As both a FIDM alumna and graduate of the USC Marshall School of Business, entrepreneur Emily McDonald is uniquely equipped to head a venture that requires fashion sensibilities and business savvy in equal parts. TheStylist LA, Emily’s promising foray into the world of dress-lending, was born of a perceived need for a way in which girls could have access to black tie looks on shoestring budgets. Her answer? Rent, don’t own.
Your website says TheStylist LA is “a women’s high-end dress borrowing service,” but what exactly is it that you do for customers?
Basically, what we do is we provide girls with designer dresses to wear, and they pay a fraction of the price to borrow it rather than purchase it. We meet with the customer — for first-time customers, we ask them questions about their body type, how tall they are, what size they typically wear and what kind of event they’re going to — and then they let us know what style and level of dressiness they’re looking for in a dress. After we provide them with options to try on, they get to borrow the dress of their choice and we pick it up from them a week later. We like to provide girls with options of designer dresses to wear without having to go out and pay $400 to purchase one.
What gave you the idea for TheStylist LA?
I actually came up with the idea while I was at USC as an undergrad. I was interning at a fashion P.R. firm and I saw how celebrities were borrowing designer clothes to wear to events. I just thought, “Why can’t everyday girls do this?” A lot of girls borrow my clothes, and I thought it would be really cool if we could create an “ultimate closet” that girls could borrow from.
While at USC you saw other students who wanted to wear different things and have greater diversity in their own wardrobes; would you say that necessity was the mother of invention, in this case?
Yes, definitely. When I was at ’SC I started talking to girls and asking if they would be interested in a service like this and the response was overwhelming. Everyone was like, “Yeah, that sounds amazing.” And so I just kind of went from there.
Do you think that the L.A. market is uniquely accommodating to this kind of service?
It is, for a few reasons. One, there are so many potential customers in L.A., obviously. The college market was really big for us, and there are tons of schools here. But I really think the second reason why L.A. is such a good market is the fact that people are into fashion and like to dress up. There’s such an emphasis put on image and what you look like and what you’re wearing.
You mentioned college girls, but what other kinds of customers are you targeting?
I would separate our clientele into three different groups. We just started doing a lot with high school girls, actually — homecoming, prom, graduation, that type of thing — we do college women, and we also do young professional women who are in their twenties. Usually they’re working in industries like marketing, advertising or fashion, and their salaries aren’t that high but they’re expected to look a certain way. They want to be presentable and wear nice things, so that’s another great market for us.
What actually happens in your downtown L.A. showroom?
The showroom is where the dresses are, and girls can come there to try them on. That’s where we work out of — it’s like an office-showroom. But we just try to be as accessible as possible, so if some girl would rather meet in Manhattan Beach, then she can come to my apartment and try on dresses there, or we can go to the girl’s apartment with dresses for her to try on. We’re very mobile.
Do you have any plans of moving the entire operation online?
The thing that sets us apart from the competition is that girls can try the dresses on. We like to say that we’re more of a personal stylist service, so I love the fact that the girls can try the dresses on, they know that they fit, we can give them advice on what to wear with it. I never want to be solely online. A lot of customers come to us specifically because they can try the dresses on, rather than just being shipped a dress that they’re not sure is going to work for their event.
What are some things you consider when you’re helping guide a customer into a decision?
To be honest, the number one thing for me is whether they’re comfortable in it. I always say to them, “If you’re not comfortable in it, you’re not going to look as good in it.” So that’s the number one thing, and obviously what styles fit their body type best, what colors look good on them, what event they’re going to and what image they’re trying to portray. And we’re actually getting ready to launch personal shopping services to go along with that, and kind of make it more of a full personal styling service.
So you graduated USC in business entrepreneurship and then you went to FIDM for a post-graduate program in merchandise and product development. How do you think those two programs fed into your ability to run this business now?
USC was amazing because a business degree taught me the nuts and bolts of how to run a business. FIDM was amazing because I met more people in the industry and I figured out more how the fashion industry works and now, when I’m buying dresses, I have more of a technical eye for it.
Do you have any plans of ever expanding to menswear, or are you satisfied with your current foothold in the women’s market?
I would love to do men’s, but I feel really strongly right now that I want to perfect what I’m doing and really focus in this niche market, and succeed in that before I go to anything else.
How can Daily BR!NK readers contribute to your success?
Well, there are actually a few things. I always ask people to spread the word, and keep us in mind. If you have a friend who’s looking for a perfect dress for some occasion, pass along our information. I always tell girls just to meet with us to see if you can find a dress: If you don’t find one, that’s totally fine, but it’s worth it just to give the service a try. The other thing is we’re always looking for interns and brand reps — brand reps are usually students at different schools who help get the word out there and in turn they get to borrow dresses, or they get a percentage of the sales they bring in. And also just follow us on Facebook, follow us on Twitter, follow our blog.