While groomsman can rent tuxedoes, most of the time bridesmaids get stuck buying expensive dresses – many of which never get worn a second time.
Little Borrowed Dress CEO Corie Hardee is hoping to offer an alternative with her rental bridesmaid-dress company.
“I had been a bridesmaid many times and I was actually really surprised that a rental service didn’t exist. You could rent just about anything, but not the one item of clothing that no one wants to own,” says Hardee. According to The Knot, bridesmaids in the U.S. spend nearly $870 million each year on dresses, with the average cost per dress at $136.
Hardee, a former management consultant, first got hitched to the business idea in 2011 -- and dove headfirst into market research.
“It took about 6 to 8 weeks to develop [the idea] and just sort of convince myself that there was an opportunity. I bootstrapped the business, so I looked at the opportunity like any investor would, as I was putting my own money and the opportunity cost of lost salary into the business,” says Hardee, who invested $30,000 to get the idea off the ground.
The Business Model
Little Borrowed Dress makes crinkle chiffon dresses in 12 styles and 18 colors. The rental costs between $50 and $75 depending on the style, and bridesmaids receive two sizes in the mail two weeks before the wedding. After the wedding, dresses are returned in prepaid envelopes.
Ninety-nine percent of the time, Hardee says one of the two sizes fits well enough to wear down the aisle. The two-week window, however, is designed to help deal with any last-minute crises.
“In the rare occasion that neither of the dresses fit, the first option is to wear the backup dress of another one of the bridesmaids. So if you have bridesmaids in a wedding party, you’ll have ten dresses to choose from. In the event that you need a third dress sent to you, we’ll do that for $25,” says Hardee. Bridesmaids can also convert the rental into a purchase, if alterations are an absolute must.
Little Borrowed Dress so far stocks 3,000 dresses. Each dress features touches like sashes, adjustable straps or hidden elastic waistbands. They run from size 0 to 18.
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Hardee says working with local manufacturers in New York City’s Garment District has also helped the startup meet growing demand.
“If we were to manufacture overseas, it would just mean there was a lot more lead time. And I found that the quality you get here is just much higher,” says Hardee.
Can LBD Disrupt the Bridal Industry?
Little Borrowed Dress isn’t the only startup hungry for a slice of the bridesmaid dress market.
Rent the Runway, which began renting out dresses for all occasions in 2009, launched a wedding boutique two years ago where bridesmaids can rent designer frocks for between $40 and $150 from designers such as Badgley Mischka and Nicole Miller. A newer competitor, Vow to Be Chic, is also looking to rent out designer dresses specifically for bridesmaids, but is still pre-launch.
Hardee says the more-established Rent the Runway, which has reportedly raised more than $55 million, and other designer-rental startups have helped set the stage for Little Borrowed Dress’s success.
“I think definitely over the last few years, women are increasingly becoming comfortable with renting online. You can rent a handbag, rent a designer dress, and now you can rent a bridesmaid dress,” says Hardee.
This winter, Little Borrowed Dress announced a seed round of $1.25 million, which included investors such as Andreessen Horowitz, Index Ventures, Launch Capital and angel investor Joanne Wilson. Wilson, the first investor in the startup, says she was impressed with Hardee’s analytical approach to the market.
“I think that what I’ve been most impressed with is how Corie analyzes data. It is impressive [she analyzes] that data to grow quicker,” says Wilson. Hardee says she redesigned the style lineup last year after taking a close look at customer satisfaction rates with various dresses.
Wilson has high hopes for Little Borrowed Dress. While Hardee declined to disclose revenue or total number of dresses rented, she is projecting 400% growth this year. In addition to rental dresses, the company has also started offering matching men’s ties and bowties for sale.
“I think the potential is tremendous,” says Wilson. “If you want to be ‘big picture,’ I think this brand will end up being the go-to destination for anybody who needs items for a wedding that are under the rental mode. Some of the items might be pick-up, throw it in the basket, but if you rent, you’re going to Little Borrowed Dress, and that’s the end of the story.”
Not surprisingly, Hardee agrees.
“Pretty much everyone either has been a bridesmaid, if you’re a woman, or if you’re a man, you have had girlfriends or friends or sisters who have been bridesmaids. It’s a very social topic – it’s something everyone can relate to – so I think our concept really [resonates] with people,” she says.