Fashion rental once came with a shopping stigma, suggesting an inability to buy outright. All that changed when the recession hit, and even the most determined fashionistas found they had to dig deep to afford the finest threads – or else go without.
Now, as high-end fashion rental websites boom, retail experts say the renting experience has lost its stigma and even suggests savviness.
Joanna Feeley, the founder of Trend Bible, which predicts consumer behaviour, said the rise in renting and borrowing is echoed across all areas of life. "From car-sharing and bicycle-rental schemes, to sharing stories, habits and tastes across social media, people are increasingly inclined to share. With clothing, this gives them the chance to borrow status from brands, allowing them to buy into this season's bag without investing in it."
Even fashion-lovers at high-profile events such as London Fashion Week were wearing clothes-on-lease, while many hats on parade at the Cheltenham Festival will be loaned for the occasion, for one tenth of their retail price.
Suruchi Bhargava, the co-founder of Wish Want Wear, which launched six months ago and has more than 10,000 members, has seen a 70 per cent rise in customers each month. The site launches hat rental this week, offering designs by the royal milliner Vivienne Sheriff and will open a wedding boutique later in the spring. She believes the huge rise in rentals is down to the growth of "collaborative consumption" culture – the rise in modern day bartering, sharing and renting reinvented through technology on a scale never previously possible. "There is Zipcar for driving, Lovefilm for movies and this in fashion," she said.
Alex Hones, the founder of Cinderella Me, which rents designer shoes, has seen business double each month in the past year. "We have a history of ownership in the UK, for example with home-ownership compared with renting. So the concept of renting clothes and shoes has been outside of British culture – and is only catching on now," she said.
Sarah Brown, the former prime minister's wife, was ahead of the rental curve, leasing Amanda Wakeley gowns and Graeme Black jackets in 2009. And in Sex and the City, Carrie Bradshaw's assistant hired a Louis Vuitton bag from Bag, Borrow or Steal long before many in Britain thought of designer rental.
Anna Bance, who founded Girl Meets Dress in 2009 and launched its hat service last week, said: "Retail and consumer habits are changing significantly with the digital age. Personalisation, experience and identity trump ownership, and the growth in rental is testament to that change. You would be surprised how wealthy some of our customers are."
The price of fashion clearly helps to guarantee the success of of rental businesses. Poppy Dinsey, the founder of WIWT, or What I Wore Today, borrowed handbags for London Fashion Week and hires outfits regularly. "It's the price of a Topshop dress to wear an outfit made by a designer. The high street has become expensive."
Debbie Walpole, who founded the designer bag rental business The Borrowers Club, which was launched in January, says her site has received thousands of hits. "The bleak economic climate means that people do not want to spend money on a bag, but still want to look like they have made an effort." Joanne Halley, the founder of Kennedy Purple, which hires designer bags, inspired by Sex and the City, agreed that the economic depression was helping business. "It's a great alternative for people who still want a special bag, despite the economic climate."
However, Bhargava says that borrowing is here to stay. "It gives people more variety, can be used as a 'try before you buy' service, and helps to get around the pressure from social media of not wearing the same dress to multiple weddings."