INTERVIEW: Here's how you can wear stunning designer dresses - and still pay off your mortgage

 

When was the last time you paid a fortune for a dress that you only wore once? It probably sat in the back of your cupboard, gathering dust, even though you were sure you’d get a few wears out of it. But it just doesn’t work that way, does it? When the next event comes around, you’re dreaming of a new outfit. After all, everyone’s seen the last dress – even those who weren’t at the event, thanks to the widely shared photos on Facebook and Instagram.

Or, perhaps you’re dreading your daughter’s school formal years, and the fuss over designer dresses – especially if she’s invited to someone else’s formal as well as her own…the dollars start adding up.

Enter Her Wardrobe, every woman’s dream…a handpicked selection of the most wearable formal dresses, ready to be posted out to you for a short-term rental, in time for your next event. At a fraction of the retail cost, this makes complete financial sense – and social media sense. No one has seen you in this dress before. It’s also a better choice for the environment, as it reduces waste – and if you’ve been watching ABC’s War on Waste, you’ll know that we all need to do our bit.

We first spotted Alex, founder of Her Wardrobe, on Instagram, when she was tagged in yet another post by a very satisfied client. Curious to know more, we met Alex in her very cool, industrial warehouse space in Kensington. With racks full of head-turning designer dresses, it was hard to know where to look – so many colours and styles, just waiting to be tried on. In an instant, my eye caught a gorgeous beaded Thurley dress that my friend owns – and then a stunning bell-sleeved Alice McCall dress that my sister-in-law recently wore to a family wedding. It was clear from the outset that we’d stumbled upon a treasure trove of all the most coveted formal dresses – outfits that we’d all love to wear.

And that is precisely why business is booming for Alex, who currently sends out 50-60 dresses each week, and up to 150 during the Spring Racing Carnival. She has an innate ability to pick the must-have dresses for the season – dresses that we all want to wear, but we can’t all afford. Or, as Alex points out, her financially-savvy customers could most likely afford to buy the dress, but they choose not to. Instead, they put their money towards their mortgage, a house deposit, their wedding, kids or holidays. And according to their social media posts, they’re proud of their cost-effective, environmentally-sustainable decisions.

Alex’s typical customers are women in the midst of a milestone frenzy – such as those with a wedding or hen’s party every second weekend, or people attending a round of 40th celebrations. Often, all these parties are with the same group of people. So, renting a dress is a godsend, as they can still look amazing, but only outlay a fraction of what they’d normally spend. Her Wardrobe’s website is smart in this way, with each dress listed with the ‘try it’ rental price alongside the ‘keep it’ retail price. Most dresses would sell for $500-$750, and rent for $120-$140. Her cheapest hire starts at $89, with the upper limit at $229 for an Aurelio Costarella gown (with a $1,485 retail tag). All hire prices include delivery and dry cleaning upon return.

When we asked Alex whether there’s a stigma attached to hiring dresses, she said that perceptions are changing. Previously, people wouldn’t tell anyone their dress was rented – and some still don’t. But there’s a larger group who happily post their dress on Instagram and proudly broadcast their smart decision to save themselves $500.

Upmarket rental businesses such as Her Wardrobe have done wonders to shift the perception of rental dresses as dirty, old and worn out, with broken zips and missing buttons – as you might expect of fancy dress hire options. But this not the case. Alex’s dresses are in immaculate condition. Any small repairs, such as loose hems or broken zippers, are professionally handled. In the 3 years she’s been in business, only four dresses have been damaged beyond repair. In each case, the customer has called ahead, embarrassed and apologetic, and very willing to pay the replacement cost, which has saved Alex from a difficult conversation.

