The Rise of South Asian Rental Startups

Several startups are competing to be the Rent the Runway of South Asian fashion. But does the market exist for them?

Leigh Cuen

July 9, 2021

The Rise of South Asian Rental Startups
Flyrobe merchandise (photo courtesy of Flyrobe)

In March 2020, Riya Collective co-founder Arian Agrawal was facing her startup’s biggest challenge yet. Just a year earlier, she and business partner Sarina Siddhanti had launched their company to fill a need they had found among the Indian diaspora: renting traditional Indian-wear. Due to an explosion of luxury wear and fashion designers in India, trendy Indian outfits had become expensive. Rental would provide an easy way to try out some of the latest trends and designers such as Sabyasachi, Manish Malhotra, and more — at far lower prices.

Then, nearly all at once, obstacles emerged. The industry’s incumbent rental fashion unicorn, Rent the Runway, launched South Asian fashion options (two lehengas and an anarkali), targeting the same audience as their business. Then, the pandemic hit and wedding season screeched to a halt. “Just nine months into us quitting our full-time jobs, COVID hit, and we had to change,” said Agrawal.

Riya Collective isn’t the only startup that noticed an opportunity. Over the past few years, several similar companies have cropped up in the U.S.: Almari Pret, Lukh Studio, Borrow the Bazaar. But even before these rental companies, informal modes of attaining traditional garments have been common among South Asian Americans: borrowing, shopping trips to the homeland, affordable online retailers, and plain old jugaad (think: matching a crop top with your mom’s sari). At the same time, the rise of luxury Indian-wear shows that more people are increasingly willing to shell out money for these outfits. So who exactly are these companies’ ideal customers? And do rental Indian-wear business models work?