It’s spring gala season, and one of Charlotte’s most luxurious boutiques was humming on a recent Tuesday, with racks laden with silk, hand-beading and French lace from the world’s most coveted designers.
But these beauties, from designer houses such as Marchesa and Roberto Cavalli, weren’t for sale. They were for rent.
Capitol boutique had flown in the two New York-based founders of Armarium, the hottest company in the growing formal-gown-rental market (Google “Armarium and Oscars” and you’ll see). They in turn brought in dozens of new-this-season gowns for one day for Charlotte women to rent, for black-tie affairs such as (to name two this month) the upcoming Mint Museum “Coveted Couture” Gala or the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art’s “Taboo!” Gala.
Those who found favorites will pay between $300 and $1,000 for their chosen gown to be delivered to their homes (hems basted up, if need be) three days before their event. The day after the gala, they’ll pack them back into a postage-paid box and mail them back to New York.
Capitol owner and creator Laura Vinroot Poole says she decided to bring in the service because it expands what she can offer clients: With 2,500 square feet, in which she also houses a spectrum of lifestyle dressing, she only stocks so many designer gowns.
“I’m not willing to forgo quality for quantity,” Vinroot Poole said.
But isn’t it counter-intuitive for a clothing retailer to encourage renting, and possibly giving women an alternative to plunking down $900 (-and-up-and-up) for a gown? And online, no less?
Not necessarily. Exposing women to the world’s best brands – on a bit more budget-conscious, if temporary, basis – allows them the intoxicating feel of wearing luxury. (And perhaps starts them on the road toward buying it.)
Capitol isn’t the only retailer doing it. Neiman Marcus last year paired with Rent the Runway, another online-rental service, and has opened pop-up shops inside several stores across the country. (Sorry, Charlotte: Local Neiman Marcus execs say there’s no plan for a Rent the Runway pop-up here in 2017.)
The brands hope this new relationship is symbiotic, not cannabalistic: Will women who love the feel of a rented Carolina Herrera gown start frequenting luxury stores like Neiman Marcus or Capitol for top brands? And will women who don’t normally shop online allow this in-store experience to expand their shopping to the web?
Charlotte stylist Erica Hanks was on hand this day to help shoppers pick out and purchase Capitol shoes, bags, wraps and jewelry to complete their gala looks. She says she regularly brings clients to the Armarium showroom in New York.
Renting – and therefore not making what these women would consider a “major” clothing investment – encourages some to step outside their style comfort zone, Hanks said. And this way they don’t have to worry about re-accessorizing for multiple affairs.
“You don’t have to be safe,” Hanks said. “You can have fun with it.”
Dresses offered by Armarium have just been released by designers, and retail in the thousands. One Roberto Cavalli dress embellished with beads depicting planets and stars, for example, retails for $7,805 but rents for $850. They range from size 0 to 10, although not all gowns are offered in that entire size range.
Part of the excitement is that women can buy the same dresses paraded by celebrities on the red carpet. (People.com posted photos of a staffer in looks worn by Kendall Jenner and Jessica Chastain.) “Hamilton” creator Lin Manuel Miranda helped his mom pick out an Escada dress to wear to the 2017 Oscars from the Armarium collection.
Armarium’s Trisha Gregory, who co-founded the company with designer Alexandra Lind Rose, says their target customer is in her late 30s to 40s, a woman “who will be a luxury customer very soon.”
But, she said, even women with a long history of buying designer dresses are using their service – for convenience and the sake of not clogging closets: “We’re in a sharing economy now.”