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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


"She might see the same group of people month after month, week after week," Wechsler said. And she probably owns her own jewels.

"But I don't care if you're Elizabeth Taylor," she added. "Nobody has enough real jewelry to switch off if she sees the same people over and over."

To serial collectors of luxury goods, leasing has begun to shed the stigma long attached to rented tuxedos and designer knockoff gowns.

"To me this is a great idea," said Melanie Charlton, a New York City social figure.

Charlton, the owner of Clos-ette, a firm that organizes wardrobe space, attends a dozen or so galas a year, but supplements her dresses and those lent by designer friends, with rented ones. For US$450, she leased for one night a black and white Narciso Rodriguez gown from Wardrobe NYC, a Manhattan fashion rental firm.

"In a way this is a step up," Charlton said. "You're paying for the dress instead of borrowing it from the designer. Personally, I don't see any shame in it."

The concept of a high-end temporary wardrobe was introduced more than a decade ago, when celebrities began strolling the red carpet in borrowed designer glitz.

The rise of online auction sites like eBay and the luxury-focused Portero, which give clients a chance to offload last season's treasures, further altered the public's mindset, lenders say.

"People are beginning to change their views about temporary ownership," said Adam Dell, a venture capitalist and an investor in Bag Borrow or Steal. Fashion leasing, he insisted, "is an idea whose time has come."

Not so fast. Kathryn Finney, the author of How to Be a Budget Fashionista: The Ultimate Guide to Looking Fabulous for Less, finds a monthly outlay of US$150 or more too much for the fleeting thrill of showing off a rented bag.

"That's quite expensive, when you add it up," Finney said.

Besides, leasing fashion is just another way of "playing off people who buy into the celebrity culture," she said, "people who need to live higher than their incomes allow."

Still, the flexibility of renting appeals to people like Charlton.

"To be able to rent a US$5,000 or US$8,000 gown a couple of times a year instead of buying it," she said, "is a major cost-effective way to buy into luxury when you need it."

But value is only part of the allure of leasing, because, as lenders and fashion analysts like to point out, there is a good chance the borrower already owns her own Chloe satchel, Lanvin dress or Louboutin pumps.

"This is a very fashion-driven customer," said Robert Burke, a New York retail consultant, whose clients include Bag Borrow or Steal. He said that for her, the decision to rent "is not based on thrift," but on a persistent hunger for novelty.

For others renting is an elegant, and politically correct, alternative to reckless shopping sprees. The designer Vivienne Tam, eyeing my leased Marni coat at a book party for the photographer Timothy Greenfield Sanders last Wednesday, beamed her approval.

"You rented it?" she said. "What a great way to recycle."

But for all leasing's charms, it is a concept the fashion industry has been slow to embrace. "The industry is conservative," Pedraza said, its members perhaps aware that success is in no way guaranteed.

"The business model is fragile and complex," he said, what with managing inventory and keeping track of shipping and insurance.

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