In 2017, Christine Hunsicker ’99 sat down with the clothing retailer Ann Taylor and suggested something unusual: to rent out its clothing. Mall traffic was down, clothing sales were dropping industrywide, and something had to change. But Hunsicker’s proposal sounded like it might make things worse. After all, people pay less to rent a shirt than to buy it.
Hunsicker explained why the opposite was true: People would spend more overall if they could access the company’s entire catalog through a website for a flat fee, and wear and return things by mail whenever they felt like it. Hunsicker knew this because she had spent the past four years running Gwynnie Bee, an online clothing-rental service that allows subscribers to choose, receive, and return clothing by mail, for a monthly fee.
“When they’re buying, they stick to practical things they can wear over and over again, like black pants,” she says. “But when they rent, they buy loud things, colorful things, more fashiony statement items. They’re willing to experiment more.”
Ann Taylor took the plunge and signed on to use CaaStle, the technology and logistics platform Hunsicker had developed to run clothing-rental services. Soon more brands signed on, including Express, Banana Republic, and recently, Bloomingdale’s. Today, CaaStle employs about 500 people and supports 13 brands, according to Hunsicker. CaaStle powers every aspect of clothing rental, from the website and database to cleaning, shipping, and handling returns.
The idea for Gwynnie Bee — the first step toward building CaaStle — came to Hunsicker after a decade working at startups. She served as president and COO of Right Media, which was bought by Yahoo!, then as COO of Drop.io, which was acquired by Facebook. By 2011, she felt ready to create her own company and started researching different industries. She and her partners were intrigued by apparel — a $2 trillion industry that, compared to other categories like books and electronics, had been slow to move online. Soon after, Hunsicker read an article about Netflix’s rental model, and something clicked. The result, in 2012, was Gwynnie Bee. (Initially, it specialized in plus sizes, but now offers other sizes as well.)
Mall traffic was down, clothing sales were dropping industrywide, and something had to change.
Inevitably, there were hiccups along the way. Though Hunsicker had received positive feedback to the idea while doing preliminary research, when Gwynnie Bee first launched, hardly anyone signed up. It turned out that the photographs of the clothing were unappealing, so the company reshot everything with the help of a stylist, and business took off. Cleaning the clothes was another logistical hurdle. The company eventually switched from outsourcing to building its own cleaning capabilities, which sped up turnaround times.
Having proven that subscription-based clothing rental could work, Hunsicker started taking the idea — and the systems she had built to power Gwynnie Bee — to traditional retailers. Thanks in part to that early fateful meeting with Ann Taylor, the business has expanded into its current incarnation as CaaStle. (Gwynnie Bee still exists, as one of the brands under the CaaStle umbrella. )
Being in the clothing-rental business has changed the way Hunsicker dresses, too. At Princeton, she “lived in T-shirts and jeans,” she recalls, but today she finds herself taking more risks “simply because I’m not committing to anything. That lack of commitment is quite freeing.”