Luxury on loan

Fashion A designer handbag can bring untold respect and reverence. But is this a reputation that can be rented?

Is every door open for a lady with a Manolo Blahnik on her arm? A new rent-a-bag website in the UAE lets women find out for themselves.
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A beautiful, this-season, designer handbag can bring untold respect and reverence from women everywhere. But is this a reputation that can be rented? Gemma Champ finds out I have never really understood the It-bag phenomenon. I have two or three beautifully made day bags that I use relentlessly until they need to be repaired, and I have a nice little stash of evening bags - mostly quirky, no-name, vintage ones. But I've never felt the passion that compels so many women to spend a month's salary on an accessory that will be obsolete in a season.

Shoes I get, of course: shoes are a potent symbol of empowered femininity, whether it's a dagger-sharp satin Manolo or a chunky pair of silver-laced bovver boots. But handbags? They've always seemed to me both a physical and metaphorical repository for all the useless junk that we carry around with us, from lint, mints and lipstick to the status-lust that we believe can be satisfied by the owning same bag as Kate Moss.

So on hearing about Ma Pochette, a UAE version of the American designer-bag rental site, (made famous in the movie of Sex and The City), I'm intrigued to know whether, with a little affordable exposure therapy, I too might succumb to the insanity. I ask Danielle Wilson who, with Sarah Gothard, founded the business, who on earth would want to borrow an evening bag for one night on the town. Surely a bag is for life, not just for the office party. "All sorts of women have been in touch with us, from Emiratis to English businesswomen," she says happily. "They love it: you get to have a bag like the yellow Dior Babe - which isn't available anywhere else in the Middle East - without having to commit at all. It just opens up your choices. And we've had a lot of people buying the bags afterwards - we change the stock every three months and sell off the old ones for a bargain price."

I'm convinced enough to book seven bags - one for each day of the week. Let the brainwashing begin. Now, the thing with expensive bags that don't belong to you is that you might feel slightly tentative about carrying them round. After all, any major damage - beyond wear and tear of course - has to be paid for. As a seasoned borrower of other people's stuff, the first thing I do when my bags arrive in the office is conscientiously check them for scratches, sending my observations in an email to Ma Pochette.

Actually, that's what I should do. The first thing I really do is rip open the boxes, fling aside the pink ribbons, rustle through the layers of pink tissue paper and eagerly pull the gorgeous things out of their soft dustbags. I've fallen at the first hurdle, and I'm not the only one. I unpack and repackage the whole caboodle at least six times as people in the office come over for a look. Luckily, I have just the event for the inaugural bag-carrying: it's the launch of the Saturday issue of The National, at Pearls & Caviar in the Shangri-La in Abu Dhabi. It's an exciting event, but an awkward one to dress for: held on a Wednesday night, it's a classic example of the office-to-party fashion conundrum. I'm wearing skinny black jeans and a black T-shirt, glammed up only by my favourite purple Chie Mihara heels. A super-girlie clutch is going to look plain wrong, so there's only one contender: the Jimmy Choo Carolina in pale grey snakeskin, with a patent croc and gold clasp and removable gold chain. (Retail: Dh6,900. Rental: Dh550 a day.) It's big enough to carry my purse, my whole make-up bag, my phone, my enormous cluster of keys and my diary, but it's very definitely a clutch bag, and therefore suitable for evening. It's edgy, it's pared-down and it's got a pleasingly Eighties look that makes me feel like I'm carrying vintage. Aesthetically, it's a winner. What attracts everyone else's attention, though, is the softness of the python skin. It's irresistibly silky and smooth and I spend the night being pawed at by fascinated colleagues. I'm already starting to see the power of the bag.

The next day brings another revelation, as I ditch my own chic, understated Paule Ka in favour of the gold Lovely bowling bag from Juicy Couture. (Retail: Dh1,499. Rental: Dh155 a day.) If I'm honest, I ordered this bag for the comedy factor. I think it's tacky and flashy. I creep into the office head down, bag hanging unobtrusively by my side, shrugging off the sniggers, until someone yells, "That bag is gorgeous, I love it!" - and she really means it. She's 10 years younger than me, true, but for her sake I give the bag another chance and go for a lunchtime wander in Al Wahda Mall. And what do you know? Admiring glances come my way; taxi drivers stop for me; service is super-fast at Noodle House. I remain baffled, but apparently everyone respects the gold.

