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Borrowing Magnolia Wants to be the Rent the Runway of Wedding Dresses

Would you rent your wedding dress? These three women are banking on it.

For most brides, the most important part of her big day is finding The Dress. She often spends countless hours -- and untold amounts of money -- on securing the perfect gown to wear down the aisle.

But once the vows are said and the cake is cut, what does the bride do with her (very expensive) dress? Rather than leave it to languish at the back of a closet, what if she could rent it out to other brides and make money back? Or, even better, what if she could have just rented a dress in the first place, saving herself tons of money?

That's the concept behind Borrowing Magnolia, a bridal boutique recently launched last week by Ashley Steele, Cali Brutz and Stephanie Olvey. The website has collected worn dresses from former brides and listed them for sale or for rent. 

Borrowing Magnolia isn't the first wedding venture for the co-founders, who met two years ago. Olvey owns Fortique, an online marketplace for wedding-related services, including photography and planning, while Brutz and Steele (who are sisters) run the photography collective Once Like a Spark.  It was this shared connection that inspired them to enter the bridal gown market.

"Through our experience in the wedding industry, as well as our own personal experiences, we've noticed some pretty exciting shifts in the wedding industry and how the modern bride views her wedding," Olvey explains. "We've noticed that the modern bride is a little bit savvier -- how can she do things herself, how can she save money -- and we've noticed that the bride is less focused on putting on this really showy event that costs a lot of money."

The three women saw a hole in the market where bridal gowns were concerned: No one was offering a solution for the bride looking to cut corners on her dress. "Designer gowns cost on average $3,000, but the average bride's budget for a wedding dress is only $1,000," Olvey tells Fashionista. "So we see this as a huge opportunity to disrupt the bridal gown industry and allow the bride to have that dream dress at an affordable price."

What makes Borrowing Magnolia unique is its rental program, which works similarly to Rent the Runway: A bride to be can check out dresses available for rent and select up to three for an at-home try on; there's a fee of $99, but that will apply towards the rental fee if the bride selects a gown. 

The rental fee for a gown is, on average, 30 percent of retail price; currently, Borrowing Magnolia has rentals listed for as low as $400. The bride-to-be must return all rental gowns after try-on (a five-day period). The chosen gown will then be sent a week-and-a-half before the wedding date, and must be returned four days after.

Borrowing Magnolia also allows shoppers to buy gowns secondhand from former brides, similar to sites like Nearly Newlywed, but Borrowing Magnolia differentiates itself from its competitors in this arena by acting like a middleman. 

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"You're purchasing a wedding dress -- you want to be able to touch it, to see it, to try it on before you buy it, but a lot of times you don't get the opportunity to do that on these [customer to customer] marketplaces," Olvey says. "Our model solves a lot of those issues by putting ourselves in the middle and by brokering the transaction. You can do the at-home try on."

Perhaps the most impressive part of the Borrowing Magnolia venture is that the three women put it together while living in completely different cities -- Olvey is in Washington, D.C., Brutz is in Athens, GA, and Steele is in Charlottesville, VA -- and that, despite the distance, the site was up and running in just six months.

The business is divided amongst the three to streamline things; Olvey handles logistics and finance, Steele handles sales and marketing, and Brutz handles IT and legal. Through their various connections via Fortique and Once Like a Spark, they had an entire network of brides to tap for the used gowns already live on the site. 

"We just sort of put out a call for dresses and people were overwhelmingly excited for an opportunity to make money off of their dress," Olvey says. "Actually, in a lot of cases, brides hadn't even cleaned their dresses, they were just sitting in the closet."

Which does bring up a logistical issue: How is Borrowing Magnolia able to guarantee the quality of a dress for which most women have incredibly high expectations? While the company will accept all sizes, styles and fabrics -- Borrowing Magnolia wants a diverse stock to offer their brides -- it is somewhat strict on quality, "because that's what we see as one of our differentiators," Olvey explains.

A bride looking to sell or rent out her dress is shipped all the materials necessary (mailing box, garment bag, etc) by Borrowing Magnolia, which then takes care of the dress from there -- in other words, no cleaning or prep necessary. (The company has partnered with Parkway Custom Dry Cleaning in D.C., a company known for its couture and bridal expertise, to take care of that.) Thanks to the Once Like a Spark connection, Borrowing Magnolia also professionally photographs every dress for the site, an important detail for the company.

From there, the team works on unique pricing. "Every dress is different," Olvey explains. "We are learning so much about different seams, different damage, what's reversible, what's not reversible, so knowing the intricacies of the dresses and really understanding what we can do about each stain or damage or whatever is a challenge."

With a unique business model, there's a lot of room for growth and experimentation -- and probably, a few mistakes. Olvey expressed a lot of excitement at the variety of different roads available for Borrowing Magnolia, such as the possibility of working directly with wedding dress designers for rentals in the vein of Rent the Runway. But for the young company, the focus is on the here and now.

"I think our goal over the next year is to really learn what our customers want, what our brides want and then sort of go from there," Olvey says. "But we see a lot of potential in this space for expansion and growth."