How One Entrepreneur is Making Fashion Affordable – The Story Behind The Clothing Rental
Let me hazard a guess here. You are probably at work sitting behind your desk, secretly nurturing dreams of one day having your own business. The entrepreneurship force is strong in you, but you are probably afraid to take the path less trod upon. If that is indeed true, this write-up shall serve as an epiphany.
This is the story of fashion entrepreneur Shilpa Bhatia. Despite having a successful career as a fashion stylist with years of experience, she still decided to plunge into the risky, uncertain realm of Entrepreneurship. With dreams of bringing Haute Couture into the lives of Indians oblivious to high fashion, she runs her venture called TheClothingRental. It’s USP is the unique facility of renting out clothes, rather than buying them outright.
Our visit to her Bandra store charmed us silly. It is truly alluring and feels wonderful to be in. She credits the “Chowmahalla Palace” in Hyderabad as the motivation behind her store design. Over a cup of coffee, she told us about her amazing journey from starting out as a young fashion stylist to being an Innovator in the fashion and clothing industry. What surprised us the most was her passion to constantly learn about all things new pertaining to her business, whether it was about changing fashion trends in the world or the dynamic Digital media and marketing phenomenon. Here’s a summary of our conversation with Shilpa.
- Give us a brief introduction about who you are?
I consider myself to be a fashion entrepreneur. I have studied every aspect of fashion in India, New York and Milan. That includes studying fashion in Parsons NY and doing an entrepreneurship in NYU. I have also studied design, forecasting, retail and the business side of fashion. I am currently exploring Social Media and its power of advertising / marketing for business. I believe in educating myself by learning something new every 4 – 5 years.
Image: Entrepreneur Shilpa Bhatia at her office cum store, The Clothing Rental at Bandra.
- What do you consider yourself to be? Stylist, Designer, Merchandiser?
I would say all of the above, as I have done it all, i.e. Styling, Buying, Planning and Merchandising.
- In-spite of other aspects of fashion, does she find renting clothes to be the most lucrative?
It isn’t the most lucrative aspect according to me. I started doing this almost 10 years ago. I was styling a lot of Ads, movies back then. At that time, top brands like Guess, Mango did not exist. The best brand then was probably a Benetton. People had expectations of a certain type of look, which replicated high fashion brands and looked very classy and stylish. But, they were not willing to pay top dollar for the big brands and instead wanted customized clothing options from Indian sources.
I was frustrated because of lack of decent budgets, and the Indian tailors and artisan’s unfamiliarity with high fashion brands and fashion style. The finished product would very often be substandard or look like a below average knock-off. So, I decided to sort out my requirements, which were usually for a few suits, cool jeans etc. I decided to start this off as a personal hobby to ease up my issues with sub-par clothing. I started getting clothes from big brands and renting them off to my own projects.
I wasn’t making money off the clothes but mainly on my styling projects. In most cases, I was renting out a 25k suit for about 1 – 2,000 people. I wasn’t thinking from a business aspect back then. 2-3 years later, I started getting competition and other people started renting out clothes. I realized that even if I lost out on styling projects, my clothes would still go out on her competitor’s projects. I started to realize that my little idea had major business potential.
- Did you reach out for any guidance while setting up your business initially?
A friend of mine asked me to seek business mentoring because I wasn’t aware of the finer aspects of running a business. I met my business mentor through the National Entrepreneurship Network about 5 years ago. He was also an investor. He gave me invaluable tips about running my business. He advised me on changing my business name, and back then it was known as “Calm – Hirem – Kaali” which roughly translated to “Peace – Money – Goddess Kali” (signifying a powerful woman). He also urged me to focus on the branding, and requested that I change the business name and logo to something less complex.
My mentor wanted me to increase my expectations from being known by 50 – 100 people, to over 5000 people. He gave me a few pointers about being more organised and remaining passionate. After changing my business name to the clothing rental, I was lucky to get a similar domain name. It has also helped me in SEO aspects because the nature of my business has great relativity to my business name. Also, I have a sister in France who is closely attuned to the Fashion industry and another individual in New Delhi who has 3 funded companies of his own. They have also helped me out in the course of my business.
- What inspired you to work for the fashion industry?
