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Why own when you can rent a dress?

Designer duds at a fraction of the retail price.

MINNEAPOLIS - Elizabeth Patty doesn't have a skeleton in her closet, but she does have something almost as vexing: a stash of party dresses she'll never wear again.

"This will kill my husband, but I probably have at least 30 dresses with an average price tag of $225," said Patty.

As senior director of development for children's health at the University of Minnesota Foundation, the 49-year-old attends lots of fund-raising parties and galas. But for the most recent event, she didn't invest in yet another gown or wear an old one. She rented.

"This is perfect for me," she said. "I can continuously have new dresses without having to buy them, and I'm not seen wearing the same thing over and over."

Renting dresses for special occasions wasn't a popular option until Rent the Runway, an online start-up, began offering designer dresses from top labels in 2009. Less than four years later, the New York-based business said that more than 3 million members had signed up for the service.

Lindsay Lewis, executive director of a local nonprofit, has gotten dresses from Rent the Runway and said she's been happy with the service, aside from one problem: "You can't try the dresses on, so you're taking a slight risk," she said.

That's why Lewis was happy to learn that there are also boutiques that offer designer rentals available to try on, and at a fraction of the cost of buying.

Lewis, 31, recently thumbed through a rack of rental dresses from designer names such as Nicole Miller, David Meister, and Tibi. She settled on a short, gold strapless dress with a tight bodice and full skirt. Lewis admitted it was an adventurous choice for her, but ideal for the Cinderella-themed party she was attending.

"This is a fabulous concept, because it offers you the opportunity to keep trying new things and having fun without the guilt of spending so much on something you're not going to wear much," Lewis said.

At the end of her three-day rental period, she returned the dress, leaving the dry cleaning task to the shop. The $348 Shoshanna dress set Lewis back $62.

So far, the new service at Stephanie's boutique - aptly named "Dress for the Occasion" - is exceeding expectations, said store owner Stephanie Morrissey.

"We found that a lot of our customers were going to six weddings in one summer or multiple events in one season," said Morrissey. Renting is a boon for clients because they can get the latest looks and never wear the same dress twice. And it's a boon for Stephanie's because "we're exposing new clientele to our store."

The concept seems like a win-win, so why aren't more dress shops warming to the idea?

Some boutique owners say that rental programs are tricky to manage.

"It seems like a hassle," said Andrea Oseland, a sales associate at Cliche in Minneapolis. "You have to clean the dresses regularly, keep track of who has them when and where."

Others say it would be hard to compete with Rent the Runway, which dominates the dress rental market.

"We wouldn't even consider it," said Bridget O'Brien, a stylist in Uptown Minneapolis. "We hope that we carry things that are special enough that you'll want to own them and wear more than once."

Still, the dress rental option opens the door for women who might not otherwise be able to wear a designer dress, said Alex Roberts, account executive for David Meister.

"Dress rental businesses are capturing a different segment of the market," said Roberts. "Women in their 20s and 30s might not be able to buy a $500 dress, but they can rent one. It makes them feel special."

That's exactly what Betsy Hendrick wanted for her sorority formal. The University of Minnesota college student was tired of re-wearing dresses from high school.

"I wanted to wear a dress that was different from anything I had in my closet," said Hendricks, 21. "It's always fun to get a new dress and show it off."

Using a coupon for Rent the Runway, Hendricks was able to get a $350 sequined Badgley Mischka for $45.

Ibeth Arias has had luck at For Tonight, a men's and women's clothing boutique. The shop rents dresses for proms, homecoming dances, galas, and even weekend trips to Las Vegas for 10 percent to 15 percent of the retail price. Arias averages three dress rentals a month for her modeling gigs and work with Vida y Sabor magazine.

"If I couldn't rent them, I'd be spending a lot of time on eBay, trying to get rid of them and get some of my money back," Arias said. "What could be better? I get a fantastic dress for a fraction of the cost."