So, was Alex always destined for the world of fashion? “I’ve always loved fashion; but at school, I was an academic. I didn’t study fashion at all – and I can’t draw, design or sew. I assumed I’d do an Arts degree at Uni, but then I stumbled across Melbourne School of Fashion at a careers expo in Year 12, and they were offering a fashion business course. Even though I’d always loved fashion, at no point did I ever think I’d pursue it as a career option. This was the first time I thought I could use my academic strengths in the fashion world”. So, she enrolled in the course on a whim, and treated it like a gap year. However, once the year was up, Alex was hooked: she realised she wanted to pursue a career in fashion.

At that point, Alex started her first fashion business, but after three years of trying to make it work, she pulled the pin: for various reasons, the business had failed. Although it was crushing at the time, Alex reflects positively that all her experience helped her establish Her Wardrobe, which was up and running 3 months later.

Looking back, there were signs that she was well suited to running a fashion rental business. She was ‘that friend’ whose wardrobe was the envy of others; she could throw together a striking outfit with little effort, and as a result, was the go-to person when friends needed to borrow an outfit. “My mum suggested I charge money to lend my dresses to friends, given I was the one who made the initial outlay – of course I would never have charged my friends, but it did plant the idea for a fashion rental business”.

In terms of choosing dresses for her collection, Alex is limited by which labels agree to come on board with the rental scheme. This was more of a barrier initially, with fewer brands open to the idea – but over time, other designers have agreed to take part. This arrangement allows her to purchase 80% of her stock wholesale, and then supplement her collection with other items purchased directly from designer retail outlets.

As you’d imagine, there might be a sudden demand for a particular dress once it’s been spotted on a celebrity, and in some cases, Alex might field up to 6 calls a day for a particular dress. She’s learned from experience though, that what looks great on a celebrity or model doesn’t necessarily translate to a dress that rents well for the average person. Her best-case scenario is when she’s bought a dress 6 months earlier, knowing it will rent well, and then a celebrity wears it…this creates demand for a dress she already owns.

Not surprisingly, customers don’t come looking for a simple little black dress – they usually have one or two of those in their cupboards. Instead, they’re looking for a stand-out dress in bright colours or with vivid patterns – something they’re less likely to purchase, because it’s more easily remembered and hence more difficult to wear multiple times. This winter, electric blues and forest greens are popular, as is lace – and she’s learned over the years that Melbourne-based customers love a full-sleeve in winter, so she’s purchased accordingly this season.

While many women rent as a smart financial decision, others just love the convenience. Most of her customers order online, at the click of a button – their dress is delivered on Thursday, worn on Saturday, and popped back in the post on Monday. It really couldn’t be simpler. For those travelling interstate for a wedding, there’s an 8-day hire option too. And rest assured, if your dress arrives and the size isn’t perfect, Alex is happy to exchange – she carries a full range of size 6-14 for most dresses.

If you’re self-conscious about your shape, and could benefit from Alex’s expert fashion advice, then avoid the online process and head straight to her showroom. Here, you’ll be amazed as you watch Alex put together a killer outfit just for you, suggesting styles and colours that you never thought would suit. During your individual appointment, feel free to divulge all your secret body insecurities – rest assured, she’s heard them all before.

As an added bonus, each dress hire includes a co-ordinated Olga Berg clutch for an extra $20. Belts and earrings are also available. Plus, if you’re heading to the Spring Racing Carnival this year, you’ll be pleased to hear that Alex also stocks millinery – in fact, she was the first rental site to do so. Head wear is expensive to purchase, but rarely worn more than once, so it’s an ideal rental item. Her stylish millinery just flew out the door last year, so the range has expanded this year, with beautiful handmade pieces designed by Viktoria Novak, Danica Erard, Sophie Allport and Natalie Bikicki.

So, next time you’re invited to special event – whether it’s a wedding, the races, a charity lunch, a milestone birthday celebration, or a fundraising ball – you can absolutely go ahead and plan your stunning new outfit. You’ll have the designer label, without the designer price tag! It’s guilt-free pleasure at its best.

Discover the range of designer dresses available at herwardrobe.com.au