I love a good party: flowing champagne, rockin’ dance tunes, and the perfect opportunity to show off a fancy outfit. But even with a closet full of cocktail dresses, I still have nothing to wear. Bored with last year’s dress, and too frugal to shell out hundreds of dollars for a new one, I always find myself scrounging to find something decent to wear.
So when I discovered the world of luxury rentals, I wanted to jump for joy. Men have been renting tuxedos for years; why shouldn’t I be able to rent my favorite Proenza Schouler runway look? For some women, leasing luxury items makes more fiscal (and sartorial) sense than purchasing them. Fashion seasons are notoriously short, so what’s de rigueur now will be passé in six months. My motto? Invest in classic pieces; borrow more experimental styles. Like a knight and his suit of armor, all women need is a killer dress, bag, and jewels to feel glamorously invincible. Luckily, you don’t have to drain your savings account to treat yourself to the best.
Dress Me Up in Couture Love
Rent the Runway, a new Web site the New York Times described as “Netflix for dresses,” allows members to rent dresses from over forty designers for $50 to $200. For example, a stunning, Audrey Hepburn-esque Giambattista Valli dress that would cost $4,000 to buy is only $200 to rent. Styles from luxury designers like Hervé Leger and Yigal Azrouël are available for 90 percent off retail prices. For less adventurous shoppers, Diane von Furstenberg, Catherine Malandrino, and Project Runway winner Christian Siriano are also available on the site.
Co-founders Jennifer Hyman and Jennifer Carter Fleiss met at Harvard Business School. After watching her younger sister struggle with the decision of sacrificing her paycheck for a designer party dress, Fleiss consulted with Hyman about starting a luxury rental business—and Rent the Runway was born.
“Girls still want to go out, have fun, but not feel guilty about cost per wear of their outfits,” Ms. Fleiss said. “Rent the Runway enables girls to have new, fun styles without the guilt of purchasing things at full price.”
Part of the fun, however, of renting fashion is the low-risk accessibility of more wacky, on-trend designs. If your style is more black-dress-and-pearls, but you’re dying to try a bright pink sequined Robert Rodriguez dress, renting it for an evening is an appealing—and affordable—option.
Customers can choose four- or eight-day rentals; also order the same dress in a second size for free, or a second design for $25. Each dress comes with a convenient pre-paid, pre-addressed return envelope, as well as a handy “Fit Kit” with double-sided tape, a bra converter, and deodorant wipes.
For little-known, mid-range designers like Alice + Olivia or Lela Rose, the rental system is an attractive way to expand their brand to a larger audience, especially in a tough economy. Women who were previously unaware of a designer might enjoy their rental so much that they opt to purchase the dress.
If Rent the Runway isn’t your cup of tea, it’s not the only option; Wear Today, Gone Tomorrow and London-based One Night Stand both offer cutting-edge fashion for rent.
Call Me a Bag Lady
Personally, I hate the term “It” bag, but I can’t deny the exquisite allure of a designer purse. I’ve been caught salivating over an YSL Rive Gauche more times than I’d like to admit. If you’re more of an accessories gal, there are great options for renting the latest must-have bag.
Bag, Borrow, or Steal, featured in the Sex and the City movie, stocks all the major upmarket designers: Louis Vuitton, Chanel, Fendi, Gucci, and more. Unlike Rent the Runway, Bag, Borrow, or Steal requires a monthly fee; memberships range from $40 to $400 a month. The plus side is you can rent as many handbags during each month as you want—and keep each bag as long as you like.
Like a modern relationship, Bag, Borrow, or Steal lets you play the field without committing. If you’ve fallen in love with your rented bag, you can “steal” the item by purchasing it at retail value.
Following their success with handbags, Bag, Borrow, or Steal has taken their business a step further; they’re now offering jewelry and sunglasses to complete your luxe look.
What’s the Catch?
While renting luxury items is a seductive idea, there are certainly risks for the customer and the company.
You know that icky feeling you get when you’ve tried on a dress five women have worn before you? Imagine feeling that way all night at a black-tie wedding. Rent the Runway assures its customers that the dresses are shipped directly from the dry cleaners to eliminate excess handling, but the intrinsic value of a dress declines significantly with each wear and cleaning. Though the rental prices will cover minor damage and dry cleaning, there are only so many wears in each garment—leaving one to wonder how cost-effective their business model is.
Be careful if your party gets too raucous; rip a large hole or spill red wine on your rental, and you might find yourself saddled with a thousand-dollar bill for an irreparable dress.
Tough luck for women size twelve and up: Rent the Runway only carries sizes zero through ten. Ms. Fleiss said she and Ms. Hyman are working on stocking more sizes in the near future, although it seems unlikely as long as designers refuse to manufacture larger sizes. When will designers realize that fashion-savvy women come in all shapes and sizes?
Handbags can be harbingers of disease and dirt—using a rental isn’t very hygienic, so be sure to thoroughly disinfect your Gucci before taking it out on the town.
For women who like to change purses frequently, handbag rentals seem like a fantastic idea. But why not take three months’ worth of Bag, Borrow, or Steal membership fees and purchase a $1,200 bag that you can keep forever?
It’s a Brand New World
Thanks to the Internet, the hallowed halls of haute couture have become more democratic and accessible. Now women can watch runway shows broadcast live right from their laptops, as Alexander McQueen did for his Spring 2010 show. Accordingly, the luxury market is evolving to follow suit. With more mail-order businesses popping up, women from Topeka to Toronto can indulge in beautiful clothing—without the guilt.
As for me, I’ve got my eye on a gorgeous Diane von Furstenberg dress and a quilted Chanel 2.55 bag. When the next party invitation comes my way, I know I’ll look like a million bucks. But what on earth am I going to do about my shoes?