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


Sun, Sep 10, 2006 - Page 12

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 ( 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, 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.

"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.

The real challenge, he added, "is in trying to find a balance by which renting is profitable for the company and not too expensive for the client."

That said, Pedraza argued that leasing suits a consumer society with a cricket's attention span.

I think I know what he means. After its brief outing, my Muse has lost its magnetism, no more enduring, it seems, than a fling.