The future of shopping is leasing. With the style-for-hire industry exploding in recent years, More Or Less discusses the benefits with SARA ARNOLD, the face behind HIGHER STUDIO: a monthly subscription library of fashion that offers all the loftiest brands to rent.

Photography by Senta Simond Styling by Lyson Marchessault
Text by Lauren Cochrane

Talking to Sara Arnold, the founder of Higher Studio and spokesperson for Extinction Rebellion, would be a bleak wake-up call on climate change were it not for two factors. Arnold is dressed a way that makes it hard not to feel some joy – with a bright red tutu skirt over a pair of pyjama trousers, a mane of dark hair, and statement glasses straight out of a 1980s music video. And then there’s her laugh. Throughout our conversation at a vegan cafe in east London, a conversation that takes in everything from the end of the world as we know it to the fundamental flaws in the capitalist system, she lets out a hooting, bubbling – and entirely infectious – giggle. My hour in her company is a delight.

Arnold’s day job is Higher Studio. This is a fashion rental company with a difference, and that’s the clothes. Forget the prom dresses and new-season statement gowns of sites like Girl Meets Dress and Rent the Runway; Arnold comes from the avant-garde side of fashion. On Higher, you will find Phoebe English, Patrick McDowell, Junya Watanabe and (crucially, for Arnold) Comme des Garçons. Experimental, arty fashion, basically. She says its point of difference has to be about experience – “and to me, the best experience that anybody gives is Comme,” she adds. “It really makes you feel different. It makes you walk differently. It’s a completely different experience to wearing other clothes.”

Top, £25 per week or £85 per month, by Junya Watanabe, crystal bag, £150 per week, by Patrick McDowell, both from Higher Studio; sandals, Sara’s own

Then there’s her other life: organising and taking to the streets as part of Extinction Rebellion. The 32-year-old was part of the takeover on 15 April that saw Oxford Circus and London Bridge shut down due to the sheer volume of climate protesters. Anyone who emailed Arnold during spring 2019 would have been greeted with a memorable bounceback: “I am on strike and will be slow at replying to emails until 22 April. I am with Extinction Rebellion for the International Rebellion bringing central London to a standstill to demand the government declare a climate and ecological emergency.” The group, which seemed to come out of nowhere and suddenly be everywhere this spring, took a big step towards this goal by early May – when parliament (though crucially not the government) voted to declare a climate emergency. “I don’t know if any direct-action group has ever got a result that quickly,” says Arnold. “It’s only step one, we have a long way to go. But it’s working.”

Those less immersed than Arnold might see her two activities, fashion and climate activism, as being in conflict with each other. Arnold sees their point. “Its a struggle, and I can’t say I have it all worked out, but the fashion industry has loads of influence and we need to be trying to push that influence towards this cause,” she says. Higher embodies her values – with a recent relaunch including an Extinction Rebellion-approved manifesto on how to use fashion as a “powerful engine for cultural change”. Her clients – typically a woman who works in a gallery and has “to look presentable every day, to look like you have more money than you do” – are definitely partly drawn to the service because of their own environmental principles. “As far as I know, they’re all engaged,” she says. “When we had the rebellion, a lot of my customers came down and saw me there.”

Arnold was born in Indonesia, and says her awareness of her environment came early. “I had the privilege of growing up around coral reefs and pristine beaches, and as I was growing up I saw those being destroyed,” she says. “We had a house on a beach when I was little and now you wouldn’t want to swim on that beach.” Arnold’s family (her mother is a housewife, her father an accountant, and two older brothers work in film and coastal development) were all “concerned with ecology”, but she focused in on it early on, when harbouring childhood ambitions to be an astronaut. “I was really interested in why Mars doesn’t have an atmosphere,” she remembers, “why there used to be life and there isn’t now, and the fragility of the earth’s atmosphere.”

Blazer, £150 per week or £85 per month, by Junya Watanabe, shorts, £50 per week or £85 per month, by Comme des Garçons, both from Higher Studio

The introduction of fashion into Arnold’s story came later, when she came to boarding school in Britain from the age of nine. “I always looked the odd one out,” she says. “I was trying to push things further than the people around me, even though if I looked back I probably looked super-normal.” Resistant to the industry because she “saw it as evil and the psychological impact of fashion wasn’t positive”, she eventually came round to thinking that it could be the way to effect change. “Everyone has to wear clothes”. A fashion design and marketing BA at Central Saint Martins followed, bolstered by an MA in innovation, entrepreneurship and management at Imperial College.

Arnold argues that something like Higher Studio helps to redirect our innate desire for the new: from things, to experiences. “I think it’s human nature to want the new,” she says. “That’s not what wrong with the world. It’s that it’s being fed in the wrong way. We should be having enriching experiences, but when it’s fed by products instead, they’re empty. It’s giving you an experience in that moment in time, but then you’re left with that thing that sits in your wardrobe and doesn’t get worn. It’s a hassle.”

There are signs that more and more people are coming round to Arnold’s point of view. The clothing rental market is set to reach £1.5bn by 2023. This isn’t happening fast enough for Arnold’s liking. Before setting up Higher, she worked at a bigger fashion company in Paris, with the thinking that she could make more change from the inside. “Once I was in it, I realised I was turning around a ship and it’s an emergency,” she says. Her resignation letter stated the facts without sugar-coating it: “I have a war to fight for the planet,” it read. “This will take 10 years and I have no time to waste.”

When I meet her, she puts things in even starker terms. Talking about frustrations over the viability of May’s Fashion Revolution Week, she says: “They’re are still talking about how important the fashion industry is so important for culture, but what is more important – culture or food? That’s the reality of it.”

Jacket and shorts, £50 per week or £85 per month, by Comme des Garçons, from Higher Studio; sandals, Sara’s own

Since devoting time to Extinction Rebellion, Arnold says her life priorities have shifted. While her two-year-old poodle, named Rei Kawakubo, is a happy distraction, living in an emergency situation isn’t easy. “Some days it’s a struggle,” she admits. “My anxiety goes through waves. There’s a lot of things I can’t do now. I can’t go to a museum, because I can’t just walk around looking at some stuff.”

She does, however, feel like the movement has also helped with her optimism – within reason. “I have lost hope for the future to be good, but through Extinction Rebellion I have gained this little bit of hope,” she says. “Before I found that, I felt completely hopeless and I felt powerless; now I feel like I have a community of like minds and they are coming together.”

And, with Higher Studio involved, those like minds will be very well-dressed indeed.

Model: Paloma Herrera. Hair: Kiyoko Odo, Make- up: Siddartha Simone. Casting director: Julia Lange. Lighting technician: Phil Hewitt

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