson — aren’t influencers, but “your average girl who just wants a new outfit every time she goes out.

“I think it 100 percent is because of Instagram,” Johnson said, “because you’re following so many of these girls who work day and night on their aesthetics, on their feed, and it bleeds over into your average girl. She definitely picks up on some of that. Every photo she’s posting, she’s thinking, ‘Is this Instagram-worthy? Does this look good in my feed? Am I showcasing my outfit in the best light?’ Silly things like that.”