Gone are the days of designer threads being reserved for the super wealthy or the genetically blessed – Sarah MacDonald and Jackson Eldridge speak with entrepreneur Roxy Lehmann about the rising trend of designer dress hire.
By Sarah MacDonald and Jackson Eldridge
When Roxy Lehmann began hiring dresses out of her spare bedroom three years ago, she had no idea that the “weekend pastime” would turn into a nationwide business.
“I started Dress for a Night as a hobby,” Lehmann says, who at the time was working in human resources at a North Sydney corporation.
“Other people play golf and do sports and I was like – what could I do?”
The “hobby” turned out to be such a success that Lehmann left her corporate job to build the business into what it is today: a national dress rental service with over 1000 dresses in its collection.
“I saw a need for something like this to exist,” Lehmann says, explaining how the concept of the business came to her.
“I had black tie events, and I’d never been to a black tie event. I went into David Jones and I saw the price tags, and I just didn’t see the point of buying something for $500 if I was going to wear it once, and then the novelty wears off.”
Realising that there was a gap in the market, Lehmann created Dress for a Night, a website where women hire out designer outfits for four-day periods.
Once the rental period is over, the customer returns the dress in a prepaid satchel to be dry-cleaned and re-tagged in preparation for its next wearer.
The website offers dresses for short-term rental at a cost of around 20% of their Recommended Retail Price. For most of the dresses in Lehmann’s collection, this means a price-point of $99 to $199.
As it turned out, Lehmann was not alone in wishing for an alternative to purchasing dresses outright. The demand for dress rental services is growing rapidly.
Lehmann says that last year the business tripled its sales from the previous year, sending out approximately 350 dresses a week during their busiest periods.
When the Dress for a Night website launched in 2015, however, Lehmann was devoting her lunch breaks and weekends to the website while working full-time in the corporate world.
Lehmann juggled both workloads for 8 months. It was only when the opportunity to take a redundancy from her corporate job arose that she finally took the plunge and committed herself to Dress for a Night full-time.
“I was the HR management lead in shutting down a branch, and after that I had the option: I could have stayed in corporate, but I figured the universe was pushing me and giving me that opportunity to start my own business,” she says.
“There was just no hesitation – you tell yourself that you could always go back, but I feel like once you start your own business you never go back.”
Lehmann now manages a team of eight, and the business has grown from the website to include a bricks-and-mortar store in North Sydney.
She says that unlike most online retailers, Dress for a Night still feels high demand from customers for a physical location.
“I think it’s fine to online shop if you don’t have that pressure of an event – if you’re just wearing some denim shorts, perfect – you can get them sent to you, buy five, send four back, that’s fine. It just doesn’t quite work that well with something that is so important for your event.”
However, Lehmann has ditched many of the other features of traditional retail businesses.
The young entrepreneur is unequivocal about just how important social media has become to modern retail.
“Most women these days, when we go shopping we look at what the influencers are wearing on Instagram,” she says.
“If I see a new brand, I go on their Instagram – I don’t actually go on their website.”
The Dress for a Night Instagram profile has a following of 18,500 and is updated regularly with posts featuring new dresses and customers.
Lehmann works with Instagram ‘influencers’ by sending dresses to popular users free of charge in exchange for posts promoting the brand.
She also offers current customers discounts on future rentals if their tagged posts are reposted on the brand’s account.
Lehmann says that her two key client bases – HSC-aged girls and 24 to 34-year-old women – are very active on Instagram, and many customers come across the company for the first time through the app.
“What we’re seeing is girls coming in with screenshots of our Instagram, saying ‘hey, I want to try this dress’,” Lehmann says.
Lehmann believes that the pressure to never be caught wearing the same dress twice on social media has been a major driving force behind the rising rental trend.
“There is a pressure, because there’s knowledge of what the expensive brands are that I don’t think you’d necessarily have if it wasn’t visible on Instagram on a daily basis,” she says.
“There are a lot [of dresses] that are at that mid-point – about $300-$800 – and girls these days, from about 16, know what these expensive brands are and they want to wear them.”
New technology may have paved the way for Dress for a Night’s success, but Lehmann says that the jump from the corporate world still came with all of the traditional challenges of running a small business.
“Every week something will happen that is just completely against everything that you could have ever expected,” she says.
“We just got really good at problem solving. And then all of a sudden you turn around and there’s this amazing opportunity that you could have never dreamt of and you go – ‘great, this is going to be my foundation for the next step.’”
Roxy Lehmann Podcast