A dress can be the beginning of a new life. That’s Margo den Ouden’s (31) credo, the founder and managing director of 46 Dresses. She gave up her good salary for something bigger: running a foundation and making a difference. Her goal? Reaching out to every woman who’s going through a rough time and treating her to a new dress.
Margo’s a communication strategist, public speaker, writer, wife, and mom (of her two-year-old son James). She chose to make an impact in women’s lives over being a money-making machine. Margo: “When I started 46, my husband (who is my biggest support) and I looked at our incomes and our expenses and decided to cut back on a lot to make 46 come true. It helped me realize that true happiness comes from adding value to other people’s lives. It has nothing to do with money.”
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What is the concept of 46 Dresses exactly?
Margo: “46 Dresses is a foundation that gives women in financially difficult situations or seasons a brand new dress (+ shoes). We are a social enterprise; we are partly self-sustaining and partly dependent on funds and individual donations. The self-sustaining part: we are renting out exclusive dresses women love to wear to red carpet parties or weddings. For every 10 rent-outs, we buy a brand new dress for a woman in need.”
What does a dress mean to you, personally?
Margo: “I love how Cecile Narinx (author of ‘Geluk is een jurk’) writes about dresses: ‘A dress can make a difference between a girl and a woman, between a wall flower and a vamp, between making an impression or staying unnoticed.’ What you wear tells your story to the finesses, more than the music you are listening to and the books you read – because those are not so close to your skin. A dress underlines your personality. A dress can contain history, an ode or a reference, promising a radiant future. A dress can be the beginning of a new life.”
How did you come up with the idea?
Margo: “For years I was looking for a sense of meaning in my job as a communication strategist for several companies. On a birthday party, I had a conversation with a beautiful woman. She told me how happy she was with the secondhand leather bag she was given, despite holes in the upholstery. Her gratitude for receiving something like this hit me. She confessed that she was in financial distress for years now, consequently unable to buy herself anything, making this bag particularly special. That evening I opened my wardrobe and glanced at all my dresses; I had 50 of them! I took out a light blue dress I had never worn, and thought: ‘This one is for her.’ When I gave her the dress, her response was another defining moment. She told me she had not felt so feminine and appreciated in years. I realized that if a single dress could make someone feel seen and empowered, I didn’t want to stop there. If I could rent out my remaining dresses, I could buy new ones out of the profits, reaching many more women.”
How many dresses have you donated to other women yet?
Margo: “Since January 2015 we have donated over 30 new dresses and recently started plugging in women into our network, helping them with jobs, entrepreneurship and other skills.”
Can anyone borrow a dress?
Margo: “Yes! The women that borrow dresses are diverse; they vary from people who work in the spotlight to women in corporate business who attend a wedding or have something else to celebrate. All these women can afford to buy a new dress; most of them lead a very comfortable life. But they don’t need to own/buy something new all the time. They love what we do and they love giving back. It’s a win-win situation.”
What if someone wants to try the dress on first?
Margo: “As we are still working on our web shop, women check out our dresses on our Facebook page. They email us the dress they want to rent and stop by to try it on in our showroom. 99 percent of the dresses they select look perfect on them. The women featured/ photographed in the dresses (by Alice Mahran, among others) are not models. We want every woman who wants to borrow a dress to relate with them. This has been very successful. The dresses only come in one size, so if you know your size, you’ll have a perfect fit for sure. We are hoping to launch our webshop in June with a super friendly and easy reservation system to make the ‘renting’ part more accessible and easy.”
Is there a particular story of a woman who lent one of your dresses that really made an impact on you?
Margo: “A couple months ago I drove to the southern part of the Netherland to a woman called Anne. I was running late and I regretted it. Punctuality is very important to me. I still wanted to buy a beautiful bouquet of roses, as we do for every woman, but I had to choose; arrive too late with roses, or on time without. I opted for being on time. Without flowers, I arrived at Anne’s home, a small, damp studio. Anne was a self-employed copywriter who had lost most of her assignments due to the financial crisis. Despite her condition, she spoke very hopefully about her future. On her small wooden dining table, I noticed a few beautiful handmade cards with bright colors and quotes like ‘You are enough’ in calligraphy. ‘You are so talented!’ I exclaimed. ‘Oh, I don’t think of it as good, I’m a nobody.’ She said. ‘No, you are talented!’ I insisted – because she was. ‘If you ever want to sell your cards, let me know and we will connect you to someone in our network.’ Anne was not sure how to receive the compliment and we let the subject rest to start the dress-fittings which Anne loved. She chose a midi dress in velvet green that would be perfect for weddings and parties coming up and she looked stunning. I prepared to leave. I packed my things and was ready to hug her at her doorstep when suddenly she ran back inside. ‘Wait, I have something for you!’ She came back with a beautiful bouquet of roses and I couldn’t stop myself from getting teared up.
A week later she sent me an email; ‘I want to start a small business, selling my cards. Do you want to help me?’ And that is what we are doing now.”
Is there a dress you don’t lend out?
Margo: “My wedding dress. My husband vetoed this dress. We did a video shoot for 46 Dresses a couple months ago, and I needed a white dress. I told one of the models to wear my wedding dress. My husband was not amused. We can now laugh about it.”
What pleases you the most, doing this?
Margo: “We work with a team of 20 volunteers and have a very active, sweet, loving online community of followers. What pleases me the most is seeing the effects/ the power that rises when all these women involved in 46 magnify the beauty in one another.”
What has been the most difficult part of growing this business?
Margo:”The most difficult and the most rewarding: making something out of nothing.”
What was the biggest sacrifice you’ve made running 46 Dresses?
Margo: “Giving up my good salary. The first 1,5 year of 46 Dresses, I was only investing, not making any money. We chose to make an impact in women’s lives over being a money-making machine. When I started 46, my husband (who is my biggest support) and I looked at our incomes and our expenses and decided to cut back on a lot to make 46 come true. It helped me realize that true happiness comes from adding value to other people’s lives. It has nothing to do with money.”
In five years time, what do you hope you’ve accomplished? Any big dreams?
Margo: “We want to become a large network of women sharing skills, contacts, business opportunities, and mentorship. Also, we want to scientifically prove what we do (activating women to dream more, do more and become more by making them feel seen and calling out the gold in them). For this, we have the help of a number of experts in this area, such as an epidemiologist, sociologist, and psychologist.”
Best career lesson you learned along the way?
Margo: “I have a few! Stay positive, even after the 100th ‘no’. See the bigger picture. Always. And under promise, over deliver.”
Can Chapter Friday-readers donate a dress? How does it work?
Margo: “Yes, we are always looking for elegant, classy (red carpet) dresses that are as new! We keep adding new dresses to the collection so we can reach more women.”
Photos by the talented Iris Dorine.