Fairy godmothers aren’t real, but if they were, Tanya Perilli would be one.
As you walk into her home in Sydney’s eastern suburbs, the first thing you notice is the locked closet outside the door. “That’s for returns,” she says. “So clients can leave the gowns and feel comfortable.”
And you’d want to feel confident leaving these gowns, because they run to the thousands. Inside that front door is a cornucopia of designer dresses, many taken straight from the runway. Whether you’re after a romantic Chanel resort wear dress, dramatic Dior couture or maybe a flouncy Carolina Herrera piece, you’re in luck. Perilli has about 500 of them – and if you truly can’t find something among this number, she’ll make it her mission to procure you something you love.
Perilli, a former engineer, launched her clothing rental start-up, Fashion Alta Moda, in March 2020 (“The worst timing,” she concedes), with an eye to elevating the Australian fashion rental space.
“All the young ones can go to GlamCorner but I wanted a choice,” she says. “I didn’t want to buy new clothing all the time, for every event.”
A successful civil engineer – her last major project was Emirates One & Only Wolgan Valley – Perilli wanted to pursue a new direction after her children were born. “Engineering is a really intense industry. I was on a project and some of the contractors were telling me theyd invested in a fashion designer. I was intrigued, and I’d had this idea of high-end rental. They said, ‘If you have a business plan, we will back you.’” Perilli wrote a business plan, but ultimately decided to back herself financially. “The idea was to have a retail store, an in-house laundromat. But I pulled right back and now it’s done at my house.”
It was a decision, she says, that saved her when the pandemic struck. Though fashion rental obviously slowed as events were cancelled, Perilli did not have to worry about rent and other overheads as she navigated the launch of her business amid global shutdowns.
It’s also the reason Perilli remains a tightly held secret, known only among Sydney’s style set, from magazine editors and stylists to social media stars and celebrities like
Nadia Fairfax and Rey Vakili. There is no store front or aggressive marketing: there is just Perilli, in her home, showing you through her collection of 500-odd gowns. And that, of course, is the magic.
“So I’m checking you out as you’re looking around, getting a feel for what you like and don’t like,” says Perilli as we play dress up. Perilli’s home is just that – a home – filled with Indigenous art, curious sculptures and the odd school bag. Inside her salon rooms, though, the feeling is intimate and premium. Bookshelves are lined with volumes on the world’s most covetable luxury brands, while racks of designer dresses take centre stage.
It is so comforting, in fact, that I have no trouble getting changed in front of Perilli, down to my knickers (it helps that she tells me she never wears matching underwear; stars, they’re just like us!) “And once I know what you like, I look for wild cards. Because you’re looking at the clothes like you’re in a shop, like you’re going to purchase it. But rental is different. You’re wearing it for a night, so you can take some risks.”
Rental is different. You’re wearing it for a night, so you can take some risks.
Perilli sizes me up – literally, and correctly – and together we choose a feather-light Dior gown, a strapless candy pink Adam Delpozo and a red-hot Alexander McQueen that looks as if it came straight from the Duchess of Cambridge’s closet.
A lifelong fashion lover, Perilli grew up surrounded by creativity. Her mother, a seamstress, would pore over issues of Vogue and whip up replicas of the gowns in the magazines for her daughter. But as an engineer, Perilli often tried to hide her own style.
“At the start of my career I was very deliberate about having short hair, wearing flats, never showing off my body,” she says. “That’s what I thought was expected of me. And I wanted to show people, I am here to work. But as I grew in confidence and experience, I also began showing my own style, wearing heels, great suits. You project confidence in a different way.”
It is this confidence that Perilli wants to spread to her clients, most of whom come back again and again, she says, for event dressing.
“For me, so much of the final decision is about your energy. What was your facial expression? How did you react?” As we try on the gowns, Perilli visibly lights up. “See?” she asks, squeezing my waist in the McQueen. “This is the moment I love. Seeing your face when you try these beauties on. That’s the thing I love about this.”
In Australia, the fashion rental market is dominated by GlamCorner, a ten-year-old business that supports Australian Fashion Week and has, to date, secured more than $16.5 million in funding, and to a lesser extent, The Volte, which recently took on former Harper’s Bazaar editor Kellie Hush as creative director. By comparison, Fashion Alta Moda is modest, but Perilli is wary of scaling too quickly.
“I still don’t know what a normal year looks like,” she says. Growth, she concedes, has been tricky. “I was buying gowns once a week, but I wasn’t growing fast enough to support that,” she says. “And some pieces, I know I’ll never make money from. They’re $30,000 Dior gowns. But I have to have them.”
Now, Perilli has buyers across the globe to source designers that are difficult to find in Australia, like Oscar de la Renta and Johanna Ortiz, as well as for vintage pieces that are hard to find anywhere. The idea is to wear something nobody else has seen, much less worn, and so staying small is in some ways crucial.
This intimacy has other benefits, she adds. “I never want a retail front,” she says. “My clients say, ‘Please don’t leave the house.’ This part” – she gestures to me, in the mirror – “should actually be the best part, better even than the event.” If it is, it’s because Perilli is so good at what she does. She is genuinely buzzed to see you in a gown she loves, which has a wonderful domino effect. This year, she has begun loaning formal dresses to teenage girls who live nearby – not Dior, but still from international designers – and I can imagine that her gently-gently approach would very much endear her to even the toughest of teen critics. And everything has been considered; though she does not lend accessories and shoes, Perilli has drawers of prestige jewellery and various shoe options to help customers envisage their final look as they try on gowns in her salon.
If they need a recommendation for a hair stylist or makeup artist, Perilli has suggestions on speed dial. She will take your call “in the middle of the night,” she says, and has had accessories whipped up for clients within the day.
“I want to bring back old-fashioned retail servicing,” she says. “I think customers can feel the difference here. I’m not selling you something. I am trying to help you look and feel fabulous. It’s for a night. Go a bit wild.”