On-demand luxury cars, private jets, jewellery, watches and even art are gaining popularity
They used to say that money could buy you anything except happiness. Now it seems it can be used to rent anything except that. If the idea of paying for the temporary or fractional ownership of a holiday villa has long been an established idea even for the very wealthy - the same who might lease a private jet or yacht rather than deal with the maintenance costs and hassles - increasingly that idea is being extended to many other top-end products, from clothing to canvasses.
While resourceful fashionistas have long known about "It" bag and designer dress rentals - Bag Borrow Or Steal, Rent Frock Repeat and the Hong Kong-based Yeechoo are a few examples - the idea of renting luxury is becoming increasingly high-end. Haute Vault is just one of many companies renting out jewellery, while the former chief marketing officer of NetJets - the aptly-named Randy Brandoff - has founded Eleven James, a concierge service that rents out high-end watches. Hang Art and Art Remba are companies doing the similar with works of art.
Cars are a major market - half of the luxury cars in the United States are now leased rather than bought. Global Racing Schools is a company that allows you to rent a Bugatti Veyron - one of the world's rarest cars - for a 700km road trip, albeit at US$69,000 for two people. A few years ago, BMW teamed up with car rental company Sixt to launch the first luxury car-sharing scheme, DriveNow. It hopes to have 1 million registered members by the end of this decade. That name - DriveNow - hints at one reason why the rental model is, like credit, proving popular for those products that not long ago would have been deemed too upscale for what was, until recently, widely considered a downscale option: the lack of consumer patience, and the reluctance to save over time in order to own later.
In an on-demand world, waiting to buy is losing the thrill of anticipation it once had. "The fact is that renting makes financial sense in many instances," says Rob Ferretti, chief operating officer for Gotham Dream Cars, which following a recent merger has become the largest exotic car rental company in the US. "In our case it can make practical sense too - if you're travelling a lot, for example. But it's more than that. People with plenty of money - and even though renting was once associated with a lack of money, you still need significant money to rent our cars - probably own an exotic car already. What [you] don't have is the variety [you] want."
Sure, borrowed luxury alleviates buyer's guilt, remorse, or just the boredom that can quickly set in once a desired object becomes an owned one. But there are other drivers to this trend. Of course, it chimes with the post-recessionary landscape, making accessible what once only the wealthy could afford to enjoy through ownership. And for some mostly younger consumers, it might be seen to have an environmental benefit - it's not putting yet another car on the road but finding enjoyment and utility in one that's already there.
"Still, I'm undecided if the upshot of luxury rental is good for being democratic and keeping a lid on unnecessary consumption, or whether it's distasteful for fuelling the desire," says Rachel Jones, senior consultant to the trends agency WGSN. "It does seem that in this 'me-me-me' world of one-upmanship and selfie-stick narcissism, people want to keep their appearances up and be seen to have the latest bag, newest watch or flashiest car. Clearly it also appeals to the luxury goods obsession many people still have - one which doesn't look ready to wane anytime soon."
But could the readiness to rent across the product scale be the result of an even bigger shift in our psychology - that we have come to understand that stuff does not bring happiness, only the need for self-storage units? And that, as a result of technology retraining our needs, we are simply placing less importance on ownership? After all, we are increasingly reading books on tablets instead of owning books printed on paper; we're streaming music and movies rather than buying CDs or DVDs; and typically we don't actually own the digital crutches that are our mobile phones. Indeed, the lifestyle markers of car and home ownership that have long been held dear by older people are seen as irrelevant by younger generations.
William Higham, consumer futurist for the agency Next Big Thing, argues that this shift towards rentals will not only change our physical world - homes will have less need for shelving or storage, for example, while brick-and-mortar shops will become less prevalent -but our very relationship with material goods. We will be judged more on what we have discovered over what we have bought, and we will look for the things that we still own to have meaning rather than merely say something about our status. That has potentially profound implications for luxury goods in particular.
"The luxury market needs to adapt to new thinking because it's been built on an attitude that's disappearing. The status in ownership is falling away," Higham says. "Rather, it's becoming more important to have access to things than to own them." He adds that technology has changed our feelings about the need to own, while the recession has made the idea of investing in items less attractive. "There is this bigger idea of living less encumbered by things - the convenience of having less bulk to our lives, of being able to get up and go. In fact, I think the idea of ownership, especially of luxury goods, is moving towards the vulgar. Enjoy them, but don't own them."
Of course, it's nice to have the choice - and Higham concedes that the motivation among the wealthy to rent rather than own luxury goods may not be an entirely healthy one. As he stresses, modern consumerism is still driven in large part by the ideas of trading up and keeping pace with trends. "Fashion and tech items obviously play to this, but even cars and art are to some extent fashion-based now," he points out. "If you want to trade up to the latest, newest thing, then ownership hampers you. Who wants to be stuck with yesterday's luxury goods?"
Nor will this new rental society - in which anything from the most workaday appliance to the most precious of artworks might be owned by the day - be without its own problems too, and these increase along with the dollar value of the object rented. The supercar rental market is a case in point. Yes, renting at the high end will still require a stack of cash for those sizeable deposits, but there is an additional need to raise scrutiny of the renters - as it turns out, a lot of them lack personal auto insurance. Perhaps we can expect the tribulations of ownership to be replaced by those of documentation and filling out forms.
The trend of renting luxe products such as cars, jewellery and watches has become increasingly high-end