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The bridesmaid dress nightmare ends — with online rentals

Bridesmaids often have to shell out hundreds of dollars for designer dresses that they'll never wear again. The new web site Vow to Be Chic aims to end the waste by renting high-end dresses for the wedding party.

Kelsey Doorey has been a bridesmaid six times, experiencing the excitement, the emotions and the expense. While men in wedding parties typically rent their tuxedos, women get stuck paying for dresses they’ll probably never wear again.

“Many of my best friends aren’t engaged yet, so I have many more to come,” she says. “It’s an honor, but it’s an expensive honor.”

So the 28-year-old recent UCLA business school grad decided to do something about it.

Her new company, Vow to be Chic, rents designer dresses for bridesmaids from a website. Instead of paying hundreds of dollars for a new dress, customers pay $95 to $125 and, after the bride and groom head off into the sunset, the dresses go back.

Exclusive deals

The site has struck exclusive deals to carry several of the most popular styles each from five of the eight top designers of bridesmaid dresses, including Swoon and Lula Kate. Every dress is available in multiple colors and a full range of sizes.

Traditionally, a bride selects the dress for her bridesmaids, who then each must head to one particular boutique for a fitting. It’s often stressful as well as expensive – think of Katherine Heigl’s character in the movie “27 dresses.”

The average designer dress costs about $300, generating $2 billion annually amidst the overall $50 billion spent on weddings in the United States.

Vow to be Chic starts by helping a bride select a dress for her bridesmaids online. Then the renting bridesmaids send in their measurements and, way before the wedding, get the dress in two sizes to try on. Once the fit is confirmed, the sizing dresses go back to Vow to Be Chic, which sends final models out just before the nuptials.

The notion of renting fancy womens' wear has already been proven, thanks to the success of sites such as Rent the Runway, where Doorey worked before business school. During college, she also interned with a wedding planner in New York City and saw firsthand just how much stress arose from the bridesmaid dress-fitting process.

"Not okay with men outsmarting women"

“It dawned on me one day that men had been renting tuxedoes for decades,” she says. “I’m not okay with men outsmarting women in the fashion arena.”

The business plan comes amidst a boom for the so-called sharing economy, whether it's cheaper car rides from Uber, cheaper vacation rentals from AirBnb or cheaper vacuums from SnapGoods. It’s all fitting with the current post-boom, shallow recovery economic climate.

But it still wasn’t easy for Doorey to get all the designers on board. While many retailers sell bridesmaid dresses online, no one was renting high-end, designer styles. “I’m not sure about this Internet thing,” Doorey recalls one designer telling her.

Doorey was planning to head back East after graduating from UCLA’s Anderson School of Management last year. Then she and friend Anna Baxter won the school’s annual new-venture competition and a $15,000 prize to turn the idea of Vow to be Chic into a reality. Several of the judges, professional venture capitalists, offered to invest more on the spot.

One of those backers, Matt McCall of the Pritzker Group, says he generally doesn’t fund e-commerce startups like Vow to be chic. “I dislike that space – I hated that going into the contest,” he says. “But I ended up so impressed with Kelsey.”

Along with her prior experience and exhaustive market research, Doorey's calm, CEO-like demeanor under pressure helped convince the investors to come aboard. The site has been available to a limited, private audience since last year and opens to the public in a few weeks. She also has plans to expand into related areas as the business grows. Brides come to the site more than eight months before their wedding to sign up, creating a potentially lucrative market for other wedding vendors.

That’s all a ways down the road, however. For now, Vow to be Chic will stick to bridesmaids rentals and, hopefully, prevent anyone from having to become another 27-dress hoarder.