I first chanced upon Eshita Kabra and her company By Rotation on (where else, but) Instagram. A quick scroll through her profile and a search on Google later, I was buzzing. While renting fashion is not exactly a novel concept, By Rotation bends the norm with a concept that is fully sustainable; the company does not own any inventory and instead encourages users to rent from each other’s wardrobes, resulting in a truly circular business model. As part of their sustainability initiatives, the company has also launched a carbon emission calculator on their website and also educates users on environment friendly packaging options. Just over a year old, the company is already shaking up the British fashion community, most recently with their many initiatives for those affected by COVID-19 and the ensuing lockdowns. Below, Eshita chats with me on her multi-cultural upbringing (she has roots in India, Singapore and of course, the UK!), what fashion means to her and her plans for By Rotation.
Hi Eshita, let’s start off by hearing a little bit about where you are from and how you ended up in the fashion industry.
I was born in India, where we celebrate colour, dress in elaborate clothing for countless festivals and worship Mother Nature. And I grew up in Singapore, where our national hobby is shopping. In school, we were repeatedly taught the 3Rs (reduce, reuse, recycle) and were made to feel guilty about wasting water (until recently, Singapore bought most of its water). I now live in the United Kingdom, where people are mostly fashion-conscious and increasingly turning up the volume on the climate crisis (note: Extinction Rebellion). We have also embraced sharing concepts such as Uber, Airbnb and even hotels because no hotel linen or towels were made just for you, so why not fashion?
And that’s when I truly began to consider my actions and attitude towards my love for fashion. I returned home to London feeling compelled to change and bring about change. The concept of fashion rental was no longer about accessing designer fashion at affordable prices: I did not want to create a system that encouraged more mindless fashion consumption with no consequences, I wanted to create a self-sustaining community in which people could share what they already owned with each other.
Tell us more about the story of By Rotation, what inspired you to create a peer to peer rental fashion platform?
I founded By Rotation as a side hustle in April 2019 before quitting my job in investment management in order to focus my time on bringing about change in the fashion industry. I was planning my honeymoon to my motherland Rajasthan, India and turned to Instagram for inspiration – cities to go to, hotels to stay at, landmarks to visit, restaurants to eat at and… what to wear! That’s when I started thinking about fashion rental and the lack of options in the UK, a very first-world problem, and how pragmatic it would be to just borrow from someone else. When I arrived in Rajasthan I was upset by the level of textile waste she saw everywhere. That’s when I felt compelled to change and decided to launch By Rotation, the UK’s first (peer-to-peer) fashion rental app. During the last leg of my honeymoon, I started inviting my friends to come over to my apartment for a get-together at which I announced the concept and intention of By Rotation. After this initial positive feedback, I created a beta platform over the weekend and started using Instagram to draw people in. Within a month, it had more than 10 transactions and was picked up by a journalist at Refinery29, followed by a mention in the Guardian. The customer acquisition continued organically, the rental volumes began to increase and the press kept coming. Eventually, I left my full-time job and career in investment management the day the app was launched – this was just 6 months after By Rotation was founded.
How does By Rotation solve the pain points of renting fashion?
Accessibility is key for us. I truly believe that making quality fashion available to people from all walks of life will help in curbing the linear path of consumption where the average person is on. We want to transform the way that we consume fashion and disrupt the usual journey of retail through rental. We are setting out to convince everyone that we no longer need to buy fast fashion and can instead share quality clothing with each other. After all, what may no longer feel new to you can actually be new for somebody else.
What kind of designers can we find on By Rotation and which are the most popular ones on the app?
We have listings from the latest Ganni dress to teeny tiny Jacquemus bags to custom made wedding dresses. We believe the possibilities for rental are almost endless. Some of our most popular pieces are Rixo, Cecilie Banhsen, Rejina Pyo, Reformation, Dior (people love the Saddlebag), Stine Goya, among many others – we are keen to host as many London based brands as possible, and give smaller brands a platform to access new customers.
How do you think ByRotation helps promote local designers and brands?
