Around the same time as Rent the Runway’s announcement of their new unlimited subscription service to lease clothing by mail, company CEO and Co-founder Jennifer Hyman shared the lessons she’s learned from starting the famous online fashion website at the Society of Fellows Vanguard Chapter’s annual summer reception in Aspen, CO, generously hosted by Kasey Crown and David Comfort. Pattie Sellers, senior editor-at-large at Fortune magazine and executive director of live content at Time Inc., interviewed Hyman during the event, immediately complimenting Hyman’s ability to have already “done it all.” But Hyman said there were still misconceptions about her business.
While the public assumed that Hyman and her co-founder, Jenny Fleiss, started Rent the Runway to fill their closets with expensive, luxurious clothes, their real motives were linked to industry trends, Hyman said. Hyman explained that in the past decade, every aspect of her life changed, from the way she got her entertainment to how she grocery shopped — yet her closet remained stagnant. Still, the average American buys 64 articles of clothing a year, regardless of income, and most items are worn two times or fewer. “I want to change the way that people get dressed,” said Hyman, encouraging the Fellows to reconsider their clothes as rentals instead of being owned for special occasions.
Rent the Runway currently operates in the “special occasions” clothing department, and Hyman discovered that her business would blossom in “a part of the industry that no one else cared about.” Special occasion departments struggle with sales, since more than 60 percent of their merchandise is returned after already being worn.
That’s where Hyman entered the scene. While the media spun Rent the Runway as a group of fashionistas, Hyman and Fleiss quietly built a sophisticated tech and logistics company that could process, clean, mend, and reship inventory within 12 hours. Once they had gained the trust of a few designers, others soon followed. Hyman said she’s proud of these relationships and that most of their business partners today no longer work with anyone else.
Hyman discussed social media’s impact on her business, which has helped to rapidly expand her company’s member base, especially through the members Hyman named, “Women 2.0.”— the master planners, moms, and businesswomen who want it all. Hyman is adamant that these women deserve the “real thing” when it comes to high-end clothing, not just cheaper knock-off brands, while also ensuring that the renting process is convenient and affordable.
When asked about competitive advantage over major corporations like Amazon, Hyman pointed to the strong relationships with designers and the unique set of logistical operations that makes up the foundation of Rent the Runway. “We’re capitalizing on brand awareness and demand that already exists,” she said, as the company relies on relationships in conjunction with a keen eye for market trends.
Sellers aimed one last question at Hyman: “What is the best advice you ever got?” Within seconds, Hyman responded: “To start acting like myself at work.”
Hyman said she realized that this unleashed a new kind of inspiration for her team by allowing them to feel comfortable with being authentic and true to themselves. Making the change from being a stern presence in the office to a fun-loving, personable boss took Rent the Runway to a new level of success, particularly apparent in the rising employee retention rate — it was a win-win for everyone.