On Friday morning I pop into work to catch up on a few things and decide to bring some much-needed glamour to the weekend newsroom with a divine clutch from Vaza known as the Pagoda. (Retail: Dh4,300. Rental: Dh175 a day.) It's a good size. so I can fit in my new pared-down kit (phone, purse, keys, lipstick) without much fuss. But as I walk out of my flat, I start to feel a little uncomfortable. My clothes are modest - jeans, long-sleeved top, flats - but I'm definitely being watched. At least six passing cars slow down and beep me. Luckily, cabs are equally willing to stop, so I quickly escape. As I walk past the security guard at work, I get a broad grin and an approving nod. The funny thing is, as I type away, I can see the bag shimmering from the corner of my eye and I just can't concentrate: all I want to do is go and pose at a posh restaurant.

Sunday comes around, and with it a second delivery from Ma Pochette. The treasure of the new consignment is, of course, the Dior Babe - the shape carried by Carla Bruni-Sarkozy after her Dior makeover - in an rare acidic yellow colour. (Retail: Dh8,128. Rental: Dh525 a day.) Carrying it by its circular handles feels odd, so I assume the It-bag first position: arm bent at the elbow, bag hanging from the crook and hand limply outstretched, palm up. Paparazzi-ready, I pick Marina Mall's most notoriously icy shops and wander in. Ounass, Gucci, Fendi - in each, the normally aloof staff jump to attention as I browse, eyeing my Babe with respect. This is deeply enjoyable. Popping into Dior, Michael, the always lovely sales attendant, clocks my bag immediately. I'm a frequent visitor here as I search for props for fashion shoots. "Beautiful bag, Gemma - yours?" he says, making a valiant effort to conceal his surprise. "A very rare colour. Very special."

Bankruptcy seems a small price to pay for this sort of treatment, but before my mind starts to calculate, I rush back and shut the Babe away in its dustbag, put that in a box and lock the whole tempting package in a cupboard. Move on, I tell myself. As a reward for my restraint, I pick the shiniest bag for the pre-launch party of the Collector's Lounge at artparis-Abu Dhabi. The BE&D clutch is large in foiled bronze leather, with a giant bow on it. (Retail price: Dh3,000. Rental price: Dh250 a day.) It looks like a birthday present, so I love it, but the chic art collectors and artists don't seem as impressed. It might have worked as an installation, but it's not the bag for hanging out eating caviar with Zaha Hadid.

Chastened, I leave the party and head back up to the Shangri-La to meet some people for a late supper - after a pit stop at my place to swap the BE&D for a very pretty bright pink satin Manolo Blahnik evening bag. (Retail: Dh6700. Rental: Dh550 a day.) It is the epitome of girlie charm and a talking point. However, my main concern is to prevent any sort of food reaching the flawless satin. Have I really become the person that gets cross when a restaurant fails to provide a separate stand for my handbag? Has my resolve faltered with one bag to go?

And it's the really dangerous bag that's left: the black mink Zufi Alexander clutch. (Retail: Dh4,200. Rental: Dh190 a day.) It's tiny, it's fluffy, it's exquisitely pretty or exquisitely awful (how many times did I, as a teenager, self-righteously castigate my poor grandmother for her mink hat and coat?). If I carry this bag, will I get red paint thrown on it and egg on my face? And with just one day to go, I chicken out. I stroked the soft, glossy fur of this tiny confection (or "the gerbil" as a colleague has named it) and feel shame at my cowardice.

On the whole though, I am thrilled with the attention that my designer bags have brought me and I've loved having a whole new wardrobe of fabulously extravagant accessories. However, in the end, as I pack up the boxes ready for the courier from Ma Pochette, I can truthfully say that while I may have changed bags, the bags have not changed me.