You’ll Wear What They Tell You to Wear

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As so many emotional journeys do, this one began with me expressing disgust on Twitter. In this instance, I was angry about the proliferation of lifestyle-touting subscription clothing services. I’d recently seen ads for Bombfell on the subway (“If shopping isn’t your bag, you’re going to love our box”) and hit a personal tipping point.

Clothing delivery services seem somehow dystopian, and although I was freaked out by them, I didn’t fully understand why. Twitter people rushed to fill me in, as I’d hoped they would.

Clothing subscriptions provide a utilitarian uniform for cubicle-bound automatons, people said. They enforce a kind of fascistic conformity, like Mao suits but more cheaply made and less chic. They infantilize us in the same way that meal kit delivery services do: by replacing labor done by someone who might care how we’re fed or what we’re wearing (say, a loving parent) with labor done by workers at the bottom rung of a start-up, or even maybe by an algorithm designed to take key words and turn them into outfits.

It sounded so much worse than I’d even imagined, and of course this made me want to find out more. So Rumaan Alam and I decided to make ourselves his ’n’ hers guinea pigs in a harrowing experiment: Together, we would try out the experience of several of the most popular subscription services. We would take notes on our experiences and compare them. In doing so, we would learn a truth. Are clothing subscriptions the Soylent of fashion — or are they maybe just a fun and convenient new way to shop?

The deal: Seven days to return before you get charged; average price, $89 an article.

RUMAAN:

Newfangled clothing subscription services are at heart good old-fashioned businesses, in that they make so many promises that it’s impossible to keep them all. If you have someone at home all day or your UPS driver knows where to hide boxes behind your garage, the promise is convenience. If you live far from any stores or simply don’t have time to shop, the promise is access. If you feel overwhelmed by shopping, the promise is attention. If you feel underwhelmed by shopping, the promise is novelty. If you don’t care about fashion, they’ll care for you; if you do care about fashion, they’ll be your clothes buddy.

Like so many entities that pledge to disrupt, the subscription service model exchanges one set of hassles for another, more modern, set of hassles. Spend time with the computer instead of a sales clerk. Visit the post office instead of your local shop.

My first subscription was to Bombfell, the ubiquitous Instagram advertiser that sounds like a Roger Moore-era Bond film. The enrollment process emphasizes the user over the clothing; you describe your body type, your general style, and indicate anything you know you have no interest in, like boot-cut jeans or graphic tees. (Check, and check.)

I am someone who is interested in fashion, which doesn’t put me outside Bombfell’s target demographic, because what the company sells is something I’m interested in too: ease. I appreciate that the delivery was fast and the customer service attentive. The pricing was not an issue because you pay only if you keep the clothes Bombfell sends you and I returned everything.

In my enrollment, I told Bombfell that I was simply too busy to shop, that I had a modern sense of style. They sent me a long sleeve tee, a chambray shirt, a pair of brown pants and a pair of faded black jeans, all perfectly serviceable. This was more like the clothing a mother might choose for an adult son, rather than what I expect from a stylist, even if that’s just a term of art for a customer service representative.

Especially galling, I thought, was the long sleeve tee, which Bombfell assured me was a design that was theirs alone. Exclusivity is meant to be alluring, but it’s hard not to reason that per some arrangement, every customer, no matter his style or needs, is going to be sent this particular garment. Part of this site’s appeal is, I think, its prices, but I refuse to pretend that $68 is a fair price for a cotton tee.

The deal: Rent as many “totes” as you like and return when you’re done — or use their purchase service.

EMILY:

I started with Le Tote because I get served its Instagram ads most often, and because one Twitter dissenter had mentioned finding it useful when starting a new job. It also seemed to be the cheapest and most flexible of all the services; you can wear the clothes for as long as you want and then send them back, which spurs the shipment of a new box, purportedly styled just for you.

All the options it showed for outfits you would potentially wear seemed irretrievably wack to me, but Le Tote does allow you to choose what’s in your shipment from a set of options, to which it adds a few “fun” extras. My first Tote contained a striped shirt, a faux suede moto jacket, a pair of leggings with Nike written up the side, and (fun!) a vending-machine-quality ring and a floral scarf. The whole thing cost $147, if I wanted to buy it all, which I did not; $147 seemed expensive, considering the plastic fast-fashion quality of the clothes in it.

I did end up keeping the leggings with Nike written up the side because they seemed as if they wouldn’t fall off my butt during yoga if I ever go to yoga again. You win this one, Le Tote. But not any other ones, because I canceled after that shipment.

I was left with one burning question. Is Le Tote a play on words? A “litotes” is a figure of speech that uses deliberately exaggerated understatement to make a point, like “not bad” or “it’s not my first rodeo.” Like “Le Tote clothes aren’t the best I’ve ever worn.” I’m guessing it’s not a play on words, actually.

The deal: You’re sent five things, you try them, return what you don’t like. Bonus fun: You get 25 percent off if you buy all five.

RUMAAN:

Stitch Fix is in the business of style more than convenience. You can hear it in the very name, the notion that your wardrobe is something that can be fixed, and that will in turn fix your life. The style questionnaire is more rigorous than Bombfell’s, more granular, and I could imagine my fellow consumers answering those queries mindful of what the right articles of clothing might do for them. That’s part of fashion’s promise, that a girlfriend or boyfriend or a promotion are just one tie or sweater or pair of shoes away.

