Student business dressed for success

By Kate Evans

Hannah Cohen/Collegian

It’s approaching Friday and your closet is looking uncomfortably bare. You need something fresh to rock at your friends’ house party mainly because you’ve had the same profile picture for an entire two weeks now and your girls will be camera clad. You decide to travel half an hour to the Holyoke Mall and spend $30 on a dress from Forever 21 that you’ll wear once and then stuff in the back of your closet.

Valerie Leikina, a senior finance and biochemistry major at the University of Massachusetts, wants to solve your fashion foes. Leikina spent the past year dreaming up, organizing and executing an independently-run business that rents dresses to students at affordable prices. LEERA Fashion Rentals, named after her Russian nickname Lera, was just launched in early November and already has an inventory reaching 100 dresses.

Though Leikina is the mastermind behind the operation, her business partners are UMass students Lola Objois, Katie Taymans and Jessica Byron. LEERA is located in Campus Center in front of Blue Wall and occasionally the UStore.

Leikina first brainstormed the idea of a dress rental business when she was shopping with her younger sister for a winter formal last January. A male friend accompanying the two was outraged at dress prices and suggested Leikina’s sister just rent one.

Her sister responded, “There’s no such thing as Mrs. Tux!”

With that remark, Leikina’s brainchild was born. She spent winter break of last year devising the concept, then emailed UMass professor James Theroux from the School of Management to set up an independent study formulating the idea.                             Once she got the go-ahead, Leikina competed for funding by developing a business plan to successfully run her company on the UMass campus with help from Professor Theroux,. When Leikina was awarded funding from the Harold Grinspoon Entrepreneurial Charitable Foundation, she spent the first two months of this semester ironing out the details of her operation.

Leikina’s two months of planning required figuring out the logistics of dress renting and returns, planning how to set up and take down racks in Campus Center daily, setting up credit card payment plans, creating a business account, strategizing  marketing, building the website, posting flyers and making announcements.

The rentals are typically for one week; however, the blossoming company is offering a special promotion called New Years Premiere. All renters get member prices plus an additional 20 percent off, and for that reduced price, can keep the dress over winter break. Leikina suggested a double package for New Years Eve and Christmas, as LEERA is decked with festive-wear.

In addition to the New Years promotion, LEERA is also offering 50 percent off all rentals for the month of December. Since there’s such little time before winter break, Leikina wants to give students a chance to afford good fashion.

“The idea is kind of like Mr. Tux, but for women,” said the fashion company’s president. She continued on to discuss pricing, saying, “The way it works is basically how you buy a Netflix package.”

The business offers a selection of packages, which range from “Solo” to “Black.” Solo is good for a one-time rental, whereas Black entails unlimited rentals for as low as $5 a dress. The other packages offer member and non-member prices for two, three and four rentals per month, with the price per rental decreasing the larger the package. By becoming a member, renters receive an additional 15% off all prices. Leikina emphasized that renting is not a commitment and credit cards won’t be automatically charged. She also stated that the business may eliminate non-member prices for next semester, which would change the current prices.

The dresses aren’t just for the bars; LEERA offers a wide selection suitable for any venue from barbeques to weddings. Brands vary from basics such as Forever 21 to more extravagant finds from BCBG, Guess, and Cache, which can range in retail value from $150-$300. The styles are constantly updating, as Leikina is currently acquiring new dresses for next semester.

Leikina is currently trying to get LEERA approved as a student run business. If approved, her goal is to establish physical roots to become more legitimate. Given more space, LEERA would expand business hours to weeknights and weekends. With a fitting room in the middle of campus center, a more private and less cramped space would be ideal for Leikina.

In the long-term, “my dream would be to take this and do it for real,” said Leikina.  She continued on to state, “I would drop all my classes now if I could, to turn (LEERA) into a real business, but that’s obviously not realistic.”

If approved as a student run business, LEERA will stick around after she graduates. The business savvy student would ideally like her company to spread to other college campuses, and possibly catch the eye of an investor. After that, she’d make her humble business idea into a larger operation, while maintaining its college roots.

“Investors are usually looking for someone with years of retail experience. Hopefully, I’ll find the necessary experience I need,” said Leikina.

In the time being, LEERA is looking for a new board member to help with a modeling promotion for the company. Many of the pictures on the rental website, LEERAfashion.com, are of the actual board members modeling the dresses.

The goal is to find new models, because as Leikina puts it, “we really want to have members with different body types. We want to promote natural body types and girls feeling beautiful in their own skin.”

Most of the current dress sizes are small and medium, with the exception of a few extra smalls, larges and extra larges. This isn’t to say that LEERA doesn’t support a healthy body image; it’s just been the majority of renters thus far.

Eager to cater to individuals’ needs, Leikina said, “If we have a member that is a size we don’t carry, we’d go get more dresses to cater to that person.”

With every dress someone lends to LEERA, the donor gets one free rental. The donated dress is returned to you at the end of the semester, and if it is damaged you are paid full retail value.

Establishing a non-profit student-run organization as her senior project on top of maintaining a double major has been incredibly time consuming for Leikina. She is determined to bring success to LEERA Fashion, one rental at a time.

Leikina can be found in Campus Center during LEERA business hours on Thursdays and Fridays from 1:30 – 5 p.m. She can be reached on her website email, [email protected], or through her Facebook group.

Kate Evans can be reached at [email protected]