I was good at drawing and enjoyed art since a young age. I was a smart kid who was good at studies, and sketching and designing were my hobbies. My mom’s a Doctor, and dad is an Engineer by profession. They wanted me to pursue a similar field of study. But in-spite of having great expectations from my 12th standard board exam results, my performances weren’t exactly up to the mark. Subsequently, I decided not to dwell in the past and enrolled in a design school.
- What were your experiences like during your studies?
I went to New York to study and work. It was an amazing experience for me. I also dabbled in a bit of PR for an Italian company while I was there. Initially, I was a little apprehensive about the whole experience because I found myself to be older than the rest of the students at school. But, with time, I settled down because I had much more experience than everyone else. Whatever was being taught had been already executed by me at some point of time while I was working previously. It gave me a lot of confidence.
- Tell us about the clothing range that you have at the Clothing Rental.
I primarily have two categories: namely Western and Indian clothing. Western clothing for men would typically have Suits, Shirts and Jeans, and Western for women would feature stuff like dresses and gowns from the fashion world. Indian clothing for men mostly includes Shervanis, Kurtas and wedding attire, and Lehengas, Saris and Ghagra – Cholis for women.
Image: Products Displayed at The Clothing Rental
- Throw some light on the type of clientele that you have?
A lot of my clothes have featured in movies and ad shoots, and film stars and celebrities have worn my clothes rather frequently. A lot of movies have featured clothes sourced from the Clothing Rental. I also provide custom designed clothes for some premium clients based on their requirements and tastes. Apart from the clothes, I also handle styling duties for clients based on events and their requirements like pre-wedding shoots or parties / movies / ad-shoots.
Mainly, people from age 18 to 45 have come to get clothes from me. In terms of money, people from both ends of the spectrum, i.e. the super-rich and the moderately or not so well off have come to me for their clothing needs. Fashion – aware people who belong to a cosmopolitan setting and people without any inkling of fashion who come from humble backgrounds have also come to my store. People mainly come to know about my store through Google, services like Just Dial and word of mouth.
- How clear are your store visitors about their needs and wants?
There are some people who are aware of top fashion brands and their heritage and history, but most people that come aren’t. They are taken by surprise when they come to know about the value of the clothes. People mostly come with an image in mind. Like they would want to get the same type of a clothes that an actor / actress wore in a movie or an ad. Depending on their clientele, my team looks to guide people so that they are satisfied and have a great experience.
- How do you price your products?
I price them based on my perception of my clients and what their likes and dislikes are. There are certain clothes, colors and fashion styles that are very popular in the market, and thus these factors loosely affect my pricing strategy. I have to make my clients aware of high fashion brands and their reputation in the global market to actually create a demand. Then, it is easier for them to accept the actual value of the clothes. For example: I bought a gown that Halle Berry made famous by wearing to an event for 4 lacs, but people aren’t willing to pay even Rs. 2000 for it.
- How do you source your clothes?
I have worked in the fashion industry long enough to have a vast network of contacts. I find out about their portfolio, and urge them to provide clothes that I like at reasonable discounts. I also follow brands from around the world, and source directly from them when required.
- How do you keep tabs on fashion trends?
Due to my past experience and the nature of my work, I am extremely connected to people in the fashion and film industry. I regularly read about global fashion trends in France, London, Milan and New York. I am also in touch with top fashion brands of the world, and I also procure stuff from them directly time and again. I travel extensively to see fashion trends first-hand. I am also glued in to global fashion forecasts to understand what I need to buy and what trends are not in fashion. In my experience, India picks up on global trends a little slowly. I pick up clothes and sometimes wait for them to trend in India so that demand picks up. For example: I bought jumpsuits a while ago because they were considered hot in the global market. I am still waiting on the trend to pick up in India, as the jumpsuits are just lying in my storehouse since 6 years.
Also, I have a carefully curated group of high-value clients who are considered to be trend-setters. Whenever I get new clothes, I do exclusive previews for them in hopes of them buying it and setting a new trend in the city which would directly affect demand in that particular type of clothing.
- How do you let people know about the Clothing Rental and its products?
