Princess For A Day | Verve Magazine
India's premier luxury lifestyle women's magazine
March 18, 2013

Princess For A Day

Text by Priya Mirchandani

A cyber fairy tale unfolds as best friends, Jennifer Hyman and Jennifer Fleiss share a ‘closet full of clothes but nothing to wear’ moment. And so is born Rent The Runway that offers scores of college Cinderellas an opportunity to dress, look and feel like their favourite celebrities, for one special evening. Priya Mirchandani delves into the sartorial story which has pulled three Indian designers into its pages

Once upon a time, not so long ago, two young girls sighed in despair as they shared a ‘closet full of clothes but nothing to wear’ moment in their sorority house at Harvard Business School. Not unusual, happens all the time. For best friends Jen and Jenny though, it turned out to one of those moments that transformed a universal female lament into a phenomenal business opportunity. Thus began the cyber fairy tale that turned Jennifer Hyman and Jennifer Fleiss into virtual fairy godmothers.

It offered scores of college Cinderellas a chance to dress, look and feel like their favourite celebrities, for one special evening. Rent The Runway, a one-of-a-kind fashion enterprise, was born. RTR is a digital closet overflowing with ensembles fresh off the Fashion Week runways, available to anyone who wants to rent them, for a mere fraction of the retail price. The mantra is simple – shine like a star at that graduation ceremony, bridal shower, cocktail party or even that special date, without going financially under. Or, quite simply, as it says on their website: Love. Rent. Return.

Rags to Runways
Like all start-ups, the beginnings of this fashion-fantasy-come-true were fairly humble. A string of trunk shows and pop-up stores across the Harvard and Yale campuses, followed up with an emailed PDF of their offerings and coordinates. Now, three years later, venture capitalist funding has replaced the trunk with a 40,000-square-foot warehouse in New Jersey plus a chic office in New York. And profits have transformed the PDF into a portal, a hugely successful business portal that houses 160 designers from across the world, from the staple DVF to the more niche Proenza Schouler. What remains the same is the incredible product, The Cinderella Experience, now delivered across America by 200 inspired employees. “Women have an emotional connection with fashion and Rent The Runway is about bringing that connection alive,” says Hyman. For three million women in America, RTR has become a way to celebrate a special occasion. It gives them a chance not just to feel like a celebrity, but also to experiment with trends and new designer brands without being weighed down by expense or guilt.

In a sense, RTR may even have democratised fashion in America – turned it from a luxury enjoyed by a select few, into a feel-good experience accessible to anyone who’s in the mood for a bite of style. This portal has done to fashion what Netflix has done to films. A growing customer base in this bleak economic climate spells nothing short of ‘abracadabra’ for designers, so no complaints from that side of the fashion ring. It is a win-win scenario, all around.

Speaking of wins, redefining the economics of fashion retailing and reaching out to three million Cinderellas, could hardly go unnoticed. Fortune magazine named Jennifer Hyman the ‘CMO of the Executive Dream Team’, right after she and her partner made the prestigious ‘Most Powerful Women Entrepreneurs’ list. Inc. magazine featured the duo in their ‘Top 30 under 30’ listing. While voted the RTR entrepreneuristas among the ‘Most Influential People In New York Fashion’.

A magical concept that really ‘clicks’
The fashion team at RTR constantly networks with designers, and adds a minimum of two designers a month to their cyber closets. They are also in constant touch with clients, especially from Fashion Weeks in Milan or Paris, getting instant feedback and preferences via Facebook and Twitter. Once an order is placed online, it is shipped out within 24 hours, free of cost. The delivery includes the specified piece along with two size options, just in case, and a prepaid shipping bag for the return. For a marginal cost, RTR also throws in a Plan B back-up dress, in a similar style.

Disappointment doesn’t seem to be listed on this fashion catalogue. Also on offer is a panel of professional RTR stylists who can be consulted by email, phone or live chat, no strings or dollars attached. This keeps the Cinderella Experience alive long after the rented dress has been returned. And, pretty soon, digital changing rooms will enable trials before an order is placed. Two hundred American colleges now have ‘Runway Reps’, spreading the Cinderella Experience to women who like to live out their dreams – in chiffon, silk or tulle.

Prince Charming with Indian roots
Interestingly enough, renting the runway is now trending not just at college campuses, but also in corporate corridors and society events – from experimental students to dynamic young professionals, all the way to discerning 40-50 pluses who have discovered the secret to never repeating the same outfit ever again. This means that Hervé Léger’s body-con styles share shelf space with boho-chic haute hippie in the RTR closet, while a legendary Oscar De la Renta could be rubbing shoulders with the flavour-of-the-season, Thakoon.

Just recently, three talented desi designers have been invited aboard. Orissa’s impossibly talented young export to New York, Bibhu Mohapatra seems to have an ardent fan-base in the US, including First Lady Michelle Obama. He retails at Bergdorf Goodman and Nieman Marcus and will now create an exclusive line for RTR. Nachiket Barve’s tactile blend of international silhouettes and Indian textiles, express luxury in a fresh unusual way, especially at RTR. And Rahul Mishra brings his earthy, organic fashion ethos and fabric wizardry to the American Cinderellas. All three Indian names reflect exactly the things that RTR stands for – youth, talent and drive. Enough to keep the Cinderellas clicking away on their keyboards, happily ever after.

Let’s close this cyber fairy tale with the question that begs to be asked. Would and could the concept of renting the runway work in India? The Jennies have their hands full for the moment, and India is a cryptic market to them. Wonderboy Bibhu though, is optimistic about seeing RTR in a desi avatar. “High fashion is aspirational. It’s the aspirational customer who over time, turns into a brand loyal.” And RTR is the perfect way for fashionistas-in-the-making to make their debut, to open their fashion accounts, so to speak. If RTR can replicate their logistic efficiencies in India, there’s no reason why the Indian Cinderellas should be kept waiting, feels Bibhu.

So here’s to myths, fairy tales and magic portals. And fashion fantasies that do really come true, even if for just one day.

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