Designing Disruption: Creating the Rent the Runway Experience

Until recently, I lived by the rule that if I bought an expensive dress, I had to think of at least three occasions for wearing it. Practical, but so boring. Like a majority of women, my experience with high-end fashion began and ended with a daydream-inducing browse though a fashion magazine or Tumblr blog.

Then came Rent the Runway. Co-founders and Harvard Business grads Jennifer Hyman and Jennifer Fleiss shifted the rules of luxury fashion from ownership to membership, instantly changing the definition of attainability, along with our expectations of online retail. 

What goes on behind the scenes to create this game-changing experience? I chatted with Rent the Runway’s Creative Director, Ashley Seidman, to find out.

 

The idea of membership over ownership is one of the biggest trends we’re seeing in commerce, and Rent the Runway has helped set it in motion by making the typically inaccessible world of high fashion accessible to all. Has this goal affected your decision-making when it comes to the design of the shopping experience?

As a brand, we try to balance the accessibility with aspiration. We’ve designed the shopping experience to be easy and engaging for our user, while still maintaining the aspirational quality of the designer products we carry. If she’s about to put on a Vera Wang gown, the shopping experience should add to that magic.

What goes into creating that magic? Are you a part of the product curation process? Is it a collaboration?

There’s a ton of collaboration at Rent the Runway. Our fashion and analytics teams constantly work together to curate the products we feature by seasonality, trends, and customer engagement to ensure that the shopping experience is relevant. When it comes to larger initiatives like a catalog, our fashion and creative teams join forces. We typically start by reviewing the season’s buy and identifying key trends and styles, at which point I’ll work with our stylists, art directors and copywriters to pull together the stories and placements.

  Photo Credit: @rent_the_runway

Photo Credit: @rent_the_runway

One of our guiding principles at eBay is “Be the customer.” How about Rent the Runway? Have you used the service yourself? Has that informed your decision-making as Creative Director for the brand?

I couldn’t agree more. I’m an avid renter and feel as if using the service myself has influenced many brand decisions, such as making enhancements to the site, packaging and overall brand.

Rent the Runway is now opening brick-and-mortar storefronts and showrooms. This is a unique challenge, considering most companies start offline and then build an online store. How has the online business informed your vision for the offline shopping experience?

Focusing on the online experience the past few years has given us a definite advantage when it comes to brick-and-mortar. We’ve learned so much about our customer – her style, how she likes to shop, and what occasions she is shopping for. We’re able to take the best parts of our online experience and bring them to life in our stores. Giving her the ability to try on dresses, feel the quality of the garments, and get to know our brand in a physical sense is paramount. 

Quite a few designers have created capsule collections for Rent the Runway. How do you partner with them to bring their vision of the collection to life on the site?

I love the opportunity to work with our designers to bring their vision to life on Rent the Runway. It’s often a very cool experience because our fashion team works directly with the designer to create the collection, leveraging their knowledge of our customers and what they are looking for. We shot 2 beautiful capsule collections last year for Bibhu Mohapatra and Moschino, and we supported both launches with digital lookbooks.

 Photo Credit: @rent_the_runway

Photo Credit: @rent_the_runway

Your deep understanding of the customer and her needs really seems to be inspiring not only relevant, but innovative experiences. How else do your customers help shape your decisions for the brand?

Two years ago, we launched Our Runway, a unique social shopping platform that was largely inspired by our customers, allowing them to shop by photos of real women in dresses available for rent. We weren’t sure how much information women would be willing to share about their body types or how a specific dress fit on our site, but we saw a lot of that conversation happening organically offline and on our social channels, so we knew there was a need for it. User-generated content has exploded in the e-commerce world, and now photo reviews are definitely one the most popular features on our site. Our Runway is an opportunity for women to celebrate their experiences and pay it forward.

What advice would you give to designers who aspire to leadership roles such as yours?

Look for opportunities that intrigue you, be honest with yourself and go for it. I spent a wonderful 4 years at Ralph Lauren prior to Rent the Runway and found that I was ready for a new challenge. Rent the Runway seemed like a gamble at the time, being a small, recently launched startup, but experiencing the evolution of the business has been invaluable. This role has challenged me and helped me grow in so many ways. I have had the pleasure of building out a creative team, directing shoots with the most incredible talent, shaping an entire brand, and of course learning from my mistakes. I’m proud to be part of a company that’s on a totally innovative path, and four and a half years later I still get excited when people ask me where I work. That excitement and passion will carry into your work, and as a creative, there’s nothing better!

 

BY KATE LINDEEN