Creating local Cinderella stories

Perseverance: Leesa and Claudia Cassar bought Dressed to the Nine's event dress hire as a new lease on life following a car accident that left Leesa unable to work. Photo: Zaida Glibanovic



TUCKED away in little old Newborough is the stylish and totally glamorous designer dress hire boutique, Dressed to the Nine’s.

Leesa and Claudia Cassar, the mother and daughter duo, bought Dressed to the Nine’s in late March 2023, renting out designer dresses for budget-friendly prices.

Leesa’s business story is one of persistence and resilience after having had a car crash in 2019 which has left her unable to hold down traditional work.

Once an aged care nurse, Leesa was fit and healthy and loved her caring job, but post the incident, Leesa suffered extensive injuries.

Having 38 per cent whole-body impairment, lymphatic system failure from her legs being crushed, two slipped disks in her back, and severe post-traumatic stress disorder, Leesa found herself unable to work and without a purpose.

The Transport Accident Commission helped support Leesa on her return to work, but she was told she was unemployable and a liability to her previous employer and was let go shortly after.

“I worked full-time in aged care nursing, and I had a car accident back in 2019 which left me with permanent injuries,” Leesa recalled.

“I lost my job because of a car accident: After 12 months, they sacked me and told me I was unemployable. Then I lost my nursing registration because I hadn’t done the 20 hours of education every year, I fought to get that back, and I did, but it was a long haul.

“Through TAC, they put me through job rehabilitation, but honestly, no one was going to employ me. So I would sit quite depressed, put on some weight and thought, ‘I can’t live like this; I’ve got to do something’, so I did.”

A business was one of Leesa’s main ideas; knowing she had a keen interest in fashion but also in the community, she wanted to do something that would benefit her, her family and the locals.

Purchasing Dressed to the Nine’s as an established business, neglected by previous owners who were busy with other endeavours, Leesa “Jumped at the opportunity” and found her purpose in bringing her daughter Claudia along for the ride.

Turning to her daughter, Leesa said, “I have no idea about social networks. I said to her, I’ve got a business now what do I do with it?”

Claudia, Leesa’s daughter, takes charge of the bookings and online presence of the business.

Renting a dress can be the most affordable for those people looking to dress up for a night, with a price range from $25 to $105 for a dress to keep things “on a budget,” Claudia says.

“The dresses you would hire from us are dresses no one can ever really buy for $105,” Claudia said as she showcased Leesa wearing a $500 dress.

Leesa explained how the dresses in stock are of the utmost quality and grandeur, with high-end brands like Zimmerman, Aje, Sir the Label and Sheike.

Recently, the pair got to dress up for the 2023 Gippsland Pride initiative pride gala, getting to parade their Aje Manifestation gown priced at an eye-watering $895.

“If you like those high-end brands, you’re better off spending that $105 and getting to wear it, feeling special and feeling excited rather than having to buy it and then resell it on Facebook marketplace,” Claudia said.

Leesa said that Dressed to the Nine’s caters to everyone, for all price ranges, body shapes, styles and time constraints.

“We did a bit of research when we bought the business, and a lot of places only go to a 12 or 14,” she said

“We’ve got dresses that go to a 22, which I thought everybody should have the opportunity to get a dress,” Leesa added.

Looking to expand into other markets, dressed to the nine’s are looking into getting some designer shoes, with already a pair of Jimmy Choo’s on hand; they also are looking at expanding their collection of designer handbags and other accessories like jewellery and headwear so customers can rent their entire outfit form their one-stop shop.

Unique, accessible and inclusive is how the business could be described, operating unconventional hours so anyone can access their service.

“I had someone come through at 8pm the other day; she said she had to wait for her husband to come home. She had children. You know I get it. I’m a mum, too, so it’s so hard. I also don’t have time to go dress shopping,” Claudia said.

The service that Dressed to the Nine’s promotes is a circular economy in textiles that has yet to be instated in the fashion industry, and serves as a sustainable and environmentally-friendly fashion practice.

“How often do you go to buy something, buy it and try it out at home and don’t even like it,” asked Leesa.

Australians are pretty wasteful when it comes to shopping. According to an Australian government-commissioned report into textile waste, the average Aussie buys 56 clothing items yearly, with a similar amount discarded in the same time frame.

The second-hand marketplace has been a godsend for fashion lovers to buy, swap and sell items, however it can be quite a tedious operation to post a listing online, sort through lowballs and scammers and arrange pick-up or postage. The Cassar family business takes the hassle out of the dress-buying ordeal with even the dry cleaning provided in the service.

The idea to rent a dress at affordable prices comes at a time when most households are suffering from a cost of living crisis.

“Especially now with interests rates, people can’t afford things, rents have gone up, just the cost of living with everything, people have house loans, they have car loans, come to the end of the week they don’t have the couple of hundred dollars to look nice,” Leesa said.

Bridal dresses and debutante dresses might also be on the cards in the near future. With a passion for what they do and the people they serve, the Cassar’s have a community-based aspect to their business, wanting to provide everyone with the opportunity to get dolled up for a memorable night.

“I have been telling Claudia for a while; we’re in such a tiny area, some people can’t leave the area, so people don’t have the funds to go to their school formal or their debutante ball,” Leesa said.

“Especially being in a small town, we’re looking to have some wedding dresses to hire. Once I get married, we’d probably use my wedding dress and see how that goes,” Claudia said.

When asked if they have yet to overcome any challenges with the business, Leesa said: “Sometimes I miss being a nurse, but no, I don’t (have any issues); I think (the business) is flexible, I’ve got the grandkids, and if someone wants to come, they’re free to come at any time.”

Leesa explained that the new business venture has worked wonders for her mental health and well-being.

“You’re not sitting on the couch all day drinking 20 litres of coke all day thinking of what could be, and that’s what I felt. I was grieving what I was going through; I couldn’t go to work, I was limited to what I could do, so I thought, I have to do something; I can’t live my life like this,” Leesa said.

As an additional bonus, the mum-and-daughter duo said they have so much fun working together, with rarely a dull moment between the pair; they enjoy working together and make a great team.

Having almost reached 2000 followers on Instagram, Claudia aims to keep advertising the brand and gain more reach.

The pair have added more than 100 dresses to their collection, and have already grown the business in the few short months under their ownership.

“When we bought the business, it didn’t have the following it does now; we had to really work on that; it didn’t have a lot of dresses or high-end pieces,” Claudia said.

Currently building a shed to continue operating from home, the Cassar family are driven by big ideas to keep growing the business, with plans to even incorporate local hairdressers and makeup artists for affordable event packages to cover all client’s dress, hair, and make-up needs and one day, even have a shop in town for themselves.

Leesa’s story truly is one of resilience and resourcefulness.

As a ‘never give up’ type of person, Leesa put her big ideas into reality, finding her purpose in Dressed to the Nine’s and servicing the Latrobe Valley community.