Rent the Runway Offers Fast Track to High Fashion

VIDEO: 40 years ago U.S. designers shocked everyone at Versailles by using black models.

It used to be that the flirty frocks and glamorous gowns paraded through fashion weeks and red carpets were in a world all their own, filled with famous folks clinking champagne flutes, breathy exclamations of "Oh, dahling, you look lovely," and air kisses aplenty.

Scratch that. These are the days of live-streaming and near-instant photo uploading. Fashion comes to you, not you to it. It's as easy to view and critique the fall collections from the Ozarks as it is from New York (if not easier -- over there, you don't have throngs of reality-TV personalities to push past).

Enter Rent the Runway, a growing operation that allows customers all over the country to borrow designer clothing for a fraction of the piece's retail cost. As New York Fashion Week wraps up and the industry prepares for the Super Bowl of fashion (hello, Oscars), Rent the Runway is thinking not about what A-listers favor but what real women want to wear.

"Our customer is looking for very editorial pieces," Rent the Runway co-founder Jenny Fleiss said in an interview with "It's usually the more colorful, showy, look at me pieces that people are interested in. They're not going to rent the little black Herve Leger, they'll get the hot pink one shoulder Herve Leger or the sequined Badgley Mischka with a low back. Something that you're going to wear once, that everyone's going to see, that's going to get you tons of compliments but that you can't really wear again because it was so memorable."

It's a simple philosophy: spend a (relative) dime, look like a star. Founded in 2009 by two Harvard Business School students who had a lot of weddings to attend and not a lot to wear, the company now boasts 750,000 members and an average 1,000 new members signing up each month. There's no fee to join, just to rent -- four day rentals for dresses start at $50 and go as high as $300; accessories -- necklaces, bracelets, purses, earrings -- start at $10 and go as high as $275.

"The accessories enable women to add something to a dress they may already have," Fleiss said. "Take a basic black dress, everyone has something like that at home -- you can easily create a new look by adding a statement necklace to it."

As for actually owning that couture gown or designer bauble? That's a relic of a time gone by.

"Ownership went out the window when the leasing business in the car industry kicked into full gear," said Marshal Cohen, chief industry analyst with The NPD Group, a market research firm. "If you can rent a Maserati or Ferrari and have a great weekend, you can rent luxury at any level. Ownership means nothing."

"We want instant access to what was on the runway and what the celebrity wore," he added. "Is it something that has longevity? Yes."

Rent the Runway offers a Badgley Mischka dress (right) nearly identical to the one that Carrie Underwood wore to the 2011 Golden Globes (left).

Rent the Runway currently stocks more than 15,000 dresses from 120 designers. During fashion week, Rent the Runway's five buyers wear out their stilettos seeking out styles to make consumers salivate. Their favorite designers for the upcoming fall 2011 season: Thakoon, Lela Rose, Chris Benz, Vera Wang, Tibi and Carlos Miele.

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