What I follow is a simple process of categorizing clients based on their needs. This helps me provide extremely customized service to them. I am aware of my client’s needs acutely, and I use this information to buy clothes for them and what they might need them for in advance. For example: I have a repeat customer who is from Agra. I have most of her details that I need to understand her likes and dislikes. I send her a mailer with information about my new stock, and this service extends both online and offline. This is the level of personalization that I offer to maximize my client’s satisfaction.
- Do you Value Mentoring?
I definitely do. I mentor little kids, other people in businesses and most importantly, my staff. I think it adds immense value. I train my people differently. It is an organic process, based on simple observation. For example: I take my staff to a busy restaurant to understand about service and service quality indicators. I teach them about product quality by taking them to high-end stores in Palladium. Brand stores like Hugo Boss are excellent examples to explore little details like store size, service quality, prices and products etc. This helps me to explain to my staff about the value of their business and their value proposition and how their store makes profit.
- What have your biggest challenges so far?
Initially, people thought that my concept was strange. Everyone had trouble understanding my business because according to them, no one would wear clothes that were worn by someone else. People also had a misconception about the type of clothes that I was keeping.
Rented clothes for them meant getting fancy dress costumes like a cop uniform for example. People had no idea about the quality of clothes that my store was providing. I am trying to change the stereotype about rented clothes by informing the masses that even beautiful and fashionable clothes can be rented.
People had a hard time trusting the brand and believing in our authenticity at first. Clients would come to my store and really savour being in a beautiful environment. They were taken aback slightly when they realized that these über expensive clothes could be afforded on rent at much lower prices. I shop a lot professionally, and the one thing that I dislike about the experience is the excessive chaos at the stores. I aim to provide a peaceful and calm environment at my store to shop in, and it is also much more personalised for my clients. I have learnt this with experience that you make a relationship first and nurture it, and the money will then make itself.
Image: Shilpa Bhatia outside her Bandra store.
- Tell us about some of the positive feedback / reviews you have received over the years?
Well, I have had many to be honest. One interesting instance was about this client, a lady with a fuller figure. She was used to dressing up in conventional Indian attire generally. There was an event she had to attend with her daughter, and her daughter requested her to wear something Western so that her mother wouldn’t look like the odd one out. The mother obviously wanted to please her daughter, and she being of a very liberal mind-set decided to give me a visit and sort out an outfit for her. My team managed to find her something suitable, and styled her look to go with the outfit. The end result was a complete transformation. She was looking very beautiful, and the client was truly thrilled with the result. Needless to say, she got a lot of positive compliments from everyone at the event. It was a special day in her life.
In another incident, there was a couple who had to attend their daughter’s reception. They had married off their daughter to a very rich family, and they themselves belonged to a middle class background in contrast. Both the husband and wife wanted to look their best for the function, and not disappoint their in-laws, or embarrass their daughter in any way. My team sorted out their outfits for the event, and they were a sight to behold together. It was a matter of confidence, and I felt that my clothes helped bridge the class divide well.
- What do you feel about the competition that has come up over the years?
At first, it was a little unsettling. People would come up to my store and spend time checking out my stuff. Then they would pester me with questions demanding to know all sorts of intricate details about my clothes, my design cues etc. and then leave. A few days later, I read about these people of blogs like VC Circle about their own venture having copied my business model and products / pricing.
A lot of new names have come up fueled by the current start-up craze. Even some greenhorns have managed to get funding, and are now looking to compete. People have even copied my SEO strategy to a large extent. Like for example, if I wrote “Premium Fashion Rental Destination”, it was changed to “Premium Dress Rental”. Another instance was where I had written, “Fashion at a Fraction”, which was changed to “Fashion for a Fraction”. People were para-phrasing my verbiage, and it was unsettling to say in the least.
I was thinking about all this once while I was meditating, and a thought suddenly came to me. I realized that all these people were trying to copy me because I was doing things right, and my competition realized that I was on to something good. I decided not to worry too much because 10 new players took away some of my business. I had been in the game far longer, and I was frankly bigger than the rest of my competition.
I have a lot more product categories, and my product and knowledge of fashion is at par with the best from the industry. I am future ready, as my product portfolio is aligned with the trend forecast of global / Indian fashion scene. These factors have me and my business secured for the next 10 years at least.
