Three years ago, when Style Theory was launched, its concept was foreign. “Subscriptions? What do you mean ‘unlimited clothes’?’ Raena Lim quotes her customers’ reactions with a laugh. Together with her co-founder and husband Chris Halim, Lim kickstarted the clothing subscription rental service at a time where share-based platforms like Uber, Netflix and Airbnb were just taking off. Style Theory was the first of its kind in Singapore, and has inspired competitors over the years. Yet, none of them have achieved the scale of success that Style Theory has. Today, the brand is the largest in Southeast Asia and has expanded to an inventory of 50,000 clothes and 2,000 designer bags, as well as a Jakarta outpost. It’s a remarkable achievement for the sustainable fashion movement.
“We are confident that Style Theory will be the future of fashion – one where people would feel that renting is equivalent, if not better, than buying as we make significant strides towards ending today’s buy-and-throw-away culture.”
In other firsts, Style Theory has also recently unveiled its permanent retail store in 313 Somerset, an unusual choice for a brand that was anchored to a tech platform.
The store is an experiential space for both its new and existing subscribers — it features large floral arrangements, fitting rooms complete with empowering quotes, and life-sized art installations. While it serves as a collection and return point for swaps, it has more than 300 clothing items, and 30 bags on display. These will be rotated according to customer demands and potential designer collaborations. Sixty-minute styling sessions with professional image consultants are also on offer at the new store, and is complimentary for people who are new to the brand.
All of this is an immense achievement for someone who had no prior experience or professional knowledge about fashion.
It began outside of a fashion lens
Lim studied finance in school, and worked in the non-profit sector in Kenya, Africa, where she set up microcredit financing loans and curriculums to assist communities with developing a positive economic cycle. On her return, she worked at Goldman Sachs in investment banking for five years. “I decided I want to build something and make a direct impact in causes that I believe in”. She stepped out of the finance industry, and started looking around in the startup space. She quickly found herself motivated by the founders she met, and who had inspiring stories of how they were trying to make the world a better place. Style Theory was born out of this desire for impact-making by offering a solution to a problem that plenty of women face daily. “Chris asked me why women complain they have nothing to wear when they have wardrobes full of clothes. I personally related to this, ” says Lim.
“From fashion, we turned it into a data and analytical business”
It began with her inventory. “When we first started, we didn’t know what kind of clothes to buy or stock. How would I know what all these women, with their different style preferences, like?” They worked at it through the most practical strategy: By splitting the inventory into segments of clothes. They allocated items for work, business wear, as well as small and big events, ensuring there were 25 percent allocated to each category. “We took notes of different data points of every item. When all the clothes went out for rental, we started to map what kind of customer rents what kind of clothes”. If this all sounds data-driven to you, it sure is.
“In the end, it goes back to Chris and I studying the data and understanding what to buy more or less of, who likes what, and slowly scaling the business from there,” she says.
Understanding the model
For those curious about the business model, Lim tells us matter-of-factly that the building of the inventory began with the duo “making pitches from day to night. From the Australian timezone, all the way to New York”. Now, it has built a more solid reputation, where labels approach them instead with their brand visions and collections. For its clothing subscription, it works directly with designers, who offer their clothes at lower prices — even for the newest seasons seen at various retailers. “Sometimes they’ll tell us not to launch it until it’s been seen on the runway. So we hold the items until that very moment. It’s quite exciting”. In return, Style Theory gives them data of the customer profiles who rent their clothes, including valuable feedback on fabrication.
“Through our platform, we are able to understand how well a fabric can withstand the effects of rental. We can personally tell the brand that this fabric can sustain through dry cleaning, even after 60 times of wash. They are excited to contribute sustainably and learn how to produce better”.
Its bags subscription, on the other hand, gives power to the people by allowing consignment of investment bags. “They share the revenue with us, thereby allowing them to have passive income,” she says. When asked if there are plans to extend this to luxury clothing, Lim is happy to share that it’s currently in beta mode.
Great support system
Despite coming from a non-profit sector, Lim still finds fulfilment in what she does. “When I worked with an NGO in Africa, I got to see the direct impact from what I personally built. With [StyleTheory], finding people who are like-minded and believe so much in this [sustainable] cause and movement makes me feel inspired that we can truly manifest a movement.” She cites instances where some of her subscribers, who work as marketing experts, offer their advice for free, going as far as to spend half a day to provide better strategies and professional feedback for improvement.
“If you can find something that people resonate so much with, there will always be people who want to help and jump on this too.” She tells us that Style Theory has plenty of supporters at tech bigwigs like Google, Facebook, and Linkedin who frequently bring them in as speakers.
Positive engagement with the community
With three years in the business now, Lim tell us with a big smile that Style Theory has positively affected the lives of many women. Its retail store is a way for it to engage with its subscriber community while reaching out to potential new ones, particularly those who they can’t access through online methods. “We want to give them a space where they can feel, and touch the items for rent”. This is crucial for those who are hesitant to the idea of renting, but want to look into reducing wasteful purchasing. As for those who lament sizing inaccuracies, the store enables them to find the perfect fit.
Lim also shares that the store allows subscribers to discover insight they’re unable to collect online. “Online, we can track your impression rate and wish list. But in person, we can find out more about your preferences and desires. How do women truly feel about their bodies? Why do they feel the way they do? How can we recommend things better on the app?”
The store is also a community space for subscribers to enjoy exclusive member events, such as perfume launches and wellness classes. “It’s a way for us to give back to them for all their support”.
All photos are courtesy of Style Theory