ATLANTA--Although one specialty retailer described it as "the bane of my existence," most agree that, while difficult, dressing the mother of the bride is a great way to offer highly personalized service.
Far from demure and matronly, today's M.O.B. prefers an updated, younger style with individualized flair. Retailers unanimously agree that only a handful of manufacturers are addressing this demand, which often necessitates creative alternatives, such as pairing evening separates and mixing resources.
Here, WWD talks to buyers about how to please this most discriminating customer.

DAVID ETHRIDGE, owner, D. ETHRIDGE, a women's better-to-bridge store in Dothan, Ala.:
"With M.O.B., the dollar value is important, because it's a big-ticket item, and we have good turnover if the look is right. It's important for me to have a good selection because it's a service I can offer my tried-and-true customers that keeps them from going to other retailers.
"Our biggest difficulty is the wide age range of mothers, from their 40s to their 70s. Whatever their age, mothers don't look like they did 20 years ago, and they don't want matronly looks. They don't want anything sweet and lacy with frou-frou. They do want sophisticated, suited, tailored classic looks with clean lines and very little embellishment.
"There are plenty of traditional, dumb dresses out there, and not enough good ones. I buy 80 percent of M.O.B. from Karen Lawrence, Victoria Royal and George F. Couture, because they are the most consistent.
"Typically, what sells is a longer skirt--tea or floor length--with a longer jacket, or a dress with a jacket. Tapestry and brocade fabrics with clear sequins for sheen are important, as is chiffon and fortuny pleating. Khaki, beige and ivory work best, followed by jewel tones.
"A best-selling look has been Karen Lawrence's crepe slipdress in ivory or jewel tones with a matching lace jacket with clear sequins, a tailored jewel neck and decorative closure.
"My big complaint is that we need more choices in the 16-20 size range. This mother has the same requirements and taste as the smaller woman. Another key to successful M.O.B. business is service. Mothers want someone to hold their hand and provide alterations, accessories and guidance."BETTY SPRADLIN, owner, LA TIERRA, a better-to-bridge women's specialty store in Jacksonville, Fla.:
"M.O.B., which overlaps with special occasion, is a big category for me, at 35 percent of total business. It's a challenge, because there aren't enough good resources.
"We don't want any little old lady clothing, no pastel colors without sizzle or bubble gum chiffon. Our M.O.B.s want to look sharp, young, sexy and refined--a ladylike look with flair. It's time for manufacturers to stop making frumpy looks.
"I buy lots of resources, but not in depth. Bestsellers are Karen Lawrence, for good fit, quality and special twists; Black Tie, also for good fit; George F. Couture, for a different look with fortuny pleating and some beading; Daymor, for good two-piece dressing, and Judith Ann, which has a good fit for full figures, although sometimes it's a bit mature.
"A best-selling style, a two-piece dress in satin-back crepe with clear sequins, with a long skirt and a deep V-neck jacket with a chiffon scarf that drapes over the back, by Daymor, sells around 15 units per season."

RHODA MATTHEWS, co-owner, IV SEASONS FASHIONS, a better-to-bridge women's specialty store in Athens, Ga.:
"It's hard to have a profitable M.O.B. business. Customers want something special that's not in department stores. We have to offer individual looks that won't be duplicated. Unless you carry a large stock, you inevitably have the wrong size, style or color.
"In the past five years, we hear, 'I don't want to look like a M.O.B.,' all the time. The category has become much more fashion-forward, and people are looking for something they can wear after the wedding.
"Karen Lawrence is good for dresses with jackets and three-piece dressing that includes a camisole. Also, they have offered palazzo pants with beaded jackets and scarves, which is a good, younger look.
"We have to be very creative retailers. We've mixed separates, such as a velvet jacket from Canvas Back with crepe palazzo pants from Andrea Jovine. We also pull upbeat holiday looks for M.O.B.."

IMOGENE HAMILTON, general merchandise manager, HAROLD GRANT, a bridge-to-designer specialty store in West Palm Beach, Fla., with seven locations:
"M.O.B. is the bane of our existence. We spend more time buying it than a dozen other areas put together. It's one of the most difficult categories because the customer has such a definite mind-set on what she wants. Also, there is great variation in the kinds of ceremonies people have.
"We don't carry resources that are strictly M.O.B., but rather we pull from good special occasion and cocktail vendors. Teri Jon and U.M.I. are good for a younger customer