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Why buy when you can rent the bling?

Bag, Borrow or Steal and other firms lease lux goods to those desiring the finer things, without the financial headaches.

December 24, 2007|Ylan Q. Mui | Washington Post

WASHINGTON -- Arianne Callender never considered herself a designer handbag kind of girl. Her wallet forbade such frivolous longings.

But this holiday season, Callender, 33, will be toting a quilted leather Chanel pouchette that retails for about $400. She'll also be decked out in pearl Lori Bonn earrings and a sterling silver pendant necklace by Elle -- all rented online for a few dollars each day, with no one the wiser.

"My family thinks it's completely bizarre that I would borrow accessories," said Callender, of Washington. "I get so much cute stuff, and I don't have to buy it or store it."

Once, the wealthy enjoyed exclusive access to designer handbags and jaw-dropping jewels, fast cars and private jets. Now, several companies are renting those products to people who desire the finer things in life without the headaches of ownership -- or the resulting credit card bills.

"The only thing people want is the experience," said Michael Prichinello, director of the New York outpost of Classic Car Club, which lends high-end vehicles to members for an annual fee. "I see the temperature in America changing in how you access luxury goods."

The market for high-end merchandise and services has more than doubled over the last decade. According to the consulting firm Bain & Co., the market for luxury goods in the Americas rose to $81 billion last year from $34 billion in 1995 at current exchange rates, with the United States accounting for 90% to 95% of the spending.

The aspiring customer has played an important part in that growth, with luxury retailers offering fragrances, wallets and key chains that are more affordable yet still bear coveted brand names. Formerly elite fashion designers have created low-priced lines for such stores as Target, H&M and Kohl's.

But that isn't enough for today's demanding shopper who wants the "real thing" but does not want to pay for it. Enter the rental.

Callender borrowed from the online company Bag, Borrow or Steal of Seattle, founded in 2004 in Florida by two men who watched in awe as the women in their lives spent wads of money on purses and then swapped them among one another. The company has more than 450,000 members and charges as much as $4,800 a month to rent a vintage Hermes crocodile Birkin bag.

"People are really looking for better items than they might have had in the past," said Pat Hambrick, chief marketing officer of Bag, Borrow or Steal.

Last summer, the company added necklaces, earrings and bracelets. The most expensive item available is a Vera Wang diamond flower pendant, which retails for $16,400. It rents to members for $203 a week.

"It's really more for the people who can't afford it but want to give the illusion of affording it," said Pam Danziger, president of luxury consulting firm Unity Marketing. "The true affluent people are not interested in badge value."

Ronnie Mervis of Mervis Diamond Importers launched a diamond rental program this fall at the company's new store in suburban Washington. The collection includes over-the-top necklaces and earrings with extravagant price tags of $10,000 to $60,000.

Occasionally, Mervis said, he has allowed his most loyal clients to borrow what he calls the "splash" pieces for special doings, such as a wedding or a black-tie event. The new program allows any customer to rent one piece for five days for about 4.5% of its purchase price. At $60,000 a pop, that would be $2,700.

Halcyon Jets Holdings books customers on private planes on a pay-as-you-go basis, without the hassle of owning a plane or joining a club. The minimum cost is $25,000.

Clients include celebrities, professional basketball players and corporate bigwigs as well as groups of friends or business associates pitching in for a special occasion, Chief Executive Jonathan Gilbert said. Most customers pay an average $500,000 for flying time.

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