Rent frock Repeat's Lisa Owen aiming to sew up the online fashion rental market for women

Lisa Owen
Rent frock Repeat CEO and co-founder Lisa Owen. Photo by Caroline Phillips.

We’ve all been there: staring blankly into the abyss of our closet, feeling like we have nothing to wear. It’s often followed by an urge to shop for more stuff to fill our wardrobe, our homes, our lives.

That’s where Rent frock Repeat comes in. Since 2011, the Canadian company has been renting designer gowns to women who don’t want to shell out money on special-occasion dresses that they may only wear once or twice.

The popular dress rental business first stepped onto the Ottawa fashion scene in 2015, when it opened its showroom in the ByWard Market. It’s now transitioning to a strictly online fashion subscription service that will offer Canadian women a rotating wardrobe of stylish clothing.

Rent frock Repeat has determined, based on market demand, that its clients aren’t just about the dress. They’re also interested in renting business, maternity and weekend wear.

“Because we feel the pain of getting dressed in the morning,” is how company co-founder and chief executive Lisa Owen explains it. “We all want to look great. A beautifully tailored outfit can do just that, but our bodies change, our circumstances change and we end up accumulating a lot of stuff as a result.”

Owen says women wear only bout 20 per cent of their clothes because everything else doesn’t fit properly, disintegrates after a second wash, is out of fashion or is in need of repair. 

“We can accumulate very quickly, but we noticed there’s a big challenge for women to figure out how to get rid of stuff,” says the 48-year-old Cornwall-based entrepreneur. “It’s either too time-consuming, or they’re emotionally attached to something, or they feel bad because they see these garbage bags of clothes that they spent their hard-earned money on.

“Clothes ownership is a burden for women. We are constantly given the message to streamline or pare down, but how do we do that when our only option is to buy? Having something we can borrow and return is better financially, it’s less waste for the planet, and it makes life simpler.”

"Clothes ownership is a burden for women. We are constantly given the message to streamline or pare down, but how do we do that when our only option is to buy?"

Sharing economy pioneers

Under RfR’s new business model, clients will receive, through the mail, a box containing several items selected for them by a professional stylist.

Rent frock Repeat will start off with 5,000 subscribers, each of whom will create a fashion profile of herself, based on her size, lifestyle, budget and personal taste. RfR covers dry-cleaning costs.

“All Rent frock Repeat is doing is providing a bigger community of people that you can swap clothes with, and we’re taking the responsibility of making that exchange very, very easy,” says Owen.

Rent frock Repeat was created in 2010 by Owen and Kristy Wieber after they found themselves fretting over what they were going to wear to a summer wedding. They learned of a U.S. company that rented out formal evening gowns, but it didn’t ship to Canada.

The pair came up with a business plan to start their own online dress rental company in Canada and bootstrapped the venture themselves. Rent frock Repeat – which has built up a membership of 95,000 – became part of the sharing economy before the sharing economy was considered cool (think Uber and Airbnb).

RfR originally kept its inventory of 600 dresses in the basement of Owen’s Toronto home. What the company quickly learned was that clients wanted to try them on before wearing them to their special events. Customers got the opportunity – at Owen’s home, using her master bedroom as a changeroom.

As a result, Rent frock Repeat opened its first brick-and-mortar showroom in Toronto, followed by its second in Ottawa. But, it was always the company’s plan to return to an online-only enterprise, enhanced with temporary pop-up shops.

In 2014, the startup raised $1.15 million in a funding round led by Ottawa female angel investors Coralie Lalonde and Caroline Somers. Of the company’s 25 investors, 12 are women.

Owen says it’s hard to convince Canadian investors that Canada is a great place to do business. Entrepreneurs are constantly told they must head south of the border or go global in order to succeed, but she says that is viewing success through a very myopic lens. 

“It’s a shame,” says Owen, who previously worked 14 years in the corporate world in the areas of sales, marketing and talent management. “Let me tell you, this is easily a $100-million business in the Canadian marketplace.”

Five things to know about Lisa Owen

1. Until recently, she was known as Lisa Delorme, but she’s been gradually switching over to her husband’s surname, Owen, since they tied the knot in 2016 in a backyard wedding ceremony. And, yes, her gown was from Rent frock Repeat. It was designed by Theia.

2. Owen loves living in Cornwall, where she also grew up. She sits on the boards of the Cornwall Hospital Foundation and Job Zone D’Emploi and is involved with the Cornwall Innovation Centre. “It’s a city that’s redefining itself,” she says proudly.

3. Owen says she gets her resiliency from her mother, Shirley Zappia, and her appreciation for well-made products from her entrepreneurial father, Frank Zappia. At age five, he immigrated to Canada from the southern Italy region of Calabria with his family, who for years ran the popular Zappia’s pizza restaurant in Cornwall.

4.  Rent frock Repeat has twice won a Canada Post E-Commerce Innovation Award and the thousands of dollars in shipping and marketing credits that come with each award.

5. Owen and Wieber successfully landed a financial offer during their 2012 television appearance on Dragons’ Den. In the end, they were able to grow their business on their own. “From an exposure perspective, it was fantastic for the company,” says Owen of being on the CBC show.