Nice Dress -- Is That a Rental? With designer prices soaring, more fashionistas pay for clothes on loan; sanitizing the Manolos By CHERYL LU-LIEN TAN Documentary maker Jessie Fuller impressed a TV producer so much recently that she was offered a job. The clincher, Ms. Fuller believes, was the Christian Lacroix jacket she sported at the meeting. Yet the 25-year-old New Yorker immediately returned the $4,000 jacket -- to the rental shop where she got it. The fee: $600 for three days. "The first week I started renting, every meeting I went to, I knocked them dead," Ms. Fuller says. "If you're wearing something fantastic, it makes a difference in the way that you carry yourself." Rental apparel long appealed mainly to prom-goers, groomsmen and bowlers. High-end consumers had little interest in slipping their feet into Manolo Blahniks that already had been through the conga line a few times. Now market forces are making it a more popular option in high fashion. Demand for luxury is continuing to boom, sending prices higher than what many wannabe fashion plates want to shell out -- especially given today's quick fashion cycles. That has spawned a mini-industry of shops and Web sites that loan out Fendi handbags, Oscar de la Renta gowns and Christian Louboutin stilettos for a small fraction of the retail cost. Surprisingly, some designers welcome the trend, seeing it as a way to address a paradoxical problem: The soaring prices that are fattening their bottom lines also are making it increasingly difficult to hook a new generation of buyers. High-end purse prices have jumped about 40% in the past two years, says Kurt Salmon Associates, a retail consulting firm. At Salvatore Ferragamo, the average handbag price has nearly doubled in three years to about $1,050. Not at Bag Borrow or Steal. It started renting handbags online in 2004 and last fall added jewelry from Gucci and Vera Wang and other brands and plans to add watches soon. In Seven Hills, Ohio, My Best Friend's Closet opened last year and rents dresses by Ralph Lauren and BCBG Max Azria for $30 to $90 an occasion. Watch My Wrist, in St. Louis, began renting high-end watches and jewelry online in April. Canada's Shoulder Candy plans to start renting handbags in the U.S. next month via its Web site. Wardrobe rents the latest Chanel and Marc Jacobs pieces from shops in Los Angeles and New York's SoHo neighborhood and online via wardrobe-nyc.com. It now has 200 registered members, including Ms. Fuller, the documentary maker. A year ago, it had only 20 members and mostly catered to professional stylists working for private clients or fashion magazines. The company's motto: "Your secret is safe with us." Policies vary. Borrowedbling.com rents costume jewelry, belts and evening purses for flat monthly fees, allowing customers to check out two or more pieces at a time. Other businesses typically charge 15% of the item's retail price. Designers are divided on the issue. "This brings a new customer to us," says high-end shoe designer Stuart Weitzman. Renting "helps them learn about our product firsthand instead of just through magazines or seeing it on friends." Vincent Ottomanelli, president of Ferragamo USA, sees renters as potential buyers. "The majority of Web sites cater to a fashion-forward, aspirational consumer," he says. Eveningwear designer Reem Acra believes the trend could hurt her business by discouraging customers from paying full price for her gowns and cocktail dresses, which retail for several thousand dollars. Such shops don't provide good exposure, she says, because her dresses aren't made to be worn repeatedly by different body shapes. And "each time you dry-clean it, it loses a bit of the finish," she says. Neva Lindner, Wardrobe's owner, says she doesn't rent delicate pieces too many times and sends them to a cleaner who specializes in high-end items. Loaners aren't for everyone. Many garments can be had only in the small sizes most in demand. Wardrobe's L.A. store keeps lots of size 0 and 2 in stock, while much of the New York selection tops out at 6. The Albright Fashion Library has just a few items in sizes over 10. Some reject the whole notion. They savor the emotional charge of buying a designer piece and want to be the only one to wear it. "When I splurge and buy myself something nice, it makes me feel happy," says Michelle Rogers, 29, a human-resources representative in Branford, N.J. "The thought of other people sweating in the shoes you're wearing seems kind of skeevy -- especially if they've gone dancing in them." Albright Fashion Library and Wardrobe say all shoes rented out for personal use are professionally cleaned and sanitized before they're rented out again. Additionally, Wardrobe's Ms. Lindner sometimes sprays antifungal deodorant inside the shoes. Economically, it can make more sense to buy rather than rent. A classic Chanel suit won't go out of style quickly, so why not buy it? How long you plan to keep an item is key. In February, Jill Richmond, an economic consultant in Washington, D.C., rented a chunky turquoise-and-silver ring to add spark to her conservative outfits. Three months later, she has paid $75 in fees to Bag Borrow or Steal for the $150 ring. Now she's thinking about buying it. (Unlike most rental shops, Bag Borrow or Steal lets you buy what you fall in love with.) Before deciding, do the math: Bag Borrow or Steal charges $270 a month for a metallic leather Marc Jacobs "Stam" handbag that costs $1,475 new. Used designer goods often can be resold on eBay or in consignment shops for 20% of retail, so if you want it for five months or more and can resell it for $295, buying is cheaper. The calculus changes for other items, especially trendier pieces in today's fast-changing cycles. Many women abhor showing up in the latest striking evening gown more than once or twice. Unless professionally refurbished, shoes look new only once. Ms. Fuller, the filmmaker, says she saves thousands of dollars by renting. Her fees have totaled about $2,500 a month on average since January -- much of that for items she splurged on for the Sundance Film Festival. She used to spend $4,000 a month buying designer clothes. Renting also can help avoid buyer's remorse. Software designer Mark Nicely was thinking of purchasing a $1,100 Tissot watch when he spotted a similar one for rent on watchmywrist.com for $17.25 a week. After wearing it for a week, the 45-year-old Daly City, Calif., resident decided he didn't like its tachymeter, which measures speed. "These weren't details I would have noticed in a store," he says. "I think I really saved myself from a big mistake." Now he's renting a $7,700 Zenith watch that he plans to wear to "fancy-schmancy" restaurants with his wife and parents on a Mother's Day weekend trip to Carmel, Calif.