In September 2008, Jennifer Hyman was in her second year of business school at Harvard University, with big dreams to do big things but without a concrete clue as to what they may be.
It was the holidays and she had headed home to her sister Becky’s apartment.
“I went home and I was in Becky’s apartment, and Becky had just gone to a store and bought a dress that was higher cost than her rent. As her responsible older sister, I was remarking how she should probably wear one of the dresses in her closet again, as opposed to being in credit card debt,” she told Guy Raz in NPR’s How I Built This podcast.
But there lied the issue: Becky had been photographed in it, the photographs were up on Facebook and, like women often do, felt she needed something new.
“She was a 25-year-old normal girl who lived in New York, she wasn’t a celebrity. But she was talking about being photographed and not being able to wear something again. And a light bulb just went off in me.”
That lightbulb was Rent the Runway. A business that was born on the bedrocks of a uniquely female fear of being photographed in the same dress more than once. Why couldn’t she just buy some dresses, rent them out and make some money?
Today, the concept is tried and tested. But at the time, it was new, innovative and uncharted territory. So she went back to Harvard, had lunch on the Monday with a friend called Jennifer Fleiss – née Carter – and they thought, why the hell not?
“[Becky] didn’t care about the actual ownership of the items in her closet. [She cared] about the photograph that would exist after the party, which she would share on Facebook and where she could show everyone she knew how awesome she felt,” she told the podcast.
Fleiss and Hyman sat there, began to think about how the business would come to be, and came to a single conclusion. They would set up a meeting with world famous fashion designer Diane von Furstenberg. Neither of them knew the fashion queen, but had a distinct kind of naive optimism and managed to guess – yes, guess – her email address. She responded almost straight away.
“She responded, and said I will see you tomorrow at 5pm. We drove down to New York, put on our DVF dresses and introduced ourselves as the co-founders of Rent the Runway. We didn’t really have a structured idea. We kind of iterated the idea while we pitched it.”
After this meeting, and one more, the duo came to a couple of conclusions. Firstly, that Diane Fusternberg only wanted in if other designers would be in too, and secondly, they would need their own website and interface.
They left the office and, in Hyman’s own words, “hustled”. They raised $1.75 million in venture capital. They got email address after email address of young women who might be interested in their product. They stumbled on the email address of a journalist at The New York Times, cold-called her, got her to come in, take photos and write a story about them.
There was no pussy-footing around it. They wanted exposure, and they wanted it fast.
Jenna Wortham wrote the story for The New York Times that November, calling the product "A Netflix Model for Haute Couture".
"Rent the Runway is a recession-era twist on the Internet rent-by-mail model, which has been used for things like textbooks and video games in addition to movies. Unlike those utilitarian items, however, the dresses offer a touch of Cinderella — on a budget," Wortham wrote at the time.
That article, along with a photo of their faces among a wealth of dresses hanging up, made it to the front page of the NYtimes.com. It would see 100,000 people sign up to their website.
Fast forward nearly nine years, and in 2016, Fleiss and Hyman landed on Forbes’ Richest Self-Made Women To Watch list with estimated fortunes of US$80 million (AU$109 million) each and, in 2017, had 1200 employees. Although, curiously, it's worth noting the company failed to turn over any actual profit until the end of 2016, when it had been fully functional for over eight years.
Earlier this year, Fleiss stepped down from her executive role, but will remain on the board of the company both women created from scratch.
At the moment, they ship only within the US. But luckily for the rest of us, more than a few copy-cat models have popped up locally, giving Australians their own chance at renting the runway.
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