I believe that people can’t constantly copy me, and after a certain point of time, every business will need to differentiate on some point. I cater to my clients, and not my competition.
- Do you drive your customers, or your customers drive your business decisions?
I feel that it is a mixture of both happening in equal quantities. I have been listening to my demographic more closely now as compared to earlier when I was making decisions entirely based on my own gut feel and understanding. My clients now are increasingly trend aware, and they pride themselves on reading up and getting educated about fashion styles and trends worldwide. I feel that there are a lot of women who want to wear western clothes more, and experiment with new global styles. I have started to pay heed to my clients inputs a lot more, and my product sourcing now is increasingly based on their needs and requirements.
- Tell us about the Innovations that you have driven in your business?
Well, I feel that we have slowly transcended from a home business into a more professional fashion and clothing business. Initially, my business wasn’t very structured, and a lot of aesthetics were ignored. Now, I am trying to portray a certain image which is impressive to behold. I now have a separate area for my staff, and I have paid close attention to develop a special setting in which I display my clothes and even the way in which I display them. We have recently started maintaining books for keeping the accounts up to date. We are also in the process of implementing Inventory Barcoding System via QR Codes. I am also a part of the burgeoning Smartphone ecosystem. The Clothing Rental is now an app for both Android and IOS platforms. I am also learning Digital Marketing and on the verge of completing that course soon, and planning to actively apply my learnings in my business.
- Have you tried to market yourself, or tried to reach out to Bloggers for PR? If you have, how successful have you been?
To be frank, I have only started doing PR recently. I have now got a PR agency taking care of my requirements. Initially, I did not know anything about approaching bloggers or what to do with them. Now, I have a better understanding about this aspect as a lot of my clients are active bloggers.
I have nurtured and developed a relationship with them, and I regularly do barters and collaborations with them too. I now have the expertise and my staff is adept to handle the increased traffic with ease. I am getting involved in PR with bloggers, especially the younger ones who have just started out because of their enthusiasm and they also value the experience a lot more.
I have been learning constantly about SEO, Google Analytics, HTML etc. to have the upper hand when it comes to technical details. I have done a Google virtual 360-degree tour for my Versova store. I can vouch for the effectiveness of all these efforts as I have more traffic now on my store.
- How did you arrive at the decision of choosing Zepo? Did you compare us with any other brands?
My website has existed for the past 5 years, but it only took its current dynamic form recently. There were a lot of back and forth sessions with my website developer about constant site updates. It started to become a nuisance, and so my tech guy asked me to learn about this aspect so that I could handle it personally. He told me about various eCommerce platforms like Shopify and Zepo.
I had an extremely customized site previously but it wasn’t user friendly at all. I found Zepo’s Client Servicing team to be extremely polite and friendly at the same time. It settled me down and helped me narrow down the choice of an eCommerce platform. I found the Zepo platform to be very easy to use and dynamic. I uploaded my entire catalogue, and sorted out the Marketing and Logistics aspect before going live. I wanted to ensure the best Customer Experience.
Frankly, the decision was between Shopify and Zepo. I liked the former for their templates, design and the User Interface. But I had another rationale in mind for choosing Zepo. I feel that Indians like doing business with fellow Indians because they can pick up the phone and give the concerned person a call and have a conversation about their issue, or have someone familiar try and sort out their issue.
This emotional connect is very important for me at least. I liked the fact that I was going to get more personal attention with Zepo. The fact that I was familiar with the staff at Zepo and some of them on first name basis also helped. America has a ticket culture where communication is more impersonal, i.e. over emails. I did not want to break my head elsewhere shooting off mails trying to get in touch with the right people at once.
Also, since I am also a part of the Startup scene, it felt good to be a part of another start-up. I feel like our growth trajectories are linked, and it is in Zepo’s interest to provide good service in order for them to grow.
- How much are you spending on Marketing right now?
My marketing spend is very minimal right now. I am majorly interested in Facebook and Google ads. Also, I feel that I am still learning about the newer aspects of Digital Marketing. There is a whole Digital Media strategy of the Clothing Rental in the works right now. I mainly want to see returns, i.e. whether people are buying from me and is the overall traffic increasing or not. I am also trying to go regional with my business, and looking to target more TIER – II cities.
