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Why Buy Fancy Gowns? Just Rent Them

June 17, 1988|KAREN NEWELL YOUNG | Karen Newell Young is a regular contributor to Orange County Life.

Let's see a show of hands. How many of you have an expensive cocktail dress in the closet that never gets worn? How many of you wish you had not paid a lot of money for that dress?

Up until a few years ago, if a woman with a limited wardrobe were invited to a black-tie affair, she was forced to either borrow a dress from a friend or buy one. If she rarely attended formal events, she might never wear the garment again. Even if she attended several dressy functions, she probably would not want to show up in the same formal every time. Who wants to be known as a one-gown gal?

Men fare better. They skedaddle over to the nearest tux shop, rent some tails and often write it off as a business expense come tax time. (The cost of renting clothes for business-related functions is tax-deductible).

Now, women can do the same thing. Patterned after tux shops for men, a handful of rent-a-dress boutiques have opened in the county in the last five years. For a fraction of the cost of buying a gown, girls and women can rent prom and beauty pageant dresses, cocktail and formal gowns, and sometimes bridal wear.

You won't find a Valentino or an Oscar de la Renta on the rent-a-dress racks, but the stores do carry a wide range of well-made dresses, many of which would cost several hundred dollars to buy. The rental price is determined by the retail cost of the gown and the cost of cleaning it. Most of the stores offer dresses to buy as well as rent and many sell shoes and accessories. All the shops mentioned here, with the exception of Rental Boutique, rent wedding gowns along with evening dresses.

Formal Affair on East Chapman Avenue in Orange opened four years ago. Owners Sunny Erickson, Janet Finn and Margarita Fleener say that business is terrific and that their clientele keeps growing. The approximately 900 dresses in stock are all bought new, unlike some stores which buy used gowns on consignment. They rent and sell nearly everything in the store, which includes bridal gowns, cocktail dresses, prom and pageant gowns.

"We have had dresses go to the Academy Awards, and we get all excited watching them on TV," Finn says. "Because they are our dresses. They are like our babies, and we're very protective of them."

Rental prices at Formal Affair range from $30 to $125 for the weekend. The dresses--made by Jack Bryan, Claralura and New Leaf among other manufacturers--cost $69 to $400 to purchase.

Penelope of California, also in Orange, carries about 2,000 gowns which are purchased new from manufacturers. In business for five years, owner Penelope Griebel says: "We went into business to offer women an alternative to buying a dress she would only wear once."

The store rents and sells cocktail frocks, prom and pageant dresses and wedding gowns, by Alyce, Loralie and San Martin, among others. Also for sale are jewelry, bridal accessories, slips, shoes, gloves and custom-made hats.

This store has a complicated pricing system. Color-coded tickets with the retail cost are tagged to the dress. The color corresponds to a chart which tells the customer what percentage of the retail cost the rental cost will be. For example, a long, green, spangle-covered gown that costs $655 has a brown tag, which means it costs 50% of that to rent ($326). Most of the dresses, which range from $90 to $700 to buy, cost between 50% and 75% of the purchase price to rent. Bring your calculator.

Unlike some of the other rent-a-dress shops which buy new garments, The 2nd Closet in Tustin purchases most of its inventory on consignment. The store, which has been renting and selling formal wear for 2 1/2 years, also buys some new outfits. Prices of the dresses and gowns, which are by Gunne Sax, Lillie Rubin and TD4 among others, start at $50 to rent and $200 to buy. Wedding gowns start at $125 to rent.

Owner David Alcaraz has about 1,800 dresses in his stylish little shop on First Street. He says he named his business 2nd Closet because that's how he wants women to think of the store. He can get a lot of mileage out of what is hanging in your closet.

"So many of you ladies buy a dress and spend lots of money and never wear it again," Alcaraz points out. "Instead of hanging them in your closet, come in and hang them here. If we rent it, we will give you half of the rental price; if we sell it, we will give you half of the purchase price."

The Rental Boutique in Costa Mesa doubles as a costume shop, but owner Judy Gaon also carries about 50 formal dresses that can be rented or purchased. Almost all of the dresses have been worn at least once, and many are used as costumes when needed, Gaon says. Among the dresses available this week were a Lee Jordan gown ($85 to rent) and a gold lame cocktail dress ($40). Gaon's prices for rentals range from $35 to $125.

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