The Interview: Shika Bodani, Founder, Front Row

Shika Bodani

Shika Bodani studied and worked in finance, but it was her passion for fashion and sustainability that led her to launch luxury women’s designer rental service, Front Row, in 2016.

The coronavirus pandemic and lockdown gave her and her team time to look at how they can better the business model as it develops, which Bodani believes is “the future of fashion”. As lockdown struck, they also added being able to purchase certain designer pieces on the website – timely as the rental market was severely hit.

Bodani tells us her story so far:

What’s your background?

I originally studied computer science and business and then went on to study finance. Then I joined a private equity firm. It was actually while I was studying in New York at NYU that I came across Rent the Runway. That was in 2013 and they were very big at the time. It inspired me, and I saw that there wasn’t many companies in that area in the UK. I originally thought of starting a clothes swap business. I’d always been very passionate about fashion and sustainability, and I decided to start Front Row in 2016.

How did you start up?

It was a bit of trial and error. I did some research into Rent the Runway and other different rental platforms that were out there. I originally launched my concept it as a family and friends ‘clothes user’ group website on a trial basis. I actually started it with my own clothing as I just wanted to test the market and gauge demand. Then at the end of 2016 I opened it up and rolled it out to the whole of the UK.

How did you get the word out and promote it?

At the beginning it was word of mouth, though we did a bit of marketing and advertising on various social media platforms, as well as Google. In 2019, we were growing the business very organically. It’s been in the last year that I’ve seen there really has been the demand, so I’ve decided to really ramp up the business. During the lockdown period due to coronavirus we looked at redeveloping the website, so we are making some changes online.

How does Front Row work?

We typically offer five-day rentals on our website. My understanding of our client base now is they tend to go away on short holidays or events abroad, so five days allows them the flexibility. However, we are thinking of introducing shorter and longer rental periods. In fact, if you contact us directly, we are able to accommodate shorter or longer rental periods now, it’s just not evident on the website as yet. While we do own some of the stock featured on the website, we do have a consignment model which allows individuals or businesses to rent out their designer pieces through our established platform.

Front Row

So, do brands come to you?

We currently don’t work with any designers directly, but we have a number of individuals who have designer pieces in their wardrobes that they rent out to our platform. But we are looking to start having conversations with designers, as I do truly believe that this is the future of fashion. The industry is moving in this direction.

If it costs £140 to rent a Fendi knitted top for five days that belongs to one of your individual clients, how much of that do they get and what do you take?

Our clients get 60% of the rental fee across the board. So, we take 40% and offer a fully managed consignment service. We do everything in terms of dry cleaning and maintaining the pieces, photographing them and putting them on the platform. They don’t have to do anything, aside from initially sending us some informal images of the pieces they are looking to rent.

What criteria has to be met for designer pieces to be accepted for your platform?

The images potential renters send us can now be uploaded on to our website for our team to access. That’s a new feature on the website. The pieces have to be in good condition – that is the main criteria. We have a very good curation team and they have a lot of experience in knowing exactly which pieces our clients will be most interested in to rent. We pride ourselves on our curation.

What designers are most in demand?

Pieces by Alexandre Vauthier are usually very in demand, mainly party dresses which are very seasonal. Party dresses generally do very well for us, though obviously there wasn’t demand for them during lockdown. Balmain is another designer usually high in demand, and Chanel does exceptionally well on our website. Through the winter months, we also offer designer skiwear, and Fendi and Moncler do very well on that side.

When did you add the sale section to the website?

We actually decided to launch a sale section on our website at the beginning of this year. We’d been discussing it for quite a while and we were able to launch it as we went into lockdown, so luck was on our side. We’ve found that to be very popular. A lot of people were buying pieces during lockdown as opposed to renting them. However, as restrictions have been lifted, we have noticed that there has been a huge uptake in demand for rentals – especially with people planning holidays and summer trips.

How was rental performing during the height of the pandemic?

It actually came to a grinding halt. As with a lot of businesses, it impacted us because our business is mainly events driven. However, it did allow us to relook at our strategy, focus on the new website and make changes to improve the luxury service that we offer. While our rentals weren’t doing too well previously, we have seen a huge increase in demand in more recent weeks as we have a lot of clients who have been planning trips abroad and therefore renting pieces. I’m hoping that it continues in that direction.

How did you go about curating pieces to sell rather than rent?

We contacted each of our consignees and asked them if they were interested in selling their pieces. We then listed those that were. We had some pieces that had only recently been uploaded prior to lockdown – some really beautiful eveningwear, so it became quite a large sale section. It’s now something we are going to keep on the website, especially for pieces that perhaps aren’t working as well on rental or have reached their ceiling in terms of usability. 

What percentage of sales do consignees get?

They get 90% of the sale value, and we take a 10% cut. We did some market research – looking at other business models out there – to judge what is generally acceptable to charge for both rental and sales on our platform.

 

Who would you say is your real target market?

Originally, when I decided to set up the business, I anticipated that our target audience would be very similar to Rent the Runway, so young working professionals in their 20’s to early 30’s, who may not have had access to such luxury designers before. They use the platform as an aspirational service in order to have access to new and established designers and familiarise themselves with them. But I’ve been pleasantly surprised to see that our target audience ranges from mid-20’s all the way up to late 50’s. So, we have two main target audiences, with older women, who are very familiar with these brands, just getting more savvy on over consumption – with more of a focus on sustainability. They don’t want to go out and buy that extra dress for an event they may have coming up, as they now prefer to rent.

What sort of pieces are in the top tier of your rental price structure?

We do have some gowns that are around £850 to rent for five days. We have an Alexander McQueen gown, for instance, which is a couture piece which was over £10,000 to purchase. We do have a particular client base that are interested in those type of pieces. It’s especially the case with gowns, as you typically only wear them once or twice. Once you’ve posted that picture on social media and it’s out there then, if you own it, it’s going to go into the back of your wardrobe. So, it makes sense to rent it.

Are you the sole owner of the business?

It’s just myself at the moment, however, this year we were planning on gearing up for investment. Unfortunately, with the current situation, it’s thrown a big spanner in the works. So, we are now aiming to raise investment towards the end of this year, or the beginning of 2021.

What other plans for the future do you have?

We’ve been thinking about launching a subscription-based service whereby clients would pay a monthly fee to gain access to X-number of key pieces and handbags – with Chanel handbags always proving extremely popular. With handbags, we tend to find that people are very brand loyal. Effectively, on the whole, the subscription service would be a rotation wardrobe concept. We’ve also explored launching designer menswear and childrenswear, as there seems to be quite a big market for both. So, there’s a lot in the pipeline and we’re hoping to roll some of these out by the end of the year.

Is rental the way forward?

Absolutely. As unfortunate as this situation has been with the coronavirus pandemic, I think it has thrown a big spotlight on the fashion industry and how unsustainable it currently is. And I think we’ve seen a lot of changes with designers recently – adopting fewer seasons per year, with a focus on lower consumption and less production. I definitely think that it will play into the whole role of rental, and I believe that will become a pivotal business model for designers to consider going forward.