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Alibaba founders bet on US subscription clothing pioneer

Rent the Runway eyes luxury-obsessed Asia for future growth

Rent the Runway's flagship store in New York City (Photo by Elisabeth Rosen)

NEW YORK -- Seated in a padded armchair at Rent the Runway's flagship store near New York City's Union Square, Abby holds an armful of dresses, waiting to try them on. If she likes them, she will rent them as part of her $159 monthly subscription to the company's "Unlimited" service, which allows her to keep up to four items at a time indefinitely.

But Abby will not keep her picks for too long. After wearing them to go out with friends, she will be back in a week or so to select a new outfit. "If you have to go to a lot of events, it's cheaper than buying clothes," she said. "I've gone to three or four weddings this year."

Founded by then-Harvard Business School students Jennifer Hyman and Jennifer Fleiss in 2009, Rent the Runway is now valued by analysts at around $800 million. There are five stores in the U.S. where members can try on and rent items, although the bulk of exchanges occur through e-commerce, with members ordering items online or through an app, and receiving or returning them via a courier delivery service.

In early March, Alibaba Group Holding Chairman Jack Ma Yun and co-founder Joseph Tsai invested $20 million in Rent the Runway via their Blue Pool Capital fund, underlining the potential they see in taking the New York company's concept to Asia and beyond.

"It was a really interesting business model innovation that hadn't been seen in apparel," said Jeremy Sporn, a New York-based retail partner at Oliver Wyman, a management consultancy. "Apparel used to be a product you would buy and own. They created a new commercial model to rent that product."

Recalling the day when Hyman and Fleiss described their idea to him, Harvard digital marketing professor Sunil Gupta said the students had an intimate awareness of the needs of their target demographic. Many young women, they told Gupta, faced a wardrobe dilemma. Due to the rising popularity of social media, they did not want to be seen in the same outfit twice. On the other hand, they could not afford to buy new clothes every time they attended a party or event.

The idea struck a chord with consumers, proving so successful that the founders expanded beyond individually priced formal dress rentals. Now members can use their monthly subscriptions to rent everyday clothes, bags and jewelry. Since the company launched its Unlimited option in 2016 its subscriber rate has increased 150% year-on-year.

While the company's flagship store is in New York, subscribers are located across the U.S., and half live outside major metropolitan areas. Later this year the company will open its second 28,000-sq.-meter warehouse facility in Texas.

"Why they are successful is very simple in my mind," Gupta said. "There is a very powerful value proposition. There's a strong sense among consumers that they're solving a problem. Any business that solves a very real consumer problem is likely to be successful."

Facing a growing sea of imitators in the U.S. -- from standalone companies like Gwynnie Bee to retailers such as Ann Taylor that are experimenting with the subscription model -- Rent the Runway appears to be setting its long-term sights overseas. The Blue Pool investment kicks off what Hyman called the company's "biggest growth stage yet," and the addition of the Alibaba executives places it in a good spot for eventual Asian expansion.

"Given the global aspirations that we have -- especially in Asia -- I thought they would be very good people to have around the table," Hyman told the technology publication Recode.

While Blue Pool's investment does not automatically mean that Rent the Runway will expand to Asia, experts are optimistic about the company's potential in the region, particularly China.

"The combination of cheap logistics, high density, luxury obsession and high level of e-commerce savviness looks very attractive for this type of business model," said Hunter Williams, a Chicago-based retail partner at Oliver Wyman who was previously based in China.

Not only are the labor costs of shipping products around the country lower in China, Williams said, but the lion's share of the spending population is concentrated in fewer cities. This contrasts with the U.S., where Rent the Runway customers are spread across a larger geographic area. In addition, 32% of global luxury sales are to Chinese consumers, highlighting the massive demand for high-end apparel.

"With consumer confidence remaining high, luxury is one of the sectors poised for growth. Consumers now search for higher quality when shopping online, not just lower prices," said Monica Peart, senior forecasting director at eMarketer, a New York-based digital research company.

With its large market for occasion-wear, India is another country where Rent the Runway could succeed. Weddings typically draw more than 1,000 guests, and the average consumer attends five to 10 weddings a year, said Ben Mathias, managing director and head of India at Vertex Ventures, the venture capital arm of Singapore state fund Temasek. However, he also made clear that the company's success required changing consumer mindsets.

"The cultural shift that needs to take place is for people to get used to the idea of wearing someone else's clothing," Mathias said. "An omnichannel model, where renters can touch and feel the outfits prior to renting, would accelerate the shift to this model. Once that happens, Indian startups like Flyrobe, Stage3 and Rent It Bae, as well as overseas entrants like Rent the Runway, will see significant traction in that market."

Rent the Runway's potential across Asia is undoubtedly largest in China, the world's largest e-commerce market. Retail e-commerce sales in the country are expected to reach $1.48 trillion this year, an increase of 33% from 2017, and are forecast to account for 45% of total retail sales by 2021. This year more than 75% of those e-commerce sales will occur on mobile devices. As they rush to mobile, Chinese consumers are increasing their average spend per buyer, according to Peart.

The cultural shift Mathias mentioned seems to have started already. In the past few years, Chinese companies have taken note of Rent the Runway's success and launched their own clothing subscription models, ranging from Shanghai startup Ms Paris, which focuses on black-tie events, to Chengdu-based Dora's Dream, a rental purveyor of everyday wear. Ycloset, a clothes-sharing platform that cites Rent the Runway as its inspiration, raised $50 million in its most recent round of funding in September from Alibaba Innovation Ventures, SoftBank China and Sequoia China. The company has more than 1 million users and is doubling its user count every few months, according to Michael Wang, chief operating officer.

"Chinese have been on the cutting edge of e-commerce adoption in lots of ways. There's an insatiable appetite to try any new business model," Oliver Wyman's Williams said.

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