Interview with new sustainable luxury rental platform Unown
By Simone Preuss
Nov. 21, 2019
Hamburg-based company Unown is an online leasing service for sustainable premium fashion that started in August 2019. As part of its new ‘Declutter Programme,’ Unown has also started accepting customers’ clothes. The goal is to make sustainable fashion more attractive and accessible, which is why Unown is constantly curating new brands from around the world. However, the selected garments and accessories have to meet certain criteria: They have to contain sustainable and/or recycled and recyclable materials, be water and energy efficient, durable, and should have been made employing fair and safe working conditions. This is not an easy task. FashionUnited spoke with Linda Ahrens, co-founder and CEO of Unown, about the target group, achieving variety in one’s wardrobe and smart consumption.
How did Unown get started? How did you decide on sustainable fashion?
Tina [Tina Spießmacher, co-founder and CEO of Unown, ed.] and I have known each other for many years and we wanted to change something on a small scale and consume sustainably. This started with food; we wanted to become more sustainable and generate less waste in our daily lives. We wanted to extend this to other areas as well, but in fashion, ‘the sustainability filter’ was somehow constantly switched off. We really wanted to, but we didn't apply it.
So we thought, ‘why don't we transfer our conscious consumption to fashion’? We talked to others and formed focus groups and found that they felt the same way we do: They want sustainability in many areas, but realise that it doesn't really work when it comes to fashion. Many people find it difficult to select the right brands. Niche brands like Kowtow from New Zealand, for example, are relatively difficult to source. Many don't know where to start or have to find their way around websites that offer sustainable products.
Renting clothes offers variety and means treating clothes and consumption responsibly. We see our role in curating interesting, exciting, sophisticated brands. Our usage model is dedicated to the 40 percent of the wardrobe that is not basics, that you don't have to own but you can borrow.
How has Unown been received? What has been the feedback so far?
We've found that people are very involved, but they have yet to understand the concept of "using instead of owning" when it comes to fashion. While this understanding is already present in the field of mobility, there is still a need to rethink fashion. But once people find us and our leasing concept and try it, they understand it and quickly integrate it into their daily lives. We have many customers who come back and then sign up for a subscription, for example.
That probably means that customer education is important? How do you communicate with your customers?
We have a chat function on the website and customers can call us and reach us via WhatsApp. We are also on Instagram and receive many questions there via message. But most of the time it's more about the 'how?', so more operational questions than about the concept. Those who have found us, understand the concept.
Were there hurdles to overcome? For example, in regards to renting clothes that have been used?
Those who try us out don't have these concerns anymore, because our clothes always feel like new; there is no "second hand feeling". We also see a generational difference: the younger the customers are, the more they understand the concept. Many of the up to 30-year-olds are already buying mainly pre-owned, i.e. second-hand, or are switching to rental concepts. But demand is also rising significantly among the over-30s, which is reflected in market growth.
With regard to other hurdles, I would say that one has to be transparent when it comes to pricing and make people understand how prices are calculated. There are currently two options at Unown: Customers can opt for a subscription of 69 euros for three pieces that they can keep for a month. Or they can lease individual articles for one to four months. The longer you keep a piece of clothing, the cheaper it will be.
What is currently more popular, the subscription or renting individual pieces?
It is still too early to say but customers often continue with a subscription after renting individual articles.
Do people also buy clothes at the end of the rental period?
Only a few. Many discover after one or four months that they are not so attached to a certain piece and give it back; but there are also those who notice that an article complements their wardrobe well and buy it, which also means a longer lifespan for the article.
What was the biggest surprise after starting Unown in August?
Well, starting a business is always interesting. How long does it take to get a tax number and stuff like that for example? But we were surprised to see how great the desire of customers was to give away their preloved items in a good, responsible way. People know what their options are but they don't have time for the flea market, may find dedicated websites too cumbersome and the fate of their clothes uncertain in goodwill containers.
This is where our new service comes in, the 'Declutter Programme', which we launched on 23rd October: Customers can now also send quality garments to Unown and once we have added them to our selection, they will either receive an Unown gift voucher or can opt to have 25 percent of all future proceeds donated to charity. However, the clothes must be in good condition and fit our customers’ preferences.
That is the keyword: How are the garments selected for Unown? How important are trends?
We have a whole set of sustainability criteria that is like a filter. We also want to offer a consistent style to convey a certain lifestyle. It's also important whether you can put together an entire outfit with an item. So we don't necessarily pay attention to the latest trends such as the leo dress, for example, but would rather opt for a bright red knit sweater, which is timeless. The longevity of the individual pieces is important.
And how do you find the brands?
In the beginning, we actually checked out hundreds of brands that we found through social media or on the internet. Then we scouted offline, for example at sustainable fashion fair Neonyt in Berlin. Here, we found the two-person company Nic.Lodz from Poland, for example. That's knitting on demand; they make knitted cardigans that are a big hit. We love to find small, exciting brands that are adventurous. We don't offer classics or basics - which make up around 60 percent of one’s wardrobe and which the sustainability market covers quite well - but concentrate on statement pieces that make up around 40 percent. In addition, we focus on the community and ask our customers which brands are interesting for them, and they are already suggesting some.
The last question is about your future: Currently, Unown is active only in Germany - could you imagine to expand internationally and if so, where to?
Through Instagram, we are in touch with the community and have an idea where our concept is particularly well received, but there are no concrete internationalization plans yet. In the long run, we can see it happen for Austria and Switzerland as well as the Benelux countries.
This article was previously published on FashionUnited DE.
Photos: 1) Dress: Black Velvet Circus; 2) Tina Spießmacher and Linda Ahrens (right); 3) jumpsuit: Kowtow; 4) Unown fashion subscription box; 5) dress: Lanius, jacket: Kings of Indigo; 6) dress: Elementy, cardigan: Nic Lodz; all images courtesy of Unown