We’ve heard it in songs, catch phrases, and quoted soundbites from any number of influential figures – the idea that “everything old is new again” is one of those timeless maxims to which we all knowingly nod our heads.  Nowhere is this more evident than in the cyclical whims of the fashion industry – one year’s trendy garment is the next year’s back-of-the-closet dust collector (but the next decade’s trendy garment once again). 

Even though we’ve all heard the phrase, it’s amazing how many business ideas overlook that proverbial wisdom when constructing a new venture.  Rohvi, a service that allows local shoppers to purchase clothing items, wear them for up to six months, and then return them in exchange for 30% of the original purchase price in store credit towards a new item, is certainly not one of those businesses.  Instead, Rohvi makes that adage the very core of its value proposition on both a large and small scale.  I recently spoke with founders Sara Whiffen and Beth Crooker (their third co-founder Greer Johnson unfortunately couldn’t join us) to hear the big and small ways in which they’re helping the shopping industry to beget new from old.

The Macro – Redefining an Industry’s Current Assumptions

“There’s something positive about the shopping experience – touch, feel, social.  We still see a role for brick and mortar stores,” says Whiffen.  “…Amazon was supposed to put all bookstores out of business but now they’re actually building bookstores.  We’re [now] seeing there’s something valuable about the tangible experience [even in this digital age].” 

The idea for Rohvi came to Sara last year during a walk home from one of Charlottesville’s popular shopping centers, the roster of which had been rapidly changing.  As a savvy businesswoman who was already deeply plugged into Charlottesville’s startup and small business community, the influx of big brand stores naturally got her thinking about how this might be affecting the local boutiques she and other Charlottesville residents treasured.

While she felt certain that there would always be a place for – perhaps even a resurgence of interest in – physical shopping experiences, Whiffen still believed that there was a lot to learn from the online shopping models that had clearly transformed the industry.  She began contemplating how online options had successfully recognized new clothing/shopping routines.  Women no longer seem to keep and wear a few quality pieces for years on end, but they’ve also grown tired of bulging closets filled with items they no longer gravitate towards.  Online models such as Stitchfix or LeTote had begun to tread the middle ground, finding a way to balance wearing new, trendy items with keeping your clothing bill – and your wardrobe – small and tidy.

Whiffen grew excited about the idea of translating this wear-and-return movement to the brick-and-mortar space, so she sought out Crooker’s coding background/tech knowledge and Johnson’s vast understanding of the boutique world (Whiffen got to know Johnson as the owner of duo, a local Charlottesville clothing store).  These two heavy-hitters quickly came on board, and Whiffen guided the team with her startup know-how and the effectual principles she had embraced as a longtime collaborator with UVA’s own Saras Sarasvathy.  Like a familiar garment with a novel twist, the silhouette of Rohvi began to take shape.

The Micro – Giving Clothing a Second Life

The spirit of reinvention pervades every aspect of Rohvi’s operations, not just the original big idea.  Rohvi users gain the benefit of their worn clothing becoming a credit toward a new item, but those “old” items they return also live a second life.  Rohvi collects and sells these pieces in a secondary market, allowing other would-be fashionistas to participate in trends on a timeline and budget that works for them.  Even the name, Rohvi, straddles old and new worlds – it takes the latin root vi (“a means of” or “way to”) and combines it with the ro of rotate, a word that gets at the heart of what Rohvi wants to do for shoppers’ closets.

Looking Ahead

The trio behind Rohvi doesn’t shy away from the idea that they aren’t the typical depiction of a tech startup team; in fact, they wholly embrace it.  The all-female group of varying tenures and backgrounds believes that they embody a new paradigm of what an entrepreneur can be.  And each day, they’re learning to weave new ideas into old ones more seamlessly.  Crooker, whose coding background she originally worried was too dated, has realized that the techniques she already knew could easily coexist with and enhance the new ones she’s learned – “the logic is the same, but the tools are just different.”

As shoppers, each of us will continue to make the occasional purchase that we live to regret (I’m talking about you, excruciatingly high heels).  So next time you buy that killer pair of shoes that’s more killer(-ly painful) than you anticipated, think of Rohvi.  And then when you inevitably do it again, they’ll be there, offering you another chance to trade them in for a comfy, stylish pair of flats.  Everything old – even that voice that tells you you’ll be able to tolerate those heels this time around – will ultimately be new again.

Anonymous