Partnering with By Rotation not only allows brands to access a whole new customer base, but we also regularly feature our brands across our social platforms, as well as promoting pieces in our seasonal edits and our monthly photoshoots. It’s also a fantastic opportunity for brands to get exposure to new customers, and those who can’t afford to purchase a sought after piece but still want to try them out!
Given that there is no clear definition of sustainability, it can be easy to greenwash customers and claim agency over sustainability. We would love to hear your thoughts on sustainability. How do you think fashion lovers can inculcate sustainable practices in their daily lives?
Our business model is entirely built on sustainability, our priorities are to remain digital, and enhance the users journey through our in-house developed machine learning tools, not to purchase inventory for the business, plus include a wide audience from all over the UK, and eventually globally. Our community and technology are our strengths. We find that a lot of ‘rotators’ come to us because they are looking to be more conscious with their fashion choices. We often get asked if we buy any stock and inventory as some other platforms do, but from the start we have been very strict on being purely peer-to-peer to avoid adding any new items into circulation and eventually landfill – it defeats the point of renting in our opinion. As a constantly improving business, we strive to better our sustainability credentials with innovations such as the carbon emissions calculator feature in our app. We are always looking at ways to educate our users better on how to ensure items are cleaned and packed in the most environmentally friendly way possible.
How are you different from the competition? How would you as a company encourage your customers to strike a balance between access and ownership?
We are the only pure peer-to-peer fashion rental platform, which means we are 100% circular as we don’t purchase inventory for the sake of renting it. We are also a digital platform and the only fashion rental app, having invested considerably in our technology which has solid in-house expertise in machine learning and development. Our physical presence lies within our communities across the country and we have held frequent events with them pre lockdown and we hope to do the same after!
What kind of issues has COVID-19 brought on for you as far as renting fashion is concerned? How are you as a company taking steps to combat these issues to safeguard your business?
We believe our strength lies in the power of our community and our tech. We work hard to present ourselves as the most inclusive peer to peer fashion rental platform, to attract a more diverse range of consumers by educating them and being clear that our app is open to all and this has not changed during lockdown, whilst people are not renting so much at the moment we can still build our business, we are constantly improving our tech and maintaining engagement with our community.
I think that we are all going to become much more considered about our consumption during and post quarantine. Being at home at being surrounded by your possessions really makes you think about what you do and don’t need, and also makes you appreciate what you have. People are slowly realising what actually matters, and quality over quantity is such an important value to embrace, especially considering there are so many people facing job uncertainty, it seems irresponsible to carry on shopping as before. We truly believe the utilisation of fashion rental platforms is going to increase post lockdown.
You are a product of three cultures – Indian, Singaporean and British. How has that informed your ideas about business and fashion? What would you say is a prominent pro and con to being a CEO as a woman of colour?
As a third culture kid, diversity and inclusivity are very important to me. By Rotation’s culture and product is reflected through its core values in them too.
How do you think local brands and designers can work to move forward through the current crisis?
There is so much to be learnt! Consumers desire to have new items will still be there, but after all, what may no longer feel new to you can actually be new for somebody else. The future of fashion is definitely in sharing what we already own and upcycling what is already in existence. There is no way our planet can digest the 24 million items that are being bought at H&M every day, and people are becoming hyper aware of this at the moment. Since founding By Rotation, my biggest inspirations have been successful resell marketplaces such as Vestiaire Collective and Depop. They have completely shifted the mindset around preloved fashion – making it cool to wear second hand and vintage. With By Rotation, and especially now, I wish to enable people to reconsider their consumption habits and ask them to embrace the sharing economy within fashion, one of the most traditional industries of the world but also one of the most polluting.
Lastly, we would love to hear your thoughts on AISPI. How do you think we can help at giving young designers a platform to promote themselves? Do you see any similarities with By Rotation in this regard?
I love that AISPI supports up and coming designers and independent boutiques – it’s especially very important to ensure the artisan trade continues to exist. At By Rotation, we do the same by allowing independent designers to rent out their collections which helps them in surveying the market too.