By Michelle Graff
Michelle-blogAfter leading a (splendid) talk on what editors like to see from designers, I had the chance to take in the last session of the conference, which also happened to be the final of three keynote speakers: Jennifer Hyman, CEO of Rent the Runway.

For those of you who are unfamiliar, Rent the Runway, which Hyman co-founded with her Harvard Business School classmate Jennifer Fleiss, is a website where women go and pay a reasonable rate to rent a lovely dress for a special occasion. When they are done, they return it.

It’s one of those concepts that’s so startling in its simplicity it brings up the question, “Why didn’t I think of that?” After all, men long have been able to rent tuxedos, and there’s no reason there shouldn’t be a similar service for women that’s equally as successful.

One of the more interesting points of Hyman’s talk was her thinking on brands and, more broadly, how consumers come to identify with a brand--they actually have the chance to wear or use it.

“I really believe that the way someone falls in love with a brand is they have an experience with that brand,” she said. “It happens organically.”

This is what she means: A customer goes on Rent the Runway, rents, for example, this hot-pink Helmut Lang dress for $35 and they have a great night. They’ve picked a brand that’s cut perfectly for their body, they’re willing to be a little daring with the color because they didn’t drop hundreds or even thousands on the dress and they get a dozen compliments that night, as opposed to just two or three.

The customer who rented that dress is going to walk away thinking: Helmut Lang is the brand for me.

And while they might not have the money to buy that designer right now, they could later down the road. Hyman said during her talk that after renting, many customers do go on to purchase merchandise from the brand they tried through Rent the Runway.

Her talk got me and plenty of others in the audience buzzing.

One of the biggest problems facing the industry is the younger generation’s lack of interest in fine jewelry; we’ve lost many of them lost to handbags, iPads, travel. Is the industry missing an opportunity to get them back by introducing them to jewelry brands on a rental basis?

As Hyman mentioned in her talk, Rent the Runway does not have fine jewelry--at least for now. A quick sweep of the site shows that the priciest piece offered for rent is an Erickson Beamon necklace with Swarovski crystals and gold-plated brass that rents for $225 and retails for $1,412.

But Rent the Runway could add fine jewelry in the future, and there’s also another site called Haute Vault, which does rent traditional fine jewelry. That site currently has fewer than 50 brands and most of them are large, well-established players: Stephen Webster, Roberto Coin, Ippolita and, in watches, Rolex and even Patek Philippe.

Should more fine jewelry brands be seeking to add themselves to the inventory offered on sites such as Rent the Runway and Haute Vault?  Designers, what do you think?

Also, what about retailers? I know through I chat I had last week with Laurette Merusi, vice president at insurance company Jewelers Unblocked, that there are some higher-end retailers that have jewelry loan programs covered by riders on their insurance policies.

She said she didn’t know of any independent retailers offering a rental program to customers, though she notes if they wanted to, such a program likely could be added on to their current policy. Merusi also noted that if the individual renting the jewelry from a retailer had a personal articles policy for jewelry, that might also cover borrowing or renting jewelry.

She said she hasn’t any inquiries about jewelry rentals from independent retailers yet but notes of rentals in general that, “We are seeing it more and more.”

Merusi said many people were uncomfortable sporting expensive jewelry during the recession--a trend dubbed “luxury shame”--but that feeling is fading as the economy improves. There is, she thinks, a “strong likelihood” some independent retailer might try to make a rental program of some sort work in the future.

Retailers, what do you think of rentals as a way to introduce customers to different brands and, hopefully, increase their appreciation for fine jewelry as a whole?

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