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Studio Fitzroy offers a wide selection of formal and party wear for hire, giving their customers the chance to dress up in original outfits without committing to multiple expensive purchases.Simeon Ross

If a woman's perennial problem is a closet full of clothes but nothing to wear, then surely an empty wardrobe is the solution. That is effectively the case being made by a growing number of dress rental companies currently disrupting the traditional retail model by allowing customers to lease special-occasion outfits for a fraction of their purchase price.

There's New York-based industry pioneer Rent the Runway, which currently boasts more than six million members and an inventory of 100,000-plus pieces of clothing, jewellery and accessories. Canada's own Rent frock Repeat, which launched online in 2011, has surpassed 80,000 members and attracted $1.6-million of investment to date. Co-founders Lisa Delorme and Kristy Wieber spent much of that capital on opening two showrooms – one in Toronto and one in Ottawa – that translate their digital business into the real world. "We deal with those red-carpet moments in your life that are too important to risk," says Delorme of the decision to incorporate an offline component. "If the dress arrives two days before your event and doesn't fit, you're kind of screwed."

Online and off, the success of the dress rental model is hardly surprisingly considering the rise of the sharing economy. From cars to housing to evening gowns, a growing number of people are forgoing ownership to reap the variety, convenience and financial perks of consuming without commitment. Currently in Canada, renting a dress can cost anywhere from $50 to $295, depending on the value of the dress and length of the rental. Compared to shelling out for a dress at full price, that's a relatively small price to pay as social media increasingly fuels the need for one-off options. "Once you post a picture on Instagram and Facebook, that outfit is burnt," says Mélodie Damour, founder of Montreal's La Petite Robe Noire. Fortunately for Damour and her counterparts, the cachet of clothing rentals has only improved. "When we first opened [in 2014], our customers didn't like mentioning their dresses were rented," she says. "Two years later, it's trendy to be ecological and economical."

Marissa Schwartz, a Toronto-based stylist and costume designer, agrees. "The biggest upside in renting for me is that it is a great way to lower your environmental impact," she says. "There is so much waste these days, and this is a small and special way to reduce and recycle." Schwartz has become a regular client of one of Toronto's newest dress rental shops, Studio Fitzroy. Fitzroy's founders, Julie Buczkowski and Angela Pastor, initially launched their business in the form of a more traditional online store bolstered by frequent pop-up shops. This October, the pair opened a permanent space in Little Portugal. "We were constantly getting requests from people wanting to borrow dresses for events, or stylists wanting to pull pieces for shoots," says Pastor. "We realized there was a rental market for our style of boho-glam party dresses. We tested it out over the summer during wedding season, and it was a huge success."

Aside from providing a budget-friendly alternative to buying new clothes, rental services also offer women the chance to step outside their comfort zones. "We specifically pick the sorts of dresses you wouldn't necessarily have in your closet," says Buczkowski. The prospect of experimentation can be equally enticing to brands looking to market-test their designs. "A platform like Rent frock Repeat can give you national exposure," says Delorme. "If you have a bunch of dresses that aren't moving, or want to see whether a dress will do well, it's a great way to test product without an outlay of cash."

With global investments in sharing start-ups totalling more than $12-billion, and ever more holiday parties, work functions and charity galas to attend, dress rentals could become as commonly used among women as Uber and Airbnb. To reach that point, women will just have to see an empty closet full of opportunity.