Oscar de la Rental

HAUTE COUTURE: Ms Carol Chen, founder and CEO of Covetella, which has over 400 dresses for rent.
PHOTO: The New Paper

Pssst, here's a little secret: Socialities are turning to rentals when they deck out in gowns last seen at the Milan fashion show.

The reasoning: Why bust your bank account to buy that $31,200 Oscar de la Renta haute couture gown to wear only for a night and have it gather dust in the closet?

So now you can paint the town red or be photographed for a Who's Who magazine in this $7,000 Monique Lhuillier dress for a fraction of its price - $1,050 for four days. And it is not just the socialites who are doing it.

A growing number of Singaporean women who must be seen in that to-die-for gown have decided they might not need to own all the formal clothing hanging in their closet.

After all, who wants to be seen in the same gown twice, right?

Covetella, a premier online dress rental destination, loans out high fashion cocktail dresses and evening gowns for the prom, gala dinner or company dinner and dance.

FOUNDER

"This is a huge business segment that traditional retailers have never really capitalised on," says its founder and CEO Carol Chen, 34, who grew up in Texas and moved to Singapore with her family.

"Like most women, I don't wear half the stuff I own," the former three-time beauty pageant winner and fashion model tells The New Paper on Sunday.

"And as a beauty pageant girl, I had to buy all my gowns. We didn't have sponsors.

"I had almost a hundred dresses just sitting in my closet, unused.

"Then one day my mum asked what I was going to do with all these dresses. It would be a waste to throw them out. There must be a better way of doing this," she says.

Friends would often ask to borrow her gowns for a night out.

That was when Ms Chen built a website and started renting them out.

"Then I offered to help my friends make money by lending out their dresses as well," she says.

A year ago, she created Covetella - "a curated marketplace where you can enjoy hundreds of dresses for a fraction of the price".

"You can share your own to make some extra cash. Good for your wallet and good for the environment," she adds.

Many of her socialite friends bought into the idea and are currently doing just that, parking their dresses at Covetella and earning some money at the same time.

Ms Chen, who is also a fashion designer, approaches emerging designers "to see if they would be keen on renting out their items".

"Women love being able to make money with their closets, and designers love the extra marketing and exposure, so it all just works," she says.

The physical shop, where Covetella stores more than 400 dresses, is located on the third floor of a shophouse in South Bridge Road. The dresses there - from cocktail to haute couture gown - range from the petite to US size 16.

Rental fees range from $50 for a simple cocktail dress to "several thousand dollars" for a high-end gown.

The clients?

From teenagers to career women, from pageant queens to socialites.

"Our evening dresses are cheaper to rent than if you were to buy one from H&M, yet 10 times the quality," Ms Chen says.

"Our closet allows more women to take more risks with their wardrobe. With renting, they are able to wear so many more things than they would ever be able to buy," she says.

"If you make a bad decision with a purchase, it will be hanging in your closet for a long time. But with a rental, you can just return it and rent another piece another time," she adds.

Big demand for 'rotating' wardrobe

TRY IT ON: Rent A Dress business development manager Mandy Nagpal showing Miss Renee Foo a few gowns. Photo: The New Paper

Miss Renee Foo, 21, wanted a nice gown for her boyfriend's Commissioning Ball next weekend.

Spending anything over $200 was out of the question for the student.

"I don't really want to buy (the gown) since I will be wearing it only once, and it is expensive. After that, it will be hanging in my wardrobe," she tells The New Paper on Sunday.

After trawling through the Internet, Miss Foo came across the Instagram account of Rent A Dress. Interested, she turned up at its showroom in Pasir Panjang with a friend in tow.

She had something simple yet elegant in mind, and after trying on several outfits, she settled on a long black sleeveless mesh inset trumpet evening dress by JS Collection - for $85.

"Renting makes perfect sense because it makes it affordable for people like me," she says.

Rent A Dress is the brainchild of former management consultant Shuen Chiu, 28, who found herself having to buy dresses all the time for events.

"At that time, I had just started work and wasn't earning much and cheap dresses from blogshops didn't really fit me well.

"The ones that did were usually Australian or American labels, which were rather pricey then," the Malaysian entrepreneur says. And with the onslaught of social media, there was "waste".

"Men can wear the same suit to 10 different events, and no one would bat an eyelid, but I couldn't 'repeat' my dresses once they're on social media.

"The irony is the more expensive the dress, the fewer times I could wear it again," she adds.

Ms Chiu says her wardrobe started growing "and I am sure the same is happening to a lot of women too", so leveraging on the disruptive trend of Uber and Airbnb, Ms Chiu decided to launch her Rent A Dress site (Malaysia) in 2014.

"The site aims to make quality clothes accessible to women aged between 20 and 35, who are as savvy with their money as they are with fashion. Once we started in Malaysia, we found that interest was piqued.

"At first, the take-up rate was higher among the expats, who are familiar with the concept. But as time went by, local consumers became more receptive," she says.

MORE AFFLUENT

She launched her site in Singapore last year with 200 of her 600 dresses.

"Singapore is a natural expansion because of the sheer size of the demand for a 'rotating' wardrobe. It is a small country, and the population is more affluent," she says.

Unlike high-end boutiques, which target the more affluent, older women, Rent A Dress caters for a younger mass audience, "who may one day afford high-end fashion clothing and would have a strong brand recall because they've tried on the dresses before".

All the dresses at Rent A Dress site are sourced internationally from designers themselves or affiliated accredited sources to ensure they are authentic.

Once a customer likes a dress, she can book an appointment to try it out at the showroom or click on the design and have it delivered to her home.

Dry cleaning and delivery is included in the rental fee, which ranges from $45 to $120 for four days. And each dress is inspected thoroughly to ensure that it is in good condition before it is delivered and after it has been returned.

Business development manager Mandy Nagpal says the company accepts minor wear and tear such as snags, loose beading and removable stains but will charge for any extensive and irreparable damage.

Rare for rent

Rent a gown or cocktail dress is the newest twist on the sharing economy, currently defined in large parts by taxi service Uber and home-rental site Airbnb.

It has the potential to disrupt the $1 billion women's apparel market here, experts say, and forever change how and where women get their fashion fix.

But it is not a new concept "given how one would rent bridal gown and bridal evening wear", says Dr Lynda Wee, an adjunct associate professor in retail at the Nanyang Technological University's business school.

"The difference is bridal gowns are easily found through publicity and physical stores. (Now) with just a click, any individual can rent her dress to the masses." she says.

Dr Wee explains that with globalisation and technology, "we now interact and socialise more at networking events, embrace a different lifestyle and need these things".

"Previously there was a lack of 'rent' business enterprises, so we have to buy our own. For such dresses, it is also about being rare. "When the dress gets overexposed or seen too many times, it lacks uniqueness and hence, appeal," she adds.

With Facebook and Instagram, women do not want to be seen, let alone photographed, more than once or twice in the same dress, especially when the dress is haute couture.

Former editor-in-chief of Elle Singapore Sharon Lim explains that haute couture, which literally means high or exalted dressmaking in French, is actually a legal term set by the Chambre de Commerce et d'Industrie de Paris.

Today, however, it is sometimes used to describe custom-fitted clothing from a luxury high-fashion house.

"It is super expensive because of the materials and craftsmanship that go into the design and making of a piece," she says.

"Because these outfits are so distinctive and memorable, they can be seen as wearable art (with price tags to match). And because of this, they are rarely worn twice, as it is seen as a faux pas if you do."

Read also: Fancy a $12,000 Hermes bag? Visit a pawnshop

 

This article was first published on Sep 11, 2016. Get The New Paper for more stories.