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The ‘Netflix’ of Haute Couture: Rent the Runway (Conclusion)

Building designer relationships vital to accessing must-wear styles

SECAUCUS, N.J. — Are you familiar with Netflix? It’s the subscription-based film and TV program rental service that offers popular media to subscribers via Internet streaming and via U.S. mail.

Now, Rent the Runway hasn’t yet figured out how to stream a designer gown to a subscriber, but it’s worked hard to master a reverse logistics system that has tens of thousands of haute couture garments criss-crossing our nation on any given day.

The 6-year-old company created by two 20-something Harvard MBAs rents designer dresses and accessories (necklaces, jewelry, handbags, etc.) via a photo-rich e-commerce website. Customers looking for something special to wear to a wedding, gallery opening or just a night out on the town click through the latest fashions available from some 300 designers—they include Diane Von Furstenberg, Halston, Helmut Lang, Hervé Léger, Jill Stuart, kate spade, Oscar de la Renta, Vera Wang and Versace—and make their selections, which are then shipped to them via UPS.

All inventory is available every weekend for rent, which means the company has to stay on top of receiving, cleaning and shipping at all times.

To support the apparel rental business, Rent the Runway maintains what it says is the largest drycleaning operation in the country. During the National Cleaners Association’s recent TexCare exhibition, it hosted a tour of the company’s facility here.


Charles Ickes, Rent the Runway’s vice president of operations, previously worked for Madame Paulette, a well-known New York City dry cleaner, and is no stranger to working with designers. Rent the Runway is constantly working to develop relationships with designers and to position the company so that it has early access to the latest styles.

“We have to order six months in advance, tell them how much product we want in a certain line. It comes in, we put it in [inventory] and it starts the rental cycle.

“People say, ‘Ah, if it’s popular, you just reorder.’ Nah, you can’t do that. You’re at market. It’s gone.”

Ickes finds corporate-based designers easy to deal with, because they look at things from a dollars-and-cents perspective. Other designers are more choosy about granting Rent the Runway access to their top lines. He called some of them “prickly.”

But Rent the Runway’s accelerated growth has gone a long way in convincing many designers that making their lines available to it is a positive and won’t interfere with their own market strategies.

“For the most part, we’ve proven to the designers, and to the retailers, that we’re not your demographic,” Ickes says. “Our key demographic is out of college, some disposable income, can’t afford to buy.”

Sometimes, designers will work with Rent the Runway to provide garments that are more durable and long-lasting.

“We have to evaluate the units to see if they’re serviceable. Can we actually clean [them]? We buy very specifically, and if [the designer has] a lot of silk chiffon, we’ll say, ‘Can you do synthetic chiffon?’ It’s more durable for us. A lot of them will go ahead and make those switches for us, surprisingly so. It’s amazing how much custom work they’ll do for us.”

Rent the Runway is projecting its growth well into the future. Even with the expansion, there is a belief the company will outgrow this facility in a number of years. Meanwhile, it is considering expansions in other areas of the country.

Eventually, Rent the Runway wants to be able to transport a garment anywhere in the country by one-day ground shipping.

Aside from ensuring that sufficient infrastructure is in place, Rent the Runway is always looking for something else: more designers to expand its ever-growing roster and high fashion that’ll keep customers coming back for more.

“We never have enough inventory,” Ickes says.

Miss Part 1? You can read it HERE.

rent the runway waiting inventory web

There is rail space at Rent the Runway for some 300,000 pieces of inventory, all bar-coded for tracking purposes. (Photos by Bruce Beggs)

rent the runway steam tunnel web

A Rent the Runway worker hangs dresses for processing in a steam tunnel.

rent the runway box on conveyor web

Another fulfilled order rolls down the conveyor en route to shipping.

Have a question or comment? E-mail our editor Dave Davis at [email protected].