Harriet Green talks true grit with Girl Meets Dress co-founder Xavier de Lecaros Aquise.
Advocates of the sharing economy, otherwise known as collaborative consumption, claim that it is finally reaching a mainstream audience. Earlier this month, for example, the government announced reforms to outdated legislation, ending long-running questions over the legal status of ultra short-term rental companies like Airbnb and OneFineStay.
But Xavier de Lecaros Aquise, along with business partner Anna Bance, has been endeavouring to apply collaborative principles to even more personal items. Founded in 2009, Girl Meets Dress rents out designer dresses for a fraction of their retail value. The proposition is simple: instead of spending £80 getting a copy of last season’s Chloe, rent the real thing. “You’re still going to the same parties”, says de Lecaros Aquise, “Why not have 10 different dresses?”
Now, five years in, with 4,000 dresses and a growing customer base, Girl Meets Dress claims to be establishing itself as something of a trendsetter. “We’re dressing so many women for Ascot that our blog’s become the perfect place to find out what to wear.”
The pair met when de Lecaros Aquise’s first company, which he set up straight out of university, was hired by Bance’s then-employer, luxury brand Hermes, to do a product launch. While her background is very much rooted in fashion, de Lecaros Aquise is a numbers man. He ended up moonlighting to get Girl Meets Dress off the ground, while also holding down a job at the European technology investment bank Bryan Garnier. Its success owes much to his analytical poise and adherence to data when making decisions. It’s the numbers that “really tell you what’s working, and what’s going to work”, he says.
Listening to de Lecaros Aquise, I’m reminded of the wise words of Terence Kealey of Buckingham University: that it’s just as easy to innovate yourself as it is to copy someone else’s idea.
“A lot of businesses make the mistake of looking at the big players like Asos – looking at the incumbents and how they do things.” But as de Lecaros Aquise points out, you’re still in the dark on what competitors are leveraging. “You really need to listen to the vision that you’ve got, and try and use as many analytical points as you can to try and form your decisions.”
But de Lecaros Aquise’s careful approach to making decisions didn’t mean they found it easy to attract investment. They bootstrapped the business. Being early to market was a double-edged sword: it meant they were able to squeeze as much margin as possible out of the company, but they also struggled to convince investors that being ahead of the curve had any mileage. “They just weren’t having it. It wasn’t a problem with the business – there were just no comparables.”
Although the firm reached profitability within a year, by 2013 it lacked the capacity to complete 40 per cent of its rental orders, and they had to go out to the market and fundraise They caught the eye of Oliver and Marc Samwer of Rocket Internet fame, who signed Girl Meets Dress up as the first investment with Global Founders Capital, their new $200m fund.
DRESSES TO COMPETE
Although they knew the women’s clothing industry had “been the same since the 1980s”, and was ripe for disruption, de Lecaros Aquise still sees Girl Meets Dress’s stiffest competition as the high street – and not the succession of trendy clothing rentals that have followed his company into the market.
To maintain market share, de Lecaros Aquise and Bance have worked hard on customer service, with an online chat facility, and they invite clients to pick up the phone or to come and visit – not something you’d get from just any online retailer. “It’s humbling to see how normal most people are. Women come in and say, ‘I’m going to this thing, my ex will be there and I want to look amazing.’ We can help her achieve that.”
And Girl Meets Dress wants to achieve a wider purpose – ending the idea that an expensive item is necessarily out of reach for the vast majority. “It’s no longer about having to slave away at work so you can buy things. Everybody has access to products now and the fact you can buy them is increasingly irrelevant.”
And there’s a further twist. Girl Meets Dress is, according to de Lecaros Aquise, buoying the high street. Brands now have a customer who’s stepped out of their comfort zone and has tried something they wouldn’t have previously considered, he explains. Now they’ll buy more widely.
De Lecaros Aquise is keen to impress the possibilities collaborative consumption has to offer: “We’re just at the early stages of the sharing economy – there are a lot more verticals yet to be disrupted.” That said, his advice to budding entrepreneurs is frank: “You need to be clear about what you want to do and know what your in/out plan is. It needs to be something relatively smart, because there are enough smart people looking at collaborative consumption that, as soon as someone does something relatively interesting, there’ll be someone else with more money and a better team.”
But de Lecaros Aquise knows what he’s up against. His approach to business reflects his rather unconventional view of entrepreneurs: “A person who starts things up isn’t actually that much of a risk-taker”, he says. “It’s all about calculated risk.” He finds programmes like Dragons’ Den and The Apprentice more than frustrating: “They’re horrible and the last things I’d want people to mould themselves on.” As far as he’s concerned, being a success story means being smart, ruthless and, more than anything, incredibly prepared.
This year, the plan is to take Girl Meets Dress to Australia (it currently delivers in the UK, Ireland and Scandinavia). “We will go elsewhere”, says de Lecaros Aquise, “but only when we’ve got the metrics.”
“You need to be a good analyst and realise there’s a risk worth taking”, he says, adding of those who make it, “We’re the most frugal people out there.”
Is entrepreneurship really about passion? “That line’s gone on too much of a PR journey”, he quips. “Do what pushes you, makes you a better person to be around – makes you great.”
Company name: Girl Meets Dress
Job title: Co-founder
Number of staff: 10
Lives : London
Studied: Maths & Economics at Warwick University
Drinking: Gin & Tonic
Eating: Chinese takeaway
Last memorable book: 10 Words, by Terry Leahy
Favourite Business Book: What They Don’t Teach you at Harvard Business School, by Mark McCormack
Talents: Awareness and adaptability
Heroes: Anyone with something to prove, from a struggling actor to the more obvious ones
First ambition: To be an M&A banker at CitiGroup. Achieved in 2001 aged 18
Motto: Above all, make the most of the moments and people you meet along the way
Most likely to say: “Let’s do it anyway”
Least likely to say: “Do it tomorrow”