When the wedding invitation arrived in the spring of 2021, Sonya Patel, an entrepreneur who runs a small spice business in Cleveland, was in a bind.
It was for an Indian wedding, which can span multiple days and require not just a single dress but an entire wardrobe: four outfits, perhaps, for weekend-long festivities; two pairs of shoes; three purses; and bangles and earrings to match.
Ms. Patel, 40, usually relied on lehengas, or skirts, and saris purchased by her mother during her regular visits to Jaipur for these events; Ms. Patel hadn’t traveled to India herself in more than a decade. But that spring, “no one had gone to India to go shopping” because of Covid, she said. “I went to try on everything at my mom’s house, and nothing fit. I was in a panic.”
Frantic Google searches led her to Borrow the Bazaar and Preserve, two rental sites specializing in South Asian formal wear. After a flurry of emails and Zoom calls, she chose a white mirrored lehenga from Preserve for the sangeet, a lively pre-wedding celebration. “Afterward, I put it in a box and sent it back and didn’t have to think about it — it was amazing,” Ms. Patel said. The cost was $110 for a seven-day rental.
South Asian weddings seem like the perfect occasion for the fashion-rental juggernaut: Traditional attire can be expensive and take months to have custom-made; such delicate pieces can be difficult to clean and store, too. And once a look makes it to Instagram, who wants to be seen in it again at the next Diwali gala?
For many, renting is the next logical solution. Preserve and Borrow the Bazaar, along with sites like AllBorrow and the 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 South Asian wedding.
Rent the Runway, which made borrowed fashion a mainstream fixture, announced in February 2020 that it would start carrying Indian designs by the North Carolina-based label Sani.
“The pieces were completely booked out within 48 hours; then two weeks later the pandemic hit,” said Niki Shamdasani, who founded Sani with her sister, Ritika. So far the partnership hasn’t expanded beyond a few outfit options, which are often unavailable because they are being rented.
The demand can be high, according to Sonal J. Shah, a New York wedding planner who has overseen nearly 2,000 high-end South Asian nuptials in her two-decade career. “Post-Covid, I would say in the U.S. alone there are between 6,000 to 6,500” South Asian weddings per year, she said. (Translation: dresses for nearly 20,000 events.) The average budget for her clients’ multiday extravaganzas, she said, is $350,000 to $400,000, and a designer trousseau can cost as much as $60,000.
Guests, of course, don’t have to spend nearly as much, but even at less extravagant weddings, the numbers still add up.
“Everybody’s tired of spending thousands of dollars on outfits they only wear once,” said Lindsey Chakraborty, Preserve’s founder and chief executive. “In my personal experience, everybody you know is invited to every wedding, so you can’t repeat that same lehenga for another couple of years — and then it’s already out of trend.”
Ms. Chakraborty, 36, came up with the idea behind Preserve when she was dating her husband, Shiv, and she found herself shopping for three Indian weddings in one year. “As a basic plus-one guest, I needed 15 outfits,” she said. When she took the “budget route online,” she said the outfits that arrived were poor quality and looked nothing like their pictures.
Using her background in business, Ms. Chakraborty began researching the market and discovered how overlooked it was, especially with the rate of mixed marriages in the Indian community. (She is white; her husband is Indian American.)
Ms. Shah, the wedding planner, estimates that more than 60 percent of her couples are interracial, which means there’s a diverse pool of guests who are eager to dress the part, but are also concerned about respecting traditions by choosing suitable attire and colors — and may lack a personal collection of saris to pull from. For a recent wedding she planned in Mexico, Ms. Shah said, “We probably filtered 60 to 70 emails just about the clothing and jewelry.”
The more Ms. Chakraborty researched, the more convinced she was that there was a need for her intervene. So she put all of her wedding money into Preserve and eloped on her TriBeCa rooftop in August 2021. She teased Preserve that summer with two Instagram Stories, which she said prompted 500 rental requests in response.
Since fall 2021, Preserve has attracted more than 1,000 new customers, half of whom rent two or more outfits per order, she said. Ms. Chakraborty estimates that half of her clientele is not South Asian.
Aletheia Orphanidys, a 31-year-old lawyer in the Bay Area, is one of Preserve’s non-Desi customers. When she was invited to a law school classmate’s wedding in 2021, she was overwhelmed. “Everyone else knew what the sangeet versus the mehndi looks like,” she said. “I had not a single clue what the events were, what colors were appropriate. I had no idea where to begin.”
With consultation via text, Preserve helped her style a designer wardrobe of five ensembles for a total of $500 — a fraction of the thousands it would have cost to buy them — for a seven-day rental period.
Even women who maintain their own Indian wardrobes say they enjoy the freedom of experimenting the rental services provide. “It gives you confidence to try styles you might not try on your own,” Ms. Patel said. “I rent outfits that are way more fashion-forward, that I would never in my life purchase.”
South Asian rental platforms may have established proof of concept, but they still face a unique set of challenges. For example, Ms. Patel said there can be a stigma around preworn apparel in some South Asian families: “My mom was horrified,” Ms. Patel said, remembering the first time she broached the idea of renting with her mother.
Then there is the matter of cleaning delicate pieces: Indian and Pakistani attire often involves embellished fabrics and handmade beading that can deteriorate quickly if not cared for properly. Rental brands tend to focus their inventory on richly woven fabrics, like banarasi, beading that is more durable, and distinctive silhouettes, like sari-gown hybrids — a slight shift from the designs customers may be used to seeing.
And sizing can be difficult for rental companies to streamline — even more so for South Asian garments, which are typically tailored to a highly individual fit. To work around this, Almari360 and AllBorrow work with seamstresses to add adjustable elements like ties and snaps to each garment; Preserve coordinates with its designers to standardize sizes, and Ms. Chakraborty said she was developing technological solutions to further eliminate guesswork.
But even as these companies work to streamline their services, clients’ packed post-pandemic social calendars are keeping them in business.
“I’m 100 percent renting again — I was on both sites two nights ago picking out outfits for a wedding in March,” Ms. Patel said of Preserve’s and Borrow the Bazaar’s websites. She has become a repeat customer of both companies.
She’s also spreading the rental gospel, much to her mother’s chagrin. “I told people I rented, and my mom said, ‘Why are you telling people?’” she recalled with a laugh. “I was like, ‘Because it might help someone else!’”