Why rental dress company Rent Frock Repeat is opening showrooms

The founders of the Ottawa-based dress rental service found that there was no substitute for letting customers try on the goods

Women modelling dresses

Selections from Rent Frock Repeat’s collection (Rent Frock Repeat)

The idea of renting expensive dresses and evening wear isn’t new, not even through a website. But the concept of combining online rentals with in-store show-rooming – that’s Rent Frock Repeat’s unique differentiator.

The creation of Lisa Delorme and Kristy Wieber, both formerly involved in sales, Rent Frock Repeat started as a strictly online operation. Like Rent the Runway in the United States, the business hinged on the simple proposition of allowing women to rent, rather than buy, expensive attire.

Rather than spending $600 to $800 or even more a pop, customers could instead take out a short-term lease for between $100 and $200, then return the dress when done with it.

Like many women, Rent Frock Repeat’s founders were tired of spending those extravagant amounts for clothes they knew they’d wear only once. It’s not that they were against repeating themselves, but rather that not all dresses are suitable for all occasions.

A sequin evening gown, for example, probably doesn’t work at a business conference. There’s also the inevitable size fluctuations that all people go through over time.

The catalyst for Rent Frock Repeat came a few years ago when Delorme and Wieber were both invited to a wedding. They’d seen magazine ads for Rent the Runway and were dismayed to learn that the U.S. company didn’t service Canada.

“We started the business literally out of necessity,” she says. “We were shaking our fists in the air that we had to buy another dress that was just going to sit in our closet.”

The duo spent a year putting a website together, then populated it with 600 dresses. That required a significant investment, which came in the form of a loan from Business Development Canada. BDC doesn’t normally lend to retail businesses, Delorme says, so the support was a big vote of confidence. “They immediately got it.”

Rent Frock Repeat opened its virtual doors in 2010, but customers didn’t materialize as quickly as hoped.

Delorme says she and Wieber quickly realized the problem – that potential customers didn’t know or trust the company.

That’s where the showroom came in. Rent Frock Repeat opened its first physical store in Toronto soon after, which helped build brand recognition and clout. Customers could come in and get measured and try on dresses for future renting.

The showroom also presented an unexpected opportunity as customers inquired about shoe and accessory rentals as well, which the founders soon added to their product mix.

The company has since opened a second showroom in Ottawa. Delorme says additional physical locations are key to future growth.

“Coming in and trying the dresses was very, very important to our customers,” she says. “If there had been a model before, these are the sorts of things we would have learned right away.”

Rent Frock Repeat now has 75,000 members and 21 employees across Canada. The company has raised $1.5 million in funding from various angel investors, but is looking for a total of $5 million to continue funding new showrooms. Calgary and Vancouver are next on the roadmap.

The company’s situation isn’t unusual, Delorme says. Every retailer is currently experimenting with the right mix of online capability and physical store presence.

“How many stores do we need to have and how much of an e-commerce presence do we need to have? That’s the battle going on in retail right now.”