By Narelle Coulter
“COME into our Camilla cave,” beckons Robyn Pulford.
She heads up a flight of stairs, her loose silk top flowing behind her, to a loft studio where she and business partner Kate Delaney store their Aladdin’s Cave of dresses, kaftans and playsuits by leading Australian designer Camilla Franks.
The long-term friends are the owners of Share Our Camillas, an online business they started 12 months ago.
The studio, at Kate’s beautiful Berwick home, is full of racks of colourful silk dresses, kaftans, skirts and playsuits.
Strewn around are Camilla cushions, beaded purses, scarves and jewellery.
Share Our Camillas is part of the burgeoning online hire culture in which customers rent expensive items of clothing they could not otherwise afford.
“The whole concept is taking off in Australia,” Robyn said.
“You don’t buy, you rent.”
Robyn and Kate, who met when their children attended St Margaret’s School, were Camilla fans long before starting their business.
“We used to joke about how many we had collectively,” Kate said, estimating that they owned at least 80 Camilla pieces between them.
“We’ve both worn Camilla for a number of years since she first brought her range out about 10 to 12 years ago.
“We have both been very keen on the product for a long time,” added Robyn.
“At the end of last year Kate said to me that her daughter and nieces were hiring things so why don’t we start a little business.
“It’s been hard work but from where we were 12 months ago to now, we’ve got a lot more sophisticated. We are learning and getting better at it each time.”
Social media has been the key to Share Our Camillas’ success.
The women have used Instagram to build a customer base of more than 9000 followers.
Kate has driven the social media side of the business.
“It’s definitely been an Instagram thing,” said Kate.
“You have to really work on growing your business and part of that is becoming media savvy. It’s no use buying followers because they are not going to buy anything from you.”
“I agree with Kate,” added Robyn. “It’s no use having them (followers) unless they are genuinely interested in your product.”
Kate and Robyn recently finished the mammoth task of photographing the 300 pieces in their collection for their new website.
The business attracts a range of customers from teenage girls wanting a special piece to wear to an 18th or 21st, through to more mature women who love the drape and flow of silk, Camilla’s signature fabric.
“The clothes are comfortable,” Robyn said.
“Silk is really great to wear. It drapes beautifully on all shapes and sizes. And they aren’t just summer outfits, we wear them all year round. We live in Camilla.”
Kate adds: “We have customers from 16 right through to my mum, and she’s 75.”
Customers can hire a Camilla for a weekend for about $130, or take a piece away with them on holiday for a two-week hire.
Playsuits and jumpsuits are slightly cheaper at $80-$90 for a weekend.
The retail cost of a Camilla starts at around $400.
The concept of an online hire business was sown when Kate hired a dress for her daughter’s school formal.
“I was in Thailand for the week when she was at her school formal so I wanted to be organised way before.
“We’d heard about these hiring sites so I hired a dress for her from Perth.
“It always stuck in my mind because she got voted best dressed. It was $900 dress, which I never would have paid.”
Robyn said there are two types of hire customers: those who are proud of the fact they have hired a garment and are willing to share images of themselves on social media and “the other school of thought is ‘I’m not telling anyone I’ve hired this’”.
“Younger girls are really happy to talk about us all the time. They are very happy to say it’s from Share Our Camillas.”
Robyn and Kate use young brand ambassadors to promote their business, like model Chantelle Price.
“Every time she posts something we get heaps of new followers,” said Kate.
They say their business has been slowly embraced by the Camilla corporation (they have never met Camilla herself) who no longer see share businesses as a threat, but recognise that Robyn and Kate cater for a different segment of the market – those who wouldn’t normally afford to wear the brand at all.
Robyn said their aim was to get 10 per cent of followers hiring regularly.
“We know the market is there, the concept is more accepted all the time. We work on word of mouth and back it up with good service and product.”