Designer handbags are, hands down, the hottest thing going this year. Problem is, who can afford to buy them since they can cost as much as your rent or house payment?
There are, however, two innovative online companies that can help.
By renting designer purses for a fraction of the cost of buying them, Bag Borrow or Steal and From Bags to Riches are making it possible for frugal fashionistas to have their handbags and their paychecks, too.
"I don't think a day goes by that there isn't an e-mail where people say, 'Thank you for being here! We're just so glad that you guys are doing this,'" says Kara Richter, founder of the Minneapolis-based From Bags to Riches, which is about 15 months old. "People really have responded to this."
The idea is a fairly simple one, and is, at its core, just a variation of proven practices.
Bag Borrow or Steal, which launched in April 2004, works like Netflix, the mail-order DVD rental company. For a small monthly fee, the customer can rent a handbag for as long as she likes. When she's ready for a different bag, she orders it and sends the old bag back.
From Bags to Riches works more like, say, a rental car company. With no monthly membership required, rental fees are based on each bag's retail price. Those who pay for a VIP-type membership are given perks.
Because the companies' intrepid officials put the rental idea into practice, thousands of women have signed up to lease the latest luxury bags on the market, many of them coming back for more week after week, month after month, or every time a new event or outfit calls for the perfect handbag.
Ebony Malloy of Fort Washington needed a purse to accent her ensemble for the homecoming events at Hampton University last summer. But, with a closet stuffed with handbags, she didn't want to buy a new one outright.
So she rented a $200 black-and-gray Dooney & Burke bag from From Bags to Riches.
"It was dirt cheap," says Malloy, 24, an employee in the Office of the Inspector General. "Only $19.90!"
Now Malloy has her eye on a funky Juicy Couture bag - to rent, not buy.
"Oh, I will definitely be using them again," she says.
This lease-a-lifestyle mentality is relatively new, experts say, but is becoming more and more popular.
"We're evolving from permanent owners to temporary owners," says Dan Nissanoff, author of Futureshop: How the New Auction Culture Will Revolutionize the Way We Buy, Sell and Get the Things We Really Want, coming out next month. "People are beginning to go out and buy things, not thinking that they are going to have it for the rest of its useful life."
Internet Web sites such as eBay, and programs such as automobile leases have changed the way consumers think about spending their money, he says.
"Now people buy a car, they use it for three years and they just return it," Nissanoff says. "As simple as that is a notion for people to understand, it's going to be like that for people when they buy TVs, golf clubs, fashion, shoes, handbags. There's no need to really own something forever anymore. Buy it, enjoy it and when you're finished with it, replace it with something new."
Laura Marshall, a public relations executive in Oakland, Calif., has quickly caught on to this new idea.
She was in the market for a new purse when she read about Seattle-based Bag Borrow or Steal in The New York Times. So she pulled up the site, ordered a bag and loved the whole process so much she's on rented bag No. 3 - a trendy Lulu Guinness that stops admiring women in their tracks everywhere she goes.
"I have to admit, it's kind of cool to have this really expensive bag that people think you must be rich to carry," says Marshall, 47. "I do all right [salary-wise], but I don't really want to spend $400 on a purse twice a year. I have better things to do with that money. Like spend it on my hair."
Many women feel the way Marshall does: The same cute bag on a store shelf for $400 becomes a fabulous, "must-have" bag when it's half that or less.
The rental companies' founders - having watched friends frantically borrowing other friends' purses rather than shelling out hundreds of dollars for new purses - understood that idea and knew they could make money renting something as personal as purses.
"It's one of those cases where you couldn't flip through the pages of a magazine without seeing your favorite celebrity carrying a bag," says Brenda Kauffman, fashion director of Bag Borrow or Steal. "It became the must-have accessory. It's just been a phenomenal year for handbags."
Rental fees at Bag Borrow or Steal start at $19.95 for the lowest level of membership - which gives access to bags by such names as JLo, Nine West, Guess and Dooney & Burke. The premium membership, Diva Deluxe, costs about $175 a month.
At From Bags to Riches, the Balenciaga motorcycle bag (one of the season's It purses) can be rented for a month for about $130. In the stores, it would cost you about $1,000.
Such high-priced handbags, which are all the rage - some have estimated the market has grown to $5 billion - aren't like the plain, matronly "pocketbooks" your mother carried.
"We're talking about bags that are highly expensive, like Judith Lieber, where you kinda have to take out a second mortgage to be able to afford them," says Ellen Goldstein, chairwoman of the accessories design department at New York's Fashion Institute of Technology. "They give you a certain air, a certain look that a lot of people are hoping to be able to achieve. And what better way than to do it on a rental basis? That way you're not extending your line of credit, but you're able to use a luxury bag for a night or two."
No more are handbags just something to carry your wallet and keys in.
"It's no longer a necessity. It's like a piece of jewelry. It's the icing on the cake," Goldstein says. "It's like the secret handshake among women. [It says], 'I've arrived.' 'You're one of us.'"
Where to rent
From Bags to Riches:
Go to frombagstoriches.com.
Bag Borrow or Steal:
Go to bagborroworsteal.com.