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RentTheRunway Lets You Wear Designer Fashion on the Cheap
Photograph by Dorothy Hong
Photograph by Dorothy Hong

Cofounders, RentTheRunway
New York

President Fleiss, 27, left, and CEO Hyman, 30, offer every woman her dream closet with affordable rentals of designer dresses.

Hyman: "Women feel this constant pressure to wear something new, especially now that pictures are posted on sites like Facebook. We want to enable women to have a new dress for every occasion."

Fleiss: "Pick a dress you love, and we'll send it in two sizes to ensure the perfect fit. When you're finished, pop it in the mailbox, and we'll take care of the dry cleaning. Renting costs $50 to $300, just 10% of the retail value. Women today have a cost-per-wear mentality, and it's stylish to be thrifty. We have more than 750,000 members, and we're adding 20,000 every week."

Hyman: "We've developed personal relationships with more than 100 brands to make sure we get the most current inventory. Herve Leger, Proenza Schouler — these are designers our customers have always dreamed of wearing, so they take better care of the merchandise than we ever expected, and that has been the biggest preserver of our garments."

-Online Extended Q&A-

Fast Company: What gave you the idea for RentTheRunway?

Jenn Hyman: It came from that feeling you get when you’re looking at a closet full of clothes but feel like you have nothing to wear. Women feel this constant pressure to wear something new and to refresh their wardrobe, especially now that pictures are posted on sites like Facebook. It’s more difficult to repeat outfits. RentTheRunway enables women to have a new dress and accessory for every occasion in their lives, while simultaneously giving them access to designer brands they’ve always dreamed about. Jenny and I were at Harvard Business School when I had the idea. She was the first person I told, and we literally started working on it the next day.

FC: You launched just over a year ago, in November 2009. You’ve had quite the year.

Jenny Fleiss: We have more than 750,000 members now! We’ve been increasing our customer base at nearly 20,000 a week, and we’re constantly working to launch features that our customers ask for.

JH: The main premise of RentTheRunway is to help women outfit themselves for every special occasion in their lives. They come to us before a wedding, a black tie benefit, a sorority party, a prom. One of the major ways we can help is by giving customized style suggestions based on the actual occasion they’re attending. We have a full team of stylists that will chat with our customers about what to wear to various events, how to accessorize their look, and how a particular dress fits—98% of our customers rent brands they’ve never worn before, so that extra guidance is so valuable.

FC: The items you offer aren’t cheap by any stretch of the imagination when it comes to retail prices—what does renting cost?

JF: We rent for roughly 10% of the retail cost. So you can rent a $500 dress for $50, or $3,000 for $300. Our entire inventory is the current season. We have a team of buyers and we work to pick the best-selling pieces, and even custom-make styles that we think are appropriate for our customer base.

FC: Other sites rent aspirational pieces of clothing, but you’ve quickly emerged as the leader in the space. What do you think has helped you succeed?

JF: It’s so important to work directly with designers. We realized that making sure we were on the same team as these brands not only helped us in terms of getting a great selection, but they also have such valuable insights and links into this industry. We want to work with them as opposed to doing something that would ever alienate them. We also had to create something that felt very true and real to all of our customers. Bag Borrow or Steal, for example, rents bags that sometimes have a retail price of $10,000—it doesn’t seem as believable that women would actually be wearing these items. So we picked brands like Herve Leger, Proenza Schouler—brands that women are aspiring to wear, but that are also a bit more attainable.

FC: Has maintenance of the garments been a challenge?

JH: These are designers that our customers have always wanted to wear, so they take better care of the merchandise than we ever expected, and that has been the biggest preserver of our garments.

JF: We also dry clean everything. When women are finished with the dresses—we send two sizes to ensure the perfect fit—they just pop them in the mailbox, and we take care of everything else. We’ve become relative experts on how to hang and warehouse dresses to maintain that fantastic brand-new feeling.

FC: When you were at Harvard, did you ever think you would end up in the fashion industry?

JF: I think we both had a very entrepreneurial mindset, but we didn’t know we were going to start a business right out of school, and we didn’t know we were going to start a business on the fashion stage. But as we started working together and the concept evolved, it was very clear to us that this was great timing given the recessionary environment.

FC: Do you think that played a big part in your success?

JF: The economy has made women more conscious of a cost-per-wear mentality. Before buying something, they think about how many wears they’ll get out of it, and if the price doesn’t make sense, they’ll pass. Women are a lot more open about and proud of being thrifty. It used to be all about showing how much wealth you could wear, and now women are much more apt to talk about the deal they got. It’s kind of in style to be cost conscious now.

JH: We’re creating an emotional experience. Our customers feel like we give them an extra bit of magic, help them have that fashion moment, that confidence to go out and take on the world. It’s a Cinderella experience, getting to go to your college reunion or on a first date in a brand that is normally denied to you. To have someone saying, yes, you can wear that, you’re good enough to wear that—they’re just over the moon.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

A version of this article appeared in the December 2010/January 2010 issue of Fast Company magazine.