MINNEAPOLIS – Elizabeth Patty doesn’t have a skeleton in her closet, but she does have something almost as vexing: a stash of party dresses she’ll never wear again.
“This will kill my husband, but I probably have at least 30 dresses with an average price tag of $225,” said Patty.
As senior director of development for children’s health at the University of Minnesota Foundation, the 49-year-old attends lots of fundraising parties and galas. But for the most recent event, she didn’t invest in yet another gown or wear an old one. She rented.
“This is perfect for me,” she said. “I can continuously have new dresses without having to buy them, and I’m not seen wearing the same thing over and over.”
Renting dresses for special occasions wasn’t a popular option until Rent the Runway, an online startup, began offering designer dresses from top labels in 2009. Less than four years later, the New York-based business said that more than 3 million members have signed up for the service.
Lindsay Lewis, executive director of a local nonprofit, has gotten dresses from Rent the Runway and said she’s been happy with the service, aside from one problem: “You can’t try the dresses on, so you’re taking a slight risk,” she said.
That’s why Lewis was happy to learn that there are also boutiques that offer designer rentals available to try on, and at a fraction of the cost of buying.
At Stephanie’s in Minneapolis, Lewis, 31, recently thumbed through a rack of rental dresses from designer names such as Nicole Miller, David Meister and Tibi. She settled on a short, gold strapless dress with a tight bodice and full skirt. Lewis admitted it was an adventurous choice for her, but ideal for the Cinderella-themed party she was attending at the Children’s Theatre Company.
“This is a fabulous concept, because it offers you the opportunity to keep trying new things and having fun without the guilt of spending so much on something you’re not going to wear much,” Lewis said.
At the end of her three-day rental period she returned the dress, leaving the dry cleaning task to the shop. The $348 Shoshanna dress set Lewis back $62.
So far, the new service at Stephanie’s – aptly named “Dress for the Occasion” – is exceeding expectations, said owner Stephanie Morrissey.
“We found that a lot of our customers were going to six weddings in one summer or multiple events in one season,” said Morrissey. Renting is a boon for clients because they can get the latest looks and never wear the same dress twice. And it’s a boon for Stephanie’s because “we’re exposing new clientele to our store.”
The concept seems like a win-win, so why aren’t more dress shops warming to the idea?
Some boutique owners say that rental programs are tricky to manage.
“It seems like a hassle,” said Andrea Oseland, a sales associate at Cliché in Minneapolis. “You have to clean the dresses regularly, keep track of who has them when and where.”
Locally, Richel Formalwear, 1291 Hertel Ave., rents dresses for wedding parties but not for holiday parties, said owner Carmelo Bandinelli.
“We do rent dresses, but they’re not geared toward galas. We rent bridal gowns and bridesmaids’ dresses but that’s the extent of it,” he said.
Others say it would be hard to compete with Rent the Runway, which dominates the dress rental market.
“We wouldn’t even consider it,” said Bridget O’Brien, head stylist at Covered boutique in Uptown Minneapolis. “We hope that we carry things that are special enough that you’ll want to own them and wear more than once.”
Still, the dress rental option opens the door for women who might not otherwise be able to wear a designer dress, said Alex Roberts, account executive for David Meister.