Creative director Donielle Brooke, 31, discusses starting an online fashion business with former partner and Midnight Youth drummer Aidan Bartlett, new hires within the company and why the business is switching its focus to the clothing rental space.
What does your business do?
Designer Wardrobe is an online marketplace for women to buy, sell and rent clothing. We recently started buying our own dresses that we have started renting out to our community. We opened up a retail store about a year ago in Grafton in Auckland and we're looking to expand our store footprint and open another in Christchurch in September.
The business started as a marketplace, that was the core part of our business, we grew to 150,000 members online, and we just saw such a need for us to walk into the rental side of things; rental has now become our main focus for the business. The dresses we buy to rent ourself are typically over $270 through to $1000, sometimes more, they are the pieces you would buy for a wedding or a special occasion - stand out pieces that you typically only wear once.
Most people rent a piece for an event but we are preparing to walk into a subscription-type service where women will be able to get different pieces such as beautiful corporate jackets and other wardrobe staples every two weeks or month.
What was the motivation for starting the business?
I had this idea in the back of my mind, it was something I felt I wish I could have used, and I was waiting for someone to do it and eventually I ended up starting it myself but in a really basic way and I've been building it up slowly.
I was diagnosed with thyroid cancer at 25, I'm all okay now as it has been six years and I'm out of remission, but at the time I luckily had health insurance but no income coming in and a lot of debt from loans that I needed to pay weekly and I wasn't in the financial position to have months off while I was going through cancer and didn't know what I could do to support that so I decided to take the step and start the business, the marketplace side of things on Facebook and we grew a community that way.
By the time I fought cancer and was back at work part-time I decided I needed to test to see if it could turn into the bigger vision I had of the business, so I brought on my first co-founder Aidan Bartlett and he's driven the business with me.
How big is the team now?
We have 11 full timers and another four part timers in our store.
Designer Wardrobe started out online - did you always plan for the business to have a physical bricks and mortar presence too?
We were always adamant that we'd keep it online because it is a marketplace but when we opened our store in Auckland; just to test what it would be like if women could come in and try on these dresses, it just took off. We'd get over 200 people instore everyday and then on the weekend sometimes 250-plus - it's a huge part of business now. Rent the Runaway which is a massive rental business in America has stores all around America and we often wondered why but now it makes sense.
Our investor Shane Bradley who we work really closely with suggested we should try it out because of Rent the Runway, and my dad being a builder got to work and created a beautiful store underneath our office and it has made sense to test retail.
Is the plan to have a network of store throughout the country?
In the plan of discussion at the moment is stores in Auckland, Christchurch, Wellington and maybe another in the North Shore but that's as far as we're talking.
Why does Designer Wardrobe want to move into the subscription space?
We see our members renting from us regularly and subscriptions have become quite a big thing, so it makes sense to offer it. We've noticed the trend in here, and it seems like it's doing very well in other parts of the world. We've just had a new CEO join the team, Ruby Morgan, her brother was the guy that founded Trade Me, so she's got a wealth of knowledge to steer us through this next phase.
How has Designer Wardrobe changed in the six years it has been operating?
It has changed so much and its gone on a real journey. It's come from humble beginnings of a Facebook page that was free to use to a website that was basic - we didn't even have a designer to do it. From there, when we saw we had 11,000 members within a few months and some many people buying and selling we just knew it was time to take the next step and get investors involved. From being a start-up with investors to growing a team and then growing the database to 150,000 members. Our first office was basically a cupboard it was so small and my Mum has been working with us on this journey too. We now have a team of 11 and we're working from a big space - it's been such a journey.
What's your background and did you run businesses before Designer Wardrobe?
Aidan and I have very different backgrounds. Aidan is from a band called Midnight Youth - he was the drummer, and I was a hairdresser for nine years, so we're both really creative. We went to school together and were together for seven years as partners, and we had a real passion for side hustles; we had a couple of jewellery labels. When I started Designer Wardrobe and he came onboard, it just out-blew everything so we stopped our jobs and side hustles and focused on this full time.
What's the biggest challenge you've faced in your six years in business?
The biggest challenge was when we made a pivot and focused on rental more so than marketplace because it was a big change in the way we operated in the back end - that was the best thing we have done for the business. It was a positive challenging time. The pivot was a reflection of people's change to be more minimalistic - we've noticed a real eco-circle in the fashion industry - people are being particular with what they're buying from our local New Zealand designers. People are definitely being smarter in the way they are spending and from where.
What advice do you give to others wanting to start their own business?
You have to have a real passion for what you're creating and why you are doing it. With that, when there's hard times you know that you're working on it for your passion. Surround yourself with incredible people. I think it's important to know that you don't have to do it alone just because you founded it.