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Luxury leasing moves from expensive cars to the latest fashion

The stigma attached to borrowed finery is gone as several online renters and shops now offer luxury leasing to anyone willing to pay per piece or a membership fee

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , NEW YORK

Consumer appetite for luxury goods has fueled a surge in the leasing of luxury items -- from US$35,000-plus automobiles to signature fashion.

PHOTO: NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE

At the round of parties last Wedn-esday to precede New York Fashion Week, Stephen Knoll, the hairstylist, gave my satchel-size Saint Laurent Muse bag the once-over.

"Handsome," he murmured. Then he focused on my Marni coat, with its spray of plastic flowers. "Gorgeous," he pronounced.

I neglected to tell him that both were rentals, leased with the objective of drawing covetous stares from my peers. Confessing would have spoiled the fun.

Milton Pedraza, the director of the Luxury Institute, a consumer research group, would have said I was renting not just a look but an experience: in this case, the feeling of one-upmanship that comes with flaunting the season's most sought-after items.

"With luxury goods," Pedraza said by telephone, "many people today are more interested in collecting experiences than they are in actually owning the asset."

He added that even among the not-so rich, the thrill of possession palls fast.

Wealthy people in particular "are tired of the clutter in their lives," he said. "They don't want the hassles of ownership. More than possessions, they want variety."

In the last half-dozen years, consumer appetites for luxury goods have fueled a surge in the leasing of US$35,000-plus automobiles, private jets and vacation homes, even furniture and art -- a Knoll coffee table, say, for the living room or a colorful Warhol to spruce up the hall.

A small membership fee or monthly payment, something like that charged by the DVD leasing company NetFlix, is providing access to more wares.

Today, luxury leasing has extended to fashion. And borrowed finery, once available primarily to celebrities, corporate bigwigs and society swans, is accessible to anyone willing to pay.

Some companies charge a membership fee. Others charge only for the item, usually 10 percent to 15 percent of its retail value.

Consumers may find themselves seeking out online renters like Bag Borrow or Steal (bagborroworsteal.com) of Seattle, which offers designer handbags and jewelry for lease; Borrowed Bling, a California supplier of rented estate-style "diamonds"; or Albright Inc, a cavernous loft in Downtown Manhattan where one can choose designer frocks, bags and shoes.

Most such services have sprung up in the last two years, operating roughly on the model of companies like NetJets, which offers shares in private jets, or Exclusive Resorts, which gives dues-paying members part-time ownership of residences in exotic locales. Fashion leasing, still in its infancy, has a national following, with clients concentrated mostly in large urban centers.

At Bag Borrow or Steal, the source of my Muse bag, a membership fee of US$995 and rental charges from US$8 to US$800 provide bags for a week or a year. If you can't live without the bag, there is also the option to buy.

The Muse, which retails for US$2,000, rents for US$60 a week and US$175 a month. Some items have a wait list.

At BorrowedBling.com, a Web Site begun in March, a scale of membership fees from about US$30 to US$100 a month supplies rentable jewels, minute studs or full-on chandeliers. The site averages about 4,500 new visitors a month, said Carol Wechsler, its founder.

The client may be a young wife hoping to impress her husband's colleagues, Wechsler said. More commonly, though, she is a high-profile member of her community, involved in charity functions.

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