TAMPA - The dress seemed to be everywhere.
Graceful halter neck, flattering empire waist, skirt with tiny accordion pleats, in a color called seafoam. You might see it on one woman at a party, on another at a different social event. It seemed to fit everyone, tall or small, like in that movie about the traveling pants. Carleigh Blesing wore it to a bridal shower and later glimpsed it at a wedding at the garden center.
“It’s making its rounds, doing its magic,” said Blesing, 34.
The traveling dress came from Valhalla, an unusual clothing shop tucked between an antique store and a Health Mutt pet supply on Central Avenue in the funky, historic Tampa neighborhood of Seminole Heights.
There, for $39 a month, members get what’s advertised as a “limitless closet,” borrowing from something like 6,000 used clothing items from T-shirts to kicky dresses to work-wear. They can have out three items at a time and keep them for as long as they like, and the store does the laundry. (“We do a lot of laundry,” said owner Danielle Ferrari.) Customers can also straight-out buy clothes like in a traditional resale shop, which accounts for about half of her business.
Her path to opening the doors four years ago was not a predictable one. Originally from Virginia Beach, she worked as a business manager in heavy civil construction, landing in Tampa for an Interstate 275 widening project.
“I was super stagnant in my career,” said Ferrari, 38. “I wanted to do something different.”
She thought of starting a tool rental business — “like an Airbnb for tools” — but the computer programming aspect wasn’t for her. She’d always loved used clothing. Like a lot of thrift and consignment enthusiasts, she loved the hunt, the never knowing what you might find.
She’s also a believer in sustainability and a circular economy “where you don’t produce anything and you don’t have any waste,” she said. “It just gets used over and over again.”
So Ferrari worked up a business plan and hit the clothing resale shops to build inventory. Without backers, she spent her savings. She couldn’t afford to fail.
The resale business has lots of whimsical names like Sweet Repeats or Attic Addicts, but she didn’t want cute or punny. A friend suggested Valhalla, which one dictionary defines as “a place of honor, glory or happiness: heaven.” Today she has two employees and 130 members, slimmed from 150 pre-pandemic. It helped that the shop pivoted to delivery during those months when the coronavirus was changing everything.
Customers say it’s a chance to try something without committing. They also say some finds are too good to let go. (As Blesing put it: “Yes, I do need this green crushed velvet hooded thing I can only use one day a year in Florida.”) Like the traveling dress, one baby-pink poofy skirt has been out more than a dozen times.
There’s a personal styling side to the business as well. Valhalla sets aside items — for an event, a job interview, or just because they find a something that looks right for a customer whose style they’ve come to know. Those pieces are kept on racks in the back with a customer’s name on it.
And Ferrari likes to push boundaries. To a woman who wrote down that she hated yellow, Ferrari said, “I know ... but I want you to try this yellow.”
Erica Neal, who works for the University of South Florida foundation in fundraising, won a free month at Valhalla in a raffle and became a devotee. By now they are well schooled in Neal’s love of pink, a pair of pink pants, a hot pink coat. Ferrari will find something with spot pink polka dots on a navy background and hold that item for her, Neal said.
“She really hones in on your style and personality,” said Neal, 29. “She pulls things specific to your body type.”
“It’s like you have your own little fashion glam squad army,” said Blesing, a grants specialist for the City of Tampa.
One side of the store is more conservative career clothes, the other fun. Like the neighborhood itself, it’s not particularly label conscious. If someone comes in with an especially high-end item to sell, Ferrari might send them to Labelswap, which bills itself as International Plaza-level upscale resale, so the seller can get their money’s worth.
Valhalla buys clothes in exchange for store credit. Everything is for sale, and you don’t have to be a member to shop. It costs $5 a month more to borrow jewelry.
Big businesses have jumped on the rental clothing bandwagon. Rent the Runway made its name with designer clothes and accessories, and was the first mention on a list of the 10 best clothing rental services money can buy in Elle magazine in 2019.
Blesing said she used to be a find-a-shirt-that-works-and-buy-it-in-five-different-colors kind of shopper, but since joining Valhalla realized she really likes fashion. She found a crazy dress during the pandemic that made her happy to wear on her next Zoom call. She’s worn the same borrowed blazer to interviews for job promotions and got all three.
“Next time somebody’s looking for a blazer, (Ferrari) can be like: ‘Carleigh’s had success with this,’” she said.