Simonne Santana was a frustrated fashionista living on the Gold Coast in 2005. She had an extensive background in the fashion industry and loved designer clothing and accessories, but where was the money going to come from to support a habit like that?
At the time, the Melbourne-based Ms Santana was working as a product developer for a fashion brand to support herself and her future husband, who was returning to university to study law.
Then a light bulb went on. Why aren’t there rental outlets for designer goods like there are for DVDs and games, so that people who can’t afford to buy a Chanel handbag can own one at a small fraction of the cost for a month or so?
Ms Santana went on the internet to research the idea and found that it was already being done overseas but not yet in Australia. Grabbing her opportunity while the Australian market was still open, she was open for business a year later at her e-commerce store that she called lovemeandleave me.com, initially renting out primarily high-end label handbags.
Five years on, the business has evolved through several phases and some competitors have come into the market, but Ms Santana stands out as a successful example of how a business can thrive by democratising high fashion.
Love Me and Leave Me expanded from accessories into designer clothing after two years, and opened a physical store on High Street in Melbourne’s trendy inner city suburb of Armadale. Ms Santana believed that clothing, unlike handbags, really needed a place for customers to touch, feel and try on the merchandise.
The two year experiment with clothing has now just about run its course though and Love Me and Leave Me is now returning to its roots as an e-tailer of designer accessories. “The clothing business has been good but it works better in places like the US where the market is so much bigger. The real sweet spot for the luxury rental concept in Australia is handbags. Handbags are where we are headed in terms of specialisation.”
Why do handbags fit the business model better than clothes?
Explains Ms Santana: “There’s a bigger market for handbags for several reasons. Handbags don’t discriminate on body type. You can be a plus-sized woman and still wear a luxury handbag really well. Not so well a dress. The other thing in favour of handbags is that they are more effective status items. Many have easily recognisable logos or weaves that make them instantly identifiable and the wearer feels the halo effect everywhere she goes.”
The standard rental period for a handbag is 30 days. The customer can extend the rental period though, and Love Me and Leave Me also has “rent to own” deals whereby the customer’s rental payments become downpayments on the purchase of an item in the event she doesn’t want to give it up.
Ms Santana says that it’s common for customers to rent a different handbag every month so they can constantly have a fix from dangling a different luxury label from her shoulder.
Has the retail downturn over the past couple of years boosted her rental business because customers are less inclined to spend the kind of money it takes to buy luxe labels?
Ms Santana thinks it has. She likes to believe that her concept will not experience the kind of volatility that a conventional high-end retailer like David Jones does.
Time will tell, but given how long these tough retailing conditions have lasted one has to wonder if there is more than just a niche market in Australia for designer label rentals.