The Sharing Economy Gets Dressed Up with Rent the Runway
BY CJ HIMBERG // PHOTOS BY HENRY HUNG
We’ve heard of cars going from zero to 60, but taking a company from zero to four million members in four years is a feat many entrepreneurs only dream about. With Rent the Runway, two Harvard MBAs achieved this major milestone, and in the process revolutionized the apparel game for women with “nothing to wear.” The story starts with two Jennifers, Fleiss and Hyman, who met in Cambridge and today, head a rapidly growing business that empowers women to be fashionably (and financially) forward. Rent the Runway members get access to designer dresses and return them after their event, cutting down on both cost and closet clutter.
Jenny Fleiss, co-founder of Rent the Runway, makes the tough calls at the Henri Bendel showroom.
Co-founder Jenny Fleiss spoke with us about how sharing-economy pioneers like Zipcar paved the way, how customer insights help them provide a “Cinderella experience,” and why exposure for designers is key to making the business thrive.
Zipcar: Where did you find the inspiration for Rent the Runway?
Jenny: We launched in November 2009 and the idea was really about leveraging the insight that while women always want new fun dresses to wear, it doesn’t always make sense to make the investment for a few reasons. First, we found that Facebook really ruined the repeat dress. With social media, women feel more pressure not to wear the same dress more than once. Second, women want dresses that are trendy or bright, but those are the dresses that usually get hung up in the closet and never worn again. Third, borrowing a dress is much more practical and cost-effective than buying new ones all the time. Overall the idea was to provide a solution for women who want to be savvy without sacrificing fashion and without worrying about being caught repeat-wearing on social media. So it makes sense on many levels to provide dresses on a rental basis.
Back at Rent the Runway HQ, the hair and makeup team make a model picture-perfect for her close-up.
Was it difficult to get people, especially designers, onboard with the idea of sharing dresses?
We definitely had some resistance early on from members and designers. Initially, people put a lot of trust in us operationally to provide quality, clean dresses on a rental basis. Now, the brand we’ve built is a huge part of solving that hesitation. Both consumers and designers were certainly more comfortable with the shared economy because of the rising trend.
What’s your take on the trend of businesses capitalizing on sharing?
There’s a lot of growth in the space. Music is big, of course there’s Netflix, and then there’s textbooks and books. I think retail has been the slowest responder to capitalizing on the benefits of the shared economy. There are some lines that can’t be crossed for clothing—investment pieces or intimate pieces. It makes sense to own your own black blazer that you wear hundreds of times.
Stylists set up the shot while a model waits patiently (left). Looks like we got the shot (right)!
At Zipcar, we obsess about the member experience and look to keep the member at the forefront of every decision. How do you make sure your members have the best experience?
Our customer service team is actually called customer insights. They’re not just speaking to our customers; they’re listening to the feedback and using those insights to really drive the evolution of our business. This is really important because the customer desire we’re looking to satisfy goes beyond having the best dresses, it’s about giving people that celebrity experience. Our styling team is also a huge part of helping our consumers achieve that by helping them put their look together. We also sell extra pieces to help complete the outfit like stockings, underwear, bras, and makeup. We’re constantly looking at other things that could further enhance the experience.
The real stars of the show sparkle and shine from the accessory table.
Can you speak to the visibility that designers get with women and how that has helped them?
Women in their twenties aren’t typically buying from designers featured on our site. What we’re doing is giving them a taste of a designer that before they could only window shop. They get to know how the dresses fit, they get compliments all night, and they develop an affinity for the brand. We’re always adding new designers and working with our members to find out who they want to wear next.
Any lessons you learned along the way that other young entrepreneurs could benefit from?
No doesn’t mean no, it means not right now. Persistence and perseverance is really important in entrepreneurship because there are a lot of highs and lows. Take every meeting. You never know where it will go or who will know who; it can lead to some amazing places you didn’t realize. Don’t be afraid of feedback. Talking about your idea helps get you a sense of how you need to adapt. Test your concept. By testing your product offering, you won’t waste time on a concept that doesn’t have legs. It’s a healthy way to check yourself and make sure there’s a demand for what you’re creating.
A model takes a breather while waiting to be called on-set.
What’s next for Rent the Runway?
We’re always adding new designers and listening to our consumers for what they want to see. It’s from their feedback that we were able to launch a great mobile app, which we’re still learning ways to make better, and create more physical interaction with the dresses through our showrooms.