Designer clothing is one of those passions. Like building your own Grand Designs-style bespoke home or collecting art, it’s a nice hypothetical but, unless you’re planning to marry money or rob a stage coach, it seems destined to remain just out of reach. Or so you might think. Thankfully for all you flat-broke fashionistas there is a service that allows you to rent designer dresses without breaking the bank. Just think of Girl Meets Dress as your boutique on a reasonable budget.
For co-founder Anna Bance, fashion has always been a big part of her life. “I studied fashion journalism and PR at The London College of Fashion,” she says. After completing her education, she began working for high-profile publications such as InStyle, The Telegraph and Harpers Bazaar. Before long, Bance switched sides to work as UK PR manager for French luxury fashion brand Hermes. I was here that she met co-founder Xavier de Lecaros-Aquise after hiring his company to cater an event she was organising. She continues: “It was a natural choice of industry in which to launch a company.”
Some business plans take months of plotting and tweaking before they are really ready; others can almost pop out of the blue. “Xavier and I were both in full time roles when I had the idea,” says Bance. Renting of evening wear and fashionable formal dress for men had been long established and yet Bance was shocked to discover that no one had ever attempted to rent out designer clothing for women.
“When we looked into the market, we saw that no one was doing it,” she recalls. “We were the first company to rent luxury fashion online.”
However, she was sure this was an idea that’s time had come, in part influenced by changing attitudes toward ownership and the way we shop. “Retail and consumer habits are changing significantly, both in terms of expectations but also in terms of value,” Bance explains. In part, the lower cost of clothes in relative terms and the increasing interest in celebrity culture has shifted women’s focus onto clothing as self-expression rather than possession. “The growth in rental highlights consumers’ growing preference for experience over ownership.”
Bance feels Girl Meets Dress takes this a step further. “It means that not only does the concept of fast fashion remain – a woman can always be on trend and in a different dress for every event – but she can wear an exclusive designer she adores and perhaps cannot afford,” she says. “It’s the perfect combination, which the fashion industry has not been able to provide until now.”
By this stage, de Lecaros-Aquise was leading the UK digital media strategy for an investment bank and Bance was still working in fashion PR. This meant that, in the other, they each had the perfect complement to their own talents.
“Our complimentary skill sets in the different areas of fashion, finance, tech and business meant that we could build the website, generate press attention and launch without needing to hire a full team on day one,” says Bance. “If you can split the main areas of the business between you, then you can launch with minimal cost and test the product at market.”
And this has enabled the enterprise to grow in an incredibly organic manner. Up until the summer of 2013, Girl Meets Dress was entirely self-funded. For the enterprise to have grown to this extent by bootstrapping alone is remarkable, particularly if you take into account its most significant outlay: the dresses themselves.
Obviously, a service like that of Girl Meets Dress requires a major stock holding, meaning the enterprise has to buy up designer clothing catalogues and sink significant capital into it. “The clothes are bought from the designers at the start of the season, and then rented out until the following season,” Bance comments. This allows the company to recoup its outlay and generate profit, whilst ensuring their catalogue remains as up-to-date as any outlet de rigueur. “At the end of the season, we sell the remaining dresses. Then the new season’s dresses are bought and the cycle repeats.”
In part, it is its ability to represent the latest designer trends and extend its market penetration that has stood the company in such good stead. “Girl Meets Dress is very attractive to designers because many women will typically only have tried a few high-end brands in their lifetime,” says Bance. This opens up relationships between well-established designers and new markets that they may never have previously had access to; Bance reveals that 98% of Girl Meets Dress’s customers will try brands they have never previously worn. “That is a huge marketing opportunity for designers trying to reach new customers.”
But it is, above all else, a customer-focused brand. “It is always first and foremost about the customer, and having a product they want,” Bance says. This means user experience is a vital consideration, something its founders feel is inextricably linked to the capabilities of modern technology. At the moment of purchasing intent, the user can access the responsively designed site on their mobile to see each and every one of Girl Meets Dress’s 4,000 outfits; those who favour a more leisurely browse can access it from their desktop and check out rental reviews or live chat with style advisors to get on-the-spot recommendations. As Bance explains: “Every step of the process is tailored to ensure our customers receive an entirely seamless and luxurious experience.”
The slick execution of the rental service is perhaps how it has come to reinvent an industry that has seen little change in decades.Far from being dominated by the Moss Bros approach – suiting-and-booting men in-store on the rare occasion they need kit for a wedding or soirée – Girl Meets Dress has opened up the rental of clothes in the same way companies like Whipcar or Airbnb have for their own industries. “The idea of collaborative consumption is now making a big impact around the world, whether it is a car or somewhere to stay,” says Bance. “We’ve brought that to designer clothing.”
And the reception it has garnered definitely sits more than just a few degrees north of lukewarm. “We have had an amazing response,” comments Bance. With write-ups across the spectrum, from The Times to Vogue, and celebrities like The One Show’s Alex Jones giving Girl Meets Dress garments plenty of airtime, the world seems to be clamouring to form relationships with the innovative start-up. “We often partner with all manner of different companies, not only in the fashion industry, but also sectors like food, theatre and sport.”
Having completed an A-round funding scarcely more than a few months ago, it seems the meteoric rise of Girl Meets Dress is set only to continue. “The profile of our new investors mirrors our ambition to build a brand combining e-commerce and merchandising expertise with a deep sense of innovation and luxury,” Bance explains. “We have ambitious and exciting plans for the year ahead to expand our market-leading position in the UK.”
However, perhaps the enterprise’s aims can be precised in a much simpler manner than this. As Bance summarises: “We just want to continue giving women access to the biggest closet in the world.”