How a teenager built one of the top fashion rental businesses with $300 to her name.

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Admittedly, I had followed the rise of Larissa Walsh before we ever had a conversation.

As someone who hails from Melbourne, and girl with a relatively sound interest in fashion, it’s been pretty hard to escape. Rent a Dress, the business that does exactly what it’s name purports, gives young women unparalleled access to designer clothes when their bank accounts aren’t quite as generous.

The business model is a simple one: provide a platform for women to advertise the designer dresses collecting dust in their wardrobes, charge them a minimal cost for the exposure and watch as dress after dress is rented out.

For those in a particular university-aged demographic, it makes sense. Why buy when I can rent? Or, on the flip side, perhaps I will buy on the proviso that I’ll later rent it out.

Now 21, Walsh’s business is booming. Her social media following is far-reaching (her combined Facebook and Instagram reach is nearing 50,000) and her website well-crafted enough to separate herself from rookie competitors. From my research, Rent a Dress, which she carefully defines as a ‘shared rental platform’ (ie. Walsh doesn’t own the clothes but instead the platform they’re advertised on) is the biggest of its kind in the country.

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But by her own admission, building the business to how and where it stands now wasn’t always her intention. In truth, the business wasn’t born from a light-bulb ‘this is brilliant’ moment but more out of a desperate grab for cash.

“The business started in the middle of my first year of uni which was June 2014,” Walsh tells Mamamia. “I had just started a new job in Elwood [in Melbourne] but it was seasonal. Earlier in the year, my boss had told me come winter, I’d need another job.

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“I obviously didn’t listen to him and when June rolled around and the work dried up I found I had about $300 to my name and needed money quickly.”

So she grabbed a couple of dresses, threw them online and asked if people wanted to rent them out. The response was swift.

“I had seen a few girls selling their stuff through social media, so I thought, why not try renting them? At the time, I had this hatred for the dodgy way they uploaded photos and advertised their clothes, so I tried to make mine look as professional as I could and source the best photos I possibly could.”

If investing in the aesthetic of Instagram sounds wanky, if not a little shallow, perhaps you need to take a peak at Walsh's page. Crafting the aesthetic of a social media page has proved to be the foundation of her business. She had a brand from the outset. And there's no doubt - a slick, well-curated Instagram account makes you want to keep scrolling. It plays into our innate desire to look at nice things.

While completing a Commerce degree at the University of Melbourne, Walsh spends 20-30 hours a week on the business. Financially, she doesn't need to work elsewhere to keep herself afloat. But she's pragmatic about work and money, telling Mamamia that if she has the time and can earn additional income, why wouldn't she keep waitressing?

I laugh, feeling the need to point out not many others her age would share that same sentiment or work ethic. But it makes sense. For most, Rent a Dress is the first rental site that appears on your browser the minute you Google "Rent a Dress", despite the sprinkling of many copy-cat sites that have come behind her. That can't be a fluke.

So how does an 18-year-old build a business with no experience or knowledge?

"When I started Rent a Dress, I had absolutely no concept of paying tax, or knowledge on how to register a business. I grew the business as I grew my knowledge in accounting and management at uni."

Larissa Walsh. Image supplied.

If you're a woman in your mid-teens to late twenties, it would be difficult to scroll through your social media feeds without being interrupted by a bevy of posts where clothes are up for rent. It's normal, a little entrepreneurial and makes designer fashion accessible and available for those otherwise bound by the clutches of their bank accounts.

But I can't help but think about the forgotten players in this renting game: what about the designers?

Is this model of buying and renting hindering their business, and -- in our desperation to head out on the weekend in a piece that's both carefully cut and meticulously put-together -- are we harming the designers of the clothes we love so much?

Walsh doesn't think so.

"Fashion designers may think renting is harming their business, but the only thing it means is that girls are actually wearing a new outfit every week. It can be a selling point for a lot of dresses - you're more encouraged to buy it if you know you're getting your money back.

Larissa Walsh. Image supplied.

"It's more economical, too. People are wearing dresses more - we used to just wear them once and toss them away. Renting is sustainable and environmentally friendly."

So how does this fair for the designers? Interestingly, Sophia Berman, head designer at sass & bide shares Walsh's sentiments, telling Mamamia from their perspective, they believe pieces should be treasured, not just "worn and tossed away".

"We have customers who hold onto clothes forever, and we love that. People are more likely to buy something they absolutely love. It's a good thing if they invest in those beautiful pieces, there's nothing wrong with sharing that around."

22-year-old Madison Morey works in Marketing for an Australian fashion label. She both rents out her clothes and rents herself and for her, this is exactly her logic.

"Once I have worn a designer item once, there is a 90 per cent chance I am not going to wear it again, but sometimes do not want to let go of it right away," she tells Mamamia.  "There is no use having a designer item of clothing sitting in my wardrobe and depreciating over time when I could be getting my money back."

For Australian designer Shona Joy, it's a sign of the times. And for her, it's important designers roll with that.

A post shared by Shona Joy (@shonajoy2026) on

"I don’t necessarily see it as a negative. The more exposure we have as a brand is a good thing," she tells Mamamia.

Despite that, though, she thinks the rent-a-dress model lacks one thing, and perhaps always will: consumers will always want something sitting in their closet.

"Although I see it as a growing trend, I don’t think it will take away from wanting to actually own the current season's trends in your own wardrobe."

The designer is probably onto something. But then, so is Walsh. With nearly 5,000 items up for rent on her website, demand is only growing and it would be impossible to argue with the numbers. Women are voting with their wallets: they want to designer clothing, they want it now and they want to access it cheaply.

"It's a huge thing at the moment and businesses almost have to get on board or else they will fall behind," Walsh says.

And lucky for her, it seems a few have already got the memo.

You can find Rent a Dress' website here, or their Instagram here.

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