- What do you feel is the true purpose of your web store?
Currently, the site is completely for lead generation. Regardless of that, the site is completely business ready. Clients can rent clothes both online and offline. There are a couple of processes that a client needs to complete, like making a security deposit, documentation etc. But in spite of that, people are renting clothes online from the site.
Customers also tend to leave their carts full without checking out. It then falls to me and team to service these people by following up with them. We try to understand their issues that led them astray without making a purchase, and sort them out for our clients. I have had a great response on Facebook. Queries are more direct from Customers. They enquire about very specific clothes and their availability, and rent them out if they are in stock. I am fairly optimistic that in the next couple of years, my Zepo-powered site will be my gold mine.
- What kind of courses are you pursuing currently?
I am currently pursuing a Digital Marketing course offered by Operating India. It covers SEO, SMO, PPC, Google Analytics, App marketing etc. I have also studied about Google merchant accounts and Product Listing Ads, and I feel that people are often surprised about the length of my knowledge about this subject.
I have realized the potential of my business now. In my opinion, the eCommerce boom hasn’t truly occurred, but rather yet to happen. Individuals and brands are only getting ready for the phenomenon by investing heavily in developing their businesses. I understand that this is vast field to operate in, and I plan to outsource the Digital Marketing aspect to an expert in the future.
- Do you feel that Online Marketplaces are useful for your business?
Yes, they do have their usefulness. I am working on identifying trends that are working / will work in the future. I would like to exploit the huge customer base that the marketplaces possess to get the brand name out to a larger group of people. It will probably be a different business model compared to renting clothes.
- What do you feel are challenges that are specific to the eCommerce industry?
I would prefer having more customization options on my side to allow for greater creative expression. But I am confident of sorting that out because I feel that Zepo has a rapid response system, and they would collaborate with me to cater to my custom needs.
I feel that it is important to have solid online presence, but it isn’t compulsory to get everything right in your first attempt. Things change over time, and people and their tastes also keep changing which prompts us entrepreneurs to learn constantly.
- What do you value more? Business Experience or Education & Learning?
I feel that they both go hand in hand. I have worked as a costume designer for 13 years. I was pretty established and successful, with several people working under me. I still decided to leave all that away to study the business side of fashion. While I was in school, I realised that no one was aware of my background and experience. I had to prove myself all over again. While I was in the US, my internship taught me a lot about applying my education in my practice. It helped me to extract the best out of my experiences and combine that with my education. I quickly catapulted into the top ranks because of that.
Image: The front entrance of The Clothing Rental’s Bandra store
- What advice would you like to give out to fellow Entrepreneurs who are just starting out?
The most important advice would be to follow one’s passions with sheer tenacity. It is also important to not lose focus and get jaded by the process. People often tend to get confused which gets them off track from realising their venture’s true potential. It was my focus that helped me to identify who my target market was, and that helped me get my business in the right shape. Thus, I would also credit Brand Clarity as an equally important factor. Lastly, always look to cater to your demographic. Look and hear closely to what your clients and customers have to say, and understand their needs and wants closely. It will surely get you far.
- What / Who are your biggest strengths?
Well, primarily my parents. They were always in doubt about the business idea that I had in mind, but that didn’t stop them from supporting me through thick and thin. Secondly, the people who have / are working for me are instrumental to my success. There is one girl who has worked with me for over 10 years, and she was always optimistic about our business finding the right way. So my team and my parents are the support system that have helped me thrive over all these years.
- Apart from the The Clothing Rental, where do your interests / passions lie?
I love food. Whenever I find the time, I would like to cook or try out something new to eat. I have an equally strong love for travelling. It helps me to keep in touch with fashion trends, and also explore different cultures and meet new people to expand my horizons. This led to me developing a passion for learning new languages. I have decent control over quite a few languages. I can partially speak and understand Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, English, Gujarati, Nepali, Bengali.
We hope that this serves as great inspiration for our readers. Shilpa’s dedication to her work, and her passion for learning and constantly improving is commendable, and it should be an example for all entrepreneurs in our nation to never settle for mediocrity, and look to pursue their passion to the hilt.