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High-end fashion, as seen on real women

Updated: 2012-11-12 09:24
By Stephanie Clifford ( China Daily/Agencies)

High-end fashion, as seen on real women

Jenny Fleiss, left, and Jennifer Hyman of Rent the Runway, which shows styles on "real" women, not just models. Angel Franco / The New York Times

Like most women, Tina Hines has her size, and then she has her list of clothes that actually look good on her. Side pockets are out (they make her hips look too wide). Halter tops are difficult (she needs to wear a bra).

But when she shops online, she is still flummoxed. The models are generally rail-thin and flat-chested - not like her. "Someone who's an A-cup doesn't help me, because it's definitely going to lay a little bit differently," said Ms. Hines, 44, a life coach in Franklin Park, New Jersey.

Now, the e-commerce site Rent the Runway is offering a solution: replacing models with regular women, and allowing visitors to search for women of a certain age, height, weight and even bust size, to see how that dress looks on someone similar.

Rent the Runway's new approach is the latest example of a retailer rejecting the idea that women want fantasy when they shop. Instead, it is offering reality, catering to women who are fed up with Photoshopping, airbrushing and the headache of returning multiple sizes of clothing. The start-up Me-Ality installs scanners in malls to match women's bodies to mall brands. Clothes Horse sells retailers an algorithm and quiz so they can advise customers what size will fit in the retailers' apparel.

Rent the Runway, though, is taking it a step further. Users of the site can already upload photos of themselves in the clothing - the site rents dresses and formal accessories for a few days, at about 10 percent of the retail cost. And women can list their height, weight and chest size alongside their reviews. Now, visitors can perform find-women-like-me searches, ask questions of the other wearers, and choose to see only real-life women rather than models wearing the clothing.

Rent the Runway found that the conversion rate for shoppers who clicked on real photos was double that of shoppers who clicked on model photos.

"Women are smart: you know that while Gisele is beautiful, you don't look like Gisele," said Jennifer Hyman, chief executive and co-founder of Rent the Runway, which is based in New York and was started in 2009.

The push toward real-world images, however, could upset some of the luxury brands that sell to Rent the Runway.

"When you present a luxury brand, in my opinion it's not about being accessible - it's all about the dream, it's all about the aspiration," said Marc Beckman, founder of Designers' Management Agency, which has negotiated deals for the designers Oscar de la Renta and Stella McCartney.

Still, high-end fashion is becoming more inclusive: Ralph Lauren is featuring a plus-size model in a campaign, and Lanvin uses real people in an ad campaign.

Still, Ms. Hyman said of the Lanvin women, "They cast them, they edited them, they retouched them - it's not real."

Kelly O'Keefe, a professor at Virginia Commonwealth University's Brandcenter, noted the trend, pointing to sites like Threadless that feature user photos. "It has the advantage for the consumer of seeing how something looks on real people, which is very attractive, and it has the advantage for the brand of getting real user participation, which is great. The disadvantage: people are an imperfect species."

Almost 300 women of all body types have uploaded pictures of themselves on Rent the Runway in a gold, strapless Badgley Mischka dress that rents for $125. They include a woman heading to a Marine Corps ball, another posing for a prom, and a third wearing the dress to the Zulu Ball in New Orleans.

"Seeing them on real girls, you can get a better gauge of what the dress is going to look like, because it's not perfect photography or a perfect model," Laura Sartori, 24, a merchandise planner in Bentonville, Arkansas, said of the clothes.

On the Rent the Runway site, users can ask questions of the real-life wearers: Did you wear Spanx with that? Will that work as a maternity dress?

All of this could take away from the cachet of a luxury item. "It's not about the girl around the corner that lives near you and has a Gucci jacket, a martini in her hand and is smoking a cigarette - it's about the supermodel in Paris, shot by the best photographer," Mr. Beckman said.

Kylie Murray, 25, had reservations when she was about to rent a DVF sequined dress and found so many photos of other women in the same dress. "There's a part of me that was a little bit discouraged," she said, "because if anybody can wear this, then what makes it so special?"

Still, Ms. Murray, who works in merchandising in New York, said photos of petite women in the dress were helpful, and she now avoids Rent the Runway dresses that lack multiple photo reviews.

The New York Times