Rent the Runway Offers Fast Track to High Fashion

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It used to be that the flirty frocks and glamorous gowns paraded through fashion weeks and red carpets were in a world all their own, filled with famous folks clinking champagne flutes, breathy exclamations of "Oh, dahling, you look lovely," and air kisses aplenty.

Scratch that. These are the days of live-streaming and near-instant photo uploading. Fashion comes to you, not you to it. It's as easy to view and critique the fall collections from the Ozarks as it is from New York (if not easier -- over there, you don't have throngs of reality-TV personalities to push past).

Enter Rent the Runway, a growing operation that allows customers all over the country to borrow designer clothing for a fraction of the piece's retail cost. As New York Fashion Week wraps up and the industry prepares for the Super Bowl of fashion (hello, Oscars), Rent the Runway is thinking not about what A-listers favor but what real women want to wear.

"Our customer is looking for very editorial pieces," Rent the Runway co-founder Jenny Fleiss said in an interview with "It's usually the more colorful, showy, look at me pieces that people are interested in. They're not going to rent the little black Herve Leger, they'll get the hot pink one shoulder Herve Leger or the sequined Badgley Mischka with a low back. Something that you're going to wear once, that everyone's going to see, that's going to get you tons of compliments but that you can't really wear again because it was so memorable."

It's a simple philosophy: spend a (relative) dime, look like a star. Founded in 2009 by two Harvard Business School students who had a lot of weddings to attend and not a lot to wear, the company now boasts 750,000 members and an average 1,000 new members signing up each month. There's no fee to join, just to rent -- four day rentals for dresses start at $50 and go as high as $300; accessories -- necklaces, bracelets, purses, earrings -- start at $10 and go as high as $275.

"The accessories enable women to add something to a dress they may already have," Fleiss said. "Take a basic black dress, everyone has something like that at home -- you can easily create a new look by adding a statement necklace to it."

As for actually owning that couture gown or designer bauble? That's a relic of a time gone by.

"Ownership went out the window when the leasing business in the car industry kicked into full gear," said Marshal Cohen, chief industry analyst with The NPD Group, a market research firm. "If you can rent a Maserati or Ferrari and have a great weekend, you can rent luxury at any level. Ownership means nothing."

"We want instant access to what was on the runway and what the celebrity wore," he added. "Is it something that has longevity? Yes."

Rent the Runway offers a Badgley Mischka dress (right) nearly identical to the one that Carrie Underwood wore to the 2011 Golden Globes (left).

Rent the Runway currently stocks more than 15,000 dresses from 120 designers. During fashion week, Rent the Runway's five buyers wear out their stilettos seeking out styles to make consumers salivate. Their favorite designers for the upcoming fall 2011 season: Thakoon, Lela Rose, Chris Benz, Vera Wang, Tibi and Carlos Miele.

"We want things that are going to be flattering for a variety of shapes," Fleiss said. "We want lots of different styles. At the end of every buying season we'll get together and evaluate if we have the right amount of pink dresses vs. gray dresses, the right amount of long vs. short."

Another factor in what Rent the Runway adds to its collection: What fans on the company's Facebook page say about New York Fashion Week.

"We encourage our users through Facebook to vote on different styles," Fleiss said. "People will say love it, OK or don't like it and we'll factor that into our buying decision. It's a good way to immediately gauge interest on a type of style."

When it comes to black-tie fare, Rent the Runway often looks to the red carpet and buys the same designs the stars wear.

"Many of our dresses actually are worn on the red carpet," Fleiss said. "It's not, 'Get the look that's similar,' it's 'Here's what the stars actually wore.'"

Among the celeb-certified designs carried by Rent the Runway are dresses worn by Kim Kardashian, Taylor Swift, Claire Danes and Gwyneth Paltrow. A sequined Badgley Mischka dress currently available on the site mirrors the one Carrie Underwood wore to last month's Golden Globes. The jade green hue Angelina Jolie rocked at the Globes pops up on many Rent the Runway dresses too.

In the coming year, Rent the Runway plans to add more designers to its ranks, explore the plus-size market and look into international expansion. Though it peddles in temporary glamour, the company wants a permanent place in women's closets.

"We find that many times a woman's first experience is during prom, then we get her for college formals and for weddings she's attending and then maybe for baby showers or black tie events," Fleiss said. "There are so many special events in a woman's life and so many reasons to dress up for them."