Confessions of a rent girl

She may look like a million dollars but it's all going back to the shop in the morning. Hermione Eyre cashes in on the growing fashion of label-leasing
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Ever dreamed of getting your hands on a sparkling Cartier watch, that must-have Chloe Paddington handbag or a to-die-for Lanvin gown? The good news is that you can almost certainly afford them. The bad, that you'll only have them for a few hours and then have to give them back.

An increasing number of businesses are tapping into a rapidly growing market for "leased luxury". If you're the type of person who needs to keep abreast of the fast-moving currents of fashion, or simply someone who covets a taste of the celebrity world, now pretty much anyone can rent a fantasy life - and wardrobe.

All the elements for a red carpet-worthy outfit are readily available, from handbags and shoes to diamond rings and even bejewelled tiaras - all for less than the price of a first class rail fare from London to Manchester.

And so I find myself out on the King's Road in London, having what you might call a Cinderella experience. By the end of it, I'm sashaying around in a valuable gown, extravagant heels and enough jewellery to invite a heist. (The 1920s diamond and platinum tiara alone is worth £40,000). The outfit is glamorous in the extreme. But tomorrow everything will be returned, and all I'll be left with is a couple of receipts and a small, red indentation on my wrist where the diamond bracelet hung.

Poor little Cinders? Well, not entirely. Taking back all these items may well be for the best, as I'm frankly not sure if I look like a million bucks or Lady Muck. But that's precisely what has made this rental culture so popular: you can make style mistakes that don't bulldoze your bank account and won't hang around in the back of your wardrobe reproaching you for years.

A lot of other people are beginning to think the same way, with scores of companies springing up to embrace the luxury leasing market. Web-based offers hundreds of top-of-the-range handbags to subscribers, with monthly rates from under £20. Members order the latest "it" bag of their choice, keep it for as long as they want, and then exchange it for the next bag that takes their fancy - impressing anyone who is paying attention but without making a massive dent in their (rented) purse. "We deal strictly with high-end designer labels like Gucci, Fendi, Chloé and Hermès," said Sally Monroe, a spokeswoman for the company. "Women love variety and this is the way for them to have access to that perfect closet."

It is a similar story at One Night Stand, a London-based company specialising in luxury rentals for women. Leasing everything from the latest evening dresses to accessories and bags, the business has seen an increase of more than 20 per cent over the past year.

"A lot of women want to take it a step above Monsoon or Topshop, but can't necessarily afford to," said Joanna Doniger, the owner. "We can offer them that opportunity. It's about choice, but it's also fun, and it's fast."

One of the leading leasers of luxury millinery, Hats Etc of Kensington, has reported a 50 per cent rise in rentals over the past two years. "We've become more of a disposable society," said manager Jenny Thorne. "Celebrities are constantly changing their images and this is filtering down."

I can see the point. For a one-off occasion, renting means that you don't have to think about pedestrian concerns such as long-term versatility or room-for-growth. It's also fun to wear, for one evening, an ensemble with a market value equivalent to a small studio flat, three Mercedes, or a public school education.

A friend of mine got married in an Imperial Russian tiara; the bodyguard added a certain flashiness to the day. But I can't honestly see the point of hiring a very expensive Hermès handbag for the weekend unless you are aiming to give a false impression of your wealth and status, although I can see the point of hiring one for a job interview, since wealth, as they say, begets wealth.

A drawback with hiring is that you are wearing something many strangers have danced, drunk and sweated in. No amount of dry cleaning can exorcise that knowledge. However, this can also be a source of cachet. A Prussian princess, apparently, wore my sequinned Serenade dress before me, and a "celebrity'' is going to wear my tiara to a wedding next week. And a borrowed antique piece of jewellery certainly has more character than a new paste/zirconia combination that's yours to keep. All told, I found hiring a positive experience - almost as good as buying vintage. Renting is ecological, and feels like a good pooling of female resources. Possession is so passé.

Additional reporting by Jonathan Thompson and Oscar Rickett