When Kristin McNelis Marchese, MBA ’16, needed something to wear, she asked a friend if she could borrow a dress.
She instead became the very first customer of Armoire, a clothing rental startup founded in 2016 by her classmate Ambika Singh, MBA ’16, who also serves as its CEO.
“It wasn’t actually by intention that I became the first customer, but that’s what happened,” says Marchese, who, as a fellow Sloanie, was following the young venture’s progress at the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship. “One of the early investor decks even included my $149 Venmo charge for the first month of service.”
After graduation, Marchese worked for several years in the beverage industry, and she continued renting her clothing via Armoire to keep up with changing work dress codes and ever-evolving styles. She was still a member when she reunited with her former classmate to become the company’s chief marketing officer in 2021.
“Many of our employees started as customers. Because of that, they see the promise of what we’re building in a very intimate way,” says Singh. “They’re inspired to keep building.”
In each other’s corners
Like the dozens of other startups in the 2016 MIT delta v cohort, Armoire required assistance to get its ideas off the ground.
Aid usually came in the form of the discussions, practice pitch meetings, and entrepreneurial advisors the education accelerator provided. The chance encounter, random conversation, or occasional reference could be the make or break for these young companies. The latter would prove to be the case for Armoire, as breaking into the world of retail apparel and fashion would prove to be quite daunting without the brand recognition wielded by industry giants.
For example, to open a new wholesale account, Armoire had to obtain a reference from another wholesaler. Requiring references is an understandable and common practice in many industries, but such standards can be quite challenging for new, less well-connected companies. Thankfully, a Trust Center connection had an in with a local women-owned brand, Brass.
“They gave us a chance on being a wholesale account,” says Singh. “When we needed someone to take a chance on us, it was a women-owned brand that was willing to do it. Women and BIPOC-owned companies have been in our corner, and we have tried to be in theirs.”
To that end, Armoire has used its platform to provide an accessible marketplace for smaller, younger companies founded, owned, and operated by women and people from diverse, underrepresented groups.
“We offer a brick-and-mortar opportunity for these brands at our headless boutique in Seattle, Armoire Go. Many of them don’t have their own retail spaces. For our customers, it’s something that they’re looking for. They want to be able to shop from brands that align with their values,” says Marchese. “Because it’s not just about the rental clothing space, but about finding other ways to live our values and mission.”
The power of values
During her 2016 MIT delta v Demo Day presentation, Singh spoke at length about Armoire’s use of machine learning algorithms to save valuable time and closet space for professional women.
Since moving from Boston to Seattle, weathering the pandemic, and growing into a much larger organization, Armoire has developed a renewed understanding of its customer base: women, especially mothers, who must juggle numerous personal and professional responsibilities out of necessity.
“The consumer that we’re talking about is the working mom who enjoys being able to dress up and look great, but also is perhaps the busiest among us. She is holding up our families, our communities, and our workplaces, and she wants to look good while doing it all,” says Singh.
She also, according to customer survey data, has developed and maintained a very strong set of values that influences her buying decisions. Singh believes that acknowledging and empowering these values is paramount to what Armoire is trying to accomplish, both with its customers and its employees—many of whom, like Marchese, were subscribers before they were recruited to join the team.
“The difference between us being middle-of-the-road successful and really successful are the humans who make up Armoire and the company’s ability to let them shine,” says Singh.