When the wedding invitation arrived in the spring of 2021, entrepreneur Sonya Patel, who runs a small spice business in Cleveland, was in trouble.
It was for an Indian wedding that could span several days and required not just one dress but an entire wardrobe: maybe four outfits for weekend festivities; two pairs of shoes; three bags; and matching bracelets and earrings.
For these events, Ms. Patel, 40, often relied on lehengas or skirts and saris that her mother had bought during her regular visits to Jaipur; Ms. Patel had not traveled to India in over a decade. But that spring, “no one had gone shopping to India” because of Covid, she said. “I went to try everything at my mom’s house and nothing worked. I was in a panic.”
Frequent Google searches led him to Borrow the Bazaar and Preserve, two rental sites specializing in South Asian formal wear. After a series of emails and Zoom calls, she chose a white mirrored lehenga from Preserve for the sangeet, a lively pre-wedding celebration. “Later, I put it in a box and sent it back, and I didn’t have to think about it – it was great,” Ms. Patel said. The cost was $110 for a seven-day rental.
South Asian weddings seem like the perfect opportunity for the fashion rental monster: Traditional clothing can be expensive and take months to be bespoke; cleaning and storing such delicate items can also be difficult. And once you take a look at Instagram, who wants to be seen again at the next Diwali premiere?
For many, renting is the next logical solution. Alongside sites like Preserve and Borrow the Bazaar, AllBorrow, and Pakistani designer-focused Almari360 – all introduced in roughly the last five years – are part of a new generation of businesses trying to solve the logistically challenging and expensive dilemma of dressing for a Southerner. Asian wedding.
Making borrowed fashion a mainstream fixture, Rent the Runway announced in February 2020 that the North Carolina-based Sani brand will begin carrying Indian designs.
“Parts were fully booked within 48 hours; “Two weeks later, the epidemic struck,” said Niki Shamdasani, who founded Sani with her sister Ritika. So far, the partnership has not gone beyond a few clothing options that are often unavailable because they’re rented.
Demand may be high, according to Sonal J. Shah, a New York wedding planner who has overseen nearly 2,000 senior South Asian weddings in her twenty-year career. “Post-Covid, I would say there are 6,000 to 6,500 South Asian weddings a year in the US alone. (Translation: dresses for about 20,000 events.) He said the average budget for his clients’ multi-day fantasies is $350,000 to $400,000, and a designer dowry can cost up to $60,000.
Guests, of course, don’t have to spend approx, but even at less extravagant weddings, the numbers still go up.
“Everyone is tired of spending thousands of dollars on clothes they only wear once,” said Lindsey Chakraborty, Preserve’s founder and CEO. “In my personal experience, everyone you know is invited to every wedding, so you can’t repeat the same lehenga for a few more years – and then it’s already outdated.”
Ms. Chakraborty, 36, found the idea behind Preserve while dating her husband, Shiv, and found herself shopping for three Indian weddings within a year. “I needed 15 outfits as a main plus guest,” she said. When she chose the “online budget route,” she said the clothes she received were of poor quality and didn’t look like her pictures at all.
Using her background in business, Ms. Chakraborty began researching the market and discovered how overlooked the market was, especially given the mixed marriage rate in Indian society. (She is white; her husband is Native American.)
Wedding planner Ms. Shah estimates that more than 60 percent of their couples are interracial, which means there is a wide variety of guests who are keen to dress the part, but who are also concerned about respecting tradition by choosing appropriate attire and colours. and may not have a personal collection of sarees to pull through. “We filtered probably 60 to 70 emails about clothing and jewelry,” Shah said of a wedding he was planning to hold in Mexico soon.
The more Miss Chakraborty investigated, the more convinced she was that she needed to intervene. So she invested all her wedding money in Preserve and escaped to the TriBeCa penthouse in August 2021. She made fun of Preserve with two Instagram Stories that summer, which she said led to 500 rental requests in response.
Preserve has attracted more than 1,000 new customers since fall 2021, half of which have rented two or more outfits per order. Ms. Chakraborty estimates that half of her clients are not South Asian.
Aletheia Orphanidys, a 31-year-old lawyer living in the Bay Area, is one of Preserve’s non-Desi clients. She was overwhelmed when she was invited to a law school classmate’s wedding in 2021. “Everybody knew what sangeet versus mehndi was like,” she said. “I didn’t have a single idea of what the events were, what colors were appropriate. I had no idea where to start.
In consultation via text, Preserve helped her design a designer wardrobe of five sets for a total of $500 (a fraction of the thousands of dollars it costs to buy them) for a seven-day rental period.
Even women who keep their own Indian wardrobes say they enjoy the freedom of experimentation that rental services provide. “It gives you confidence to try styles you wouldn’t try on your own,” said Ms. Patel. “I rent much more fashionable clothes that I will never buy in my life.”
South Asian rental platforms may have established proof-of-concept, but they still face a unique set of challenges. For example, Ms. Patel said that in some South Asian families there may be a stigma on pre-worn clothing: “My mom was horrified,” Ms. Patel said, remembering when she first came up with the idea of renting with her mother.
There’s also the matter of cleaning delicate items: Indian and Pakistani clothing often contains embellished fabrics and handmade beads that can quickly deteriorate if not properly cared for. Rental brands tend to focus their inventory on richly woven fabrics like banarasi, more durable beads, and distinctive silhouettes like saree-bib hybrids – a little different from the designs customers might be used to seeing.
And for rental companies, it can be difficult to modernize sizing—even more so for South Asian garments that are typically sewn for a highly individualized fit. Almari360 and AllBorrow work with tailors to work around this issue by adding adjustable items such as laces and snaps to each garment; Maintain coordinates with her designers to standardize dimensions, and Ms. Chakraborty said she has developed technological solutions to further dispel the guesswork.
But even as these companies work to streamline their services, their clients’ full post-pandemic social calendars are keeping them in business.
“I’m still getting 100 percent rent – two nights ago I was choosing clothes for a March wedding on both sites,” Ms Patel said of Preserve’s and Borrow the Bazaar’s websites. He became a repeat customer of both companies.
He also spreads the gospel of the rental, to the sadness of his mother. “I told the people I hired and my mom was like, ‘Why are you telling people?’ ”she remembered with a laugh. “‘Because it might work for someone else!’ I said.”