It started with a problem every woman has, Seema Gohil ʼ13BUS, had nothing to wear. Turning to her best friend and future co-founder Claire Allison for help, Seema joked that borrowing clothes would be much easier if Allison’s closet were available online for easy browsing.
The more they thought about it, the more it made sense. Inspired by the on-demand economy of Airbnb and noticing the absence of everyday wear on websites like Rent the Runway, Gohil and Allison decided to launch Closet Collective, a place where women could monetize their closets, expand their wardrobe, and find eco-friendly solutions to the fast-fashion phenomenon.
Taking advice from Columbia University Senior Fellow for Entrepreneurship Steve Blank, the budding entrepreneurs did everything themselves, from designing the first website to schlepping silks and stilettos through Manhattan snowstorms. Bootstrapping will make even the most intrepid founders do the most menial tasks. But it’s not without its upside: “it’s impossible to automate something unless you understand it completely.” Allison says.
Thankfully, the entrepreneurs have been able to streamline their system so that their work day no longer consists of transporting pieces from apartment to apartment. With their “White Glove Service,” Closet Collective sends the lender a bag that she then fills with pieces to post on the site.
As every woman knows, sizing is not standard. That’s why Gohil and Allison include applicable fit information for each piece, from bust, waist, and hip measurements for tighter-fitting pieces to whether the garment runs true to size for outerwear and looser pieces. They also know the perils of online shopping and allow borrowers 48 hours to verify that the piece fits and looks great before their month-long lend time begins.
Besides making it possible for women to wear designer brands like Elizabeth & James, 3.1 Phillip Lim, Red Valentino, and Theory, Closet Collective has also developed relationships with new and emerging designers. Allison says that working with emerging designers lets them see what pieces sell, garner exposure for their brand, and enter the market without having to create a full line or be picked up by stores. Their customers also love these partnerships because it’s a chance to get designs that are unavailable anywhere else — gone are the days of awkward avoidance with your holiday party twin — and to wear new and interesting pieces.
While the Columbia’s classes were great for teaching the entrepreneurs how to conceptualize a successful business, applying knowledge practically was a challenge. But the Columbia Startup Lab was able to fill this void. The collaborative environment that’s encouraged by the Lab’s format makes it easy to learn from each other. “What’s great about the Lab is that … when one company is trying to figure out Facebook ads, there’s a company sitting next to them that can help them do it,” Allison notes. The “community sort of takes on that practical knowledge distribution.”
For the future, Closet Collective has high expectations for themselves: “There’s no reason that Closet Collective should be any smaller than Airbnb because girls have a lot more clothes and wear them every day of their lives.” They plan to continue to grow and evolve the brand and have a few partnerships that are too exciting to mention–for now. What we can say is that Gohil and Allison are on their way to bigger projects and bigger success, and they’re going to be dressed well doing it.