By  on June 1, 2005

DALLAS — Bianca Villarreal had been to 10 stores, and at La Parisina in south Dallas she finally found the dress.

She looked like a bride as she modeled the strapless white gown with a beaded satin bodice and fluffy tulle skirt. However, the poufy confection was for her quinceaiera (pronounced "keen-say-nyair-a"), a 15th birthday celebration for Latin American Roman Catholic girls that is a cross between a Bat Mitzvah and a debutante party.

Major retailers, such as J.C. Penney Co., as well as bridal chains like David's Bridal and BridesMart Bridal and Internet entrepreneurs are trying to tap into the sales potential of this rite of passage as the U.S. Hispanic population grows. The Census Bureau forecast it will soar to 69.4 million in 2025 from 37.4 million in 2002.

Villarreal studied the $400 gown — by PC Mary's of Houston — in the mirror. "It's not too much, and it doesn't have too much sparkle, but it's not too plain," she said, sizing up how she would look at the party for 225 guests that was held May 14 at a Ramada Inn in a Dallas suburb.

Like several other 14-year-olds trying on voluminous gowns at La Parisina, Villarreal said she was shopping in specialty stores owned by Hispanics that focus on quinceanera. This niche of retail is becoming more competitive.

"We see it as an outstanding opportunity," said Manny Fernandez, director of multicultural marketing at Penney's, based in Plano, Tex. "By the year 2010, 47 percent of all teens in the U.S. will be Latinos. When you look at that vast number in population, and the fact they are starting to celebrate their culture more, particularly in metropolitan markets, it stands to reason that you will see this business growing."

Sixty-seven percent of U.S. Hispanics trace their ancestry to Mexico, where quinceanera has origins in an Aztec coming-of-age ritual that evolved to include a Catholic liturgy. Most quinceanera events begin with a special Mass at which the girl reaffirms her commitment to Christianity. A reception follows with music and dancing.

For retailers, selling opportunities go beyond the dress. The celebrant sometimes has a "court" of as many as 14 boys and/or girls who are dressed in tuxedos or gowns.

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