Bombfell emphasizes its personal touch, showing you a head shot of the stylist who’s assisting you. Stitch Fix doesn’t work quite the same way; you’re welcome to send a note to your stylist, but to me it felt like sending a note to an algorithm. Anyway, I requested some blazers. I was sent two, both perfectly serviceable if not quite what I want in a blazer.

The trade-off for the convenience of trying something on at home is that you don’t have access to much variety. Presumably, over time, your stylist (or the algorithm) will learn to anticipate your tastes, the way we’re told online advertising works. Of course, when I’m online, I find I see mostly advertisements for things I’ve already bought.

I can see how the subscription model would appeal to the entrepreneurs who adapted it in this manner. Being sent a box feels like receiving a present, and while paying for what’s inside may not be top of mind, of course, the company has your credit card on file. It’s easy enough to return what you don’t want, but it’s easier still to keep what you don’t want.

My husband tried on one of the blazers and declared that he wanted it. It was only when I pointed out that it was $200 that he noticed that the shoulder didn’t fit quite right, that the cut was not altogether flattering.

The deal: You approve your trunk preview, and after it arrives you have five days to return or buy the six to 10 items in a trunk.

EMILY:

I next tried Trunk Club Women, also based on Twitter recommendation — this one from a woman who swore that the app’s stylist had heeded her very specific requests and that she’d ended up buying several of the items from her first trunk. Unlike Le Tote, Trunk Club is expensive. You also get to have a chat with a person who is definitely not a bot about your style preferences. I actually loved this process so much.

Doubters (like Rumaan!) told me, “Well, you could have that experience at any department store, especially at Nordstrom, which owns Trunk Club.” But the illusory intimacy of digital interaction made me so much more honest with Sophie, the stylist, than I would have ever been with a stranger IRL. Very quickly, she learned about me that I teach undergrad creative writing, that I almost never wear florals or bright colors, that I usually wear boots or sneakers and jeans and a button-front shirt, and that I still have a postpartum gut even though my son is 2½.

I admitted that I was unlikely to ever wear anything bodycon and described my ideal aspirational aesthetic as “rich L.A. lesbian.” The results were so shockingly on point that there were two items in my first Trunk preview that I had to delete, not because I didn’t like them, but because I already owned them.

The experience of trying all these clothes on at home instead of in a Nordstrom dressing room, however, was not actually that luxurious. I found the box big and daunting, and it sat around unopened for days while I waited to have enough time set aside to do a little in-home fashion show for myself. But five days is all you get with Trunk Club, and once its emails started to take on a slightly chiding tone, I worried that the company would charge my credit card for thousands of dollars worth of clothes. So late one afternoon, I opened the box.

I made yes, no and maybe piles, and there was a very cozy cashmere/wool blend long sleeve Vince sweater dress in the maybe pile that seemed like the kind of thing that might be worth its $400 price tag. I was in the process of trying it on a second time when disaster struck. I had been standing on my coffee table to look in my apartment’s only mirror, and without warning the table collapsed underneath me!

My first concern, as I assessed the damage, after I determined that I hadn’t sustained anything worse than a big, rapidly purpling butt bruise, was that the scrape on my hand had maybe gotten some blood on the dress. It hadn’t, but the dress seemed somehow tainted anyway. I ended up sending it back.

I also sent back a denim pencil skirt, a Bond-villainess scuba dress and a white silk top that had looked a little bit frumpy even on the lissome teenager who modeled it on the website. I kept a soft cropped sweater and a black velvet Eileen Fisher T-shirt that I wore later that week to a dinner to celebrate my 36th birthday, which seemed appropriate.

The deal: For a $60 flat fee, you’re sent a couple of new items each month.

RUMAAN:

Stitch Fix and Bombfell use technology and language to reinvent the low-end and midrange department store experience. FiveFour Club is more like a web version of a boutique with a subscription model thrown in for good measure. Instead of appealing to customers with the siren song of a personal stylist, FiveFour charges a price of admission in exchange for regular deliveries of its own branded clothing. (There is also a web store, membership not required.)

The aesthetic here is minimal, sporty and young, so fashion-aware that it’s hard to envision who the consumer is. While it’s true we don’t all live in ZIP codes with street wear boutiques, the same person who logs onto FiveFour can log on to eBay. In exchange for my $60 membership fee, I was sent a windbreaker and a tee, both in lackluster shades of brown. On a lanky 19-year-old, they’d look stylish. On anyone else, they look like two garments that cost $30 each.

Wouldn’t I like to be a lanky 19-year-old? Of course. Fashion is about fantasy. Here in reality, FiveFour got my $60 and I’ve got these clothes I’ll never wear. Those few of us who never read Marie Kondo still have those fashionable mistakes lurking in our closets. I’m sort of fond of them, those past selves that never came to be. I’ve spent many hours of my life browsing in stores.

At 21, I admired clothes I couldn’t afford. At 30, I bought them. At 40, I sometimes go simply for the pleasure, of seeing what is new, of learning what counts as beautiful now.

So what, if anything, have we learned? One old lesson, at least. Shopping for clothes is time consuming, it’s tiring, and it can feel like a waste of an autumn afternoon. So you can subscribe to a service that makes your life simpler, although it may come at the expense of expressing who you are. You can also subscribe to the notion that there’s still pleasure in some of life’s chores. In the flesh, you can touch a wool jacket or a cashmere sweater as you imagine who you might be if each belonged to you.


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