Since it launched in 2009, Rent The Runway has been all about positioning itself as the affordable antidote to actually buying a designer dress you'll wear to just, say, one or two weddings. It took the conceit of a rental-only fashion business from strictly digital to brick-and-mortar before competitors even started surfacing. But for a company that's heralded itself as such an industry disruptor, its latest move takes a surprisingly old-school retail track. On Friday, the company is unveiling a massive shop-in-shop at Neiman Marcus in San Francisco. "It's exciting to see the acceptance that rent-buy is how the modern woman gets dressed," Rent The Runway's founder, Jennifer Hyman, told Refinery29 of what makes the pair-up so significant. The 3,000-square-foot space's stock of rental items will, in fact, have "huge overlap" with Neiman's own roster of designers, like Prabel Gurung or Proenza Schouler, she said. But the styles RTR stocks are different from the luxury department store's: "We tend to focus on more editorial styles, more trendy, more colorful styles, things that are actually going to put you out of the rational in fashion," she said. So what's in it for the hallowed department store? It brings customers — younger customers than Neiman Marcus usually attracts — into its physical store. (Rent The Runway users are, on average, 20 years younger than the average customer base of department stores in general, Hyman explained.) And even if the main motive is to rent a dress, there's a chance a customer will buy, say, new shoes or a lipstick to wear along with their temporary frock, or a great new pair of jeans that they weren't even in the market for. For Rent The Runway, it could also add a slightly older demo of users: loyal Neiman Marcus customers that aren't accustomed to a tech-first experience the way millennial shoppers are. They could become Rent The Runway users if they test-drive the rental experience in-person first.
Is the option to buy or rent in one place really what a twentysomething or early thirtysomething wants from her retail experience? Hyman thinks so: "That’s fundamentally how the millennial customer wants to be treated: luxury, to her, is convenience." It's the next iteration of Rent The Runway's brick-and-mortar outposts, which Hyman sees value in as "mini service-centers" where certain things can be addressed with a dress rental that just can't be done, or done as efficiently, online. There's also the discovery factor: Hyman estimates that 98% of the time, Rent The Runway's members use the service to rent brands they've never worn (or maybe even never heard of). The company's first department-store outpost coincides with some major upgrades to Rent The Runway's app, debuting tomorrow, which has souped-up personal stylist and assistant-type features: texting with a stylist while you're in the dressing room, asking for certain pieces to be set aside for you before arriving, or requesting an Uber to whisk your dress to you. These services will roll out in the company's standalone stores, as well as its new Neiman Marcus store-in-store. Rent The Runway will expand its shop-in-shops in additional Neiman Marcus stores soon, with the next one opening as early as the first quarter of 2017. Stay tuned for whether the rent-or-buy model will stick — and how it can evolve down the line.