Sophie Miller interviews Ensemble founder Margaux Wollner about the inspiration for St Andrews’ first student-run dress rental service.
Photos by Sam Chinomona, c/o Ensemble.
The end of one’s first year at St Andrews is usually a profound relief – your exams are over, all your deadlines have been met, you’re officially no longer a “fresher”, ever the subject of derision. It seems only natural to take a step back for the summer, give yourself some breathing room before the onslaught of work coming in September. For Margaux Woellner, however, this was not the case. Instead of taking a well-deserved break following the conclusion of her first year, she decided to bring her idea of a local, crowd-sourced dress rental service to fruition. Three months later, Ensemble was born.
“It kept hitting me over and over,” says Woellner of her impetus to get to work. “People would just keep saying, ‘Oh, I really wish I could go to this ball, but I don’t have a dress,’ ‘I wish I could go to this ball but I can’t afford a dress,’ or ‘I’ve already worn this dress.’” She had caught onto something. Rent the Runway, a larger online service in the same vein, has become beloved by millions of users across the globe since its establishment in 2008. Woellner’s service, though, offers a unique and student-friendly twist: the dresses are crowd-sourced, meaning that none of them were actually purchased by Woellner herself. They were donated for temporary rental by students all over St Andrews, and each time someone’s dress is rented out, they get a portion of the sales. This is the savviest facet of an already-shrewd business model. “We all only want to wear our dresses one time, we’re not going to reuse them; it’s stigmatised if you do,” explains Woellner.
But businesses aren’t just born of an impetus – they must be grown and cultivated. This is something that Woellner learned from her father. “My dad owns his own business, and his whole side of the family is super, super entrepreneurial. It’s always been what I want to do, run a business. My dad’s been a huge help, and he’s been a huge inspiration for me.” The apple seems not to have fallen far from the tree. While working this summer in London, Woellner began to build the basis for Ensemble, all while keeping an eye on female entrepreneurs like herself. “It’s so empowering to me when it’s a woman running a business. In my mind, that’s what it should be,” she expresses. And in this age of women’s empowerment, strong female voices, and He For She, having Woellner, a dynamic female entrepreneur, at the helm of Ensemble is a massive advantage for her business.
Another reason behind Ensemble’s burst onto the St. Andrews scene? Woellner’s relationship with her consumer base. She describes her ideal clients as simply “St Andrews girls. I don’t think it would be one ideal girl, the one who wants to rent the most expensive dress. It’s the girls who say, ‘Ok, I need a dress tomorrow, I’m so stressed, I don’t have anything to wear.’ I just want to make one thing easier.” The genius thing about Woellner’s enterprise is that she is one of those girls. She didn’t need to seek out a client base; all she had to do was text her friends. Simply by recognising a problem that affected girls she knew and communicated with on a daily basis, Woellner built her business around them and struck gold.
Woellner doesn’t know where Ensemble will be in three years, when she graduates from St Andrews. “I do want to go to grad school in The States, but if it takes off, and I feel that it’s really actually helping people, then I would really love to [continue with the business.]” Regardless of the future, though, for now, Ensemble is becoming more viable by the day, and with its upcoming fashion show at The Saint (the Ensemble Exposé, being held this Wednesday, October 10), it is officially a fixture of the St Andrews community.
For more information on Ensemble and their upcoming event, find them on Facebook and Instagram: @ensembledressrental.