The Pros and Cons of Renting Designer Clothing

Is borrowing an item you can't afford to own a smart way to trim your fashion budget?

Would you pay for access to a dream wardrobe, even if you knew you had to give it all back? Some women would, that’s for sure. Plenty of companies have built successful businesses out of lending designer duds to people for a price. There’s Rent the Runway, which lets shoppers surf through hundreds of designer dresses and accessories, allowing people to borrow items via mail for either four or eight days. And Bag, Borrow, or Steal, another popular site, lets members rent luxury handbags on a rotating basis, with the option to purchase a particular handbag if they can’t bear to send it back.

The concept makes sense -- we’d all like to wear designer things for less -- so I’m not surprised that these fashion lending companies are booming with business. But, for shoppers like me, is it worth it? Is borrowing an item you can’t afford to own a smart way to trim your fashion budget? I spoke to a few experts (friends who’ve used both companies!), and here’s what they had to say:

Pro: You’ll certainly save money.
Rental fees at Rent the Runway (RTR) range from about $40 to $200, for dresses that would cost anywhere from $300 to $1,000-plus if you were to purchase them. As for Bag, Borrow or Steal (BBS), you can freshen your wardrobe with a new purse each month for a fraction of their costs. “I usually rented the mid-priced bags for $40 to $50 rental fees -- and that's probably what I would pay for a cheap purse I'd get sick of in a season anyway,” said one friend who used the service for a year.

Con: You can’t ensure quality.
As with all forms of shopping online, there’s no way to tell from a picture what you’re actually getting until it shows up on your doorstep. While one friend had no issues with her dresses from RTR (“Both dresses were in perfect condition -- steamed, no pulls, clean") another friend had a different experience. “The dress I got was not only a different color than it looked online, but the zipper was broken and the fabric looked worn.”

Pro: The process is straightforward and customer-friendly.
One friend I spoke to has used RTR more than once to grab herself pricey cocktail dresses for weddings. “It was easy and I received great customer service. It was so simple to send it back the day after the event,” she says. If you’re concerned about what size to get, RTR invites you to order a second size as backup for an additional $25. On BBS, if an item you want isn’t available, the company gives you a coupon for a percentage off another bag.

Con: There’s no way to know who or how many people wore the item before you.
One woman told me that her RTR dress showed up in unwearable condition: “It wouldn’t even stay on my body because people who had worn it had probably spent nights constantly tugging at the top of it. The beading was coming off.” While RTR and other similar services ensure that your dress arrives dry-cleaned and pressed, you still might get a dress that spent the night balled up on a stranger’s floor -- which certainly isn’t worth your money.

Pro: You’re doing the green thing.
A friend who used BBS had this to say: “Borrowing items felt like I was doing something good for the environment. I was sharing a purse with a bunch of other people instead of continuing my endless cycle of consumption!”

Pro: You’re privy to little bonuses.
As a member of a fashion lending site, you’ll be the first to learn about new products available and the secret sales that happen just before the holidays and other times throughout the year. Plus, BBS offers a refurbishing service for bags: “I got a vintage Louis Vuitton cleaned up,” says one woman. “It took a while to get the bag back, but it looked great when it arrived, and there was a nice handwritten note from the guy who cleaned it for me, thanking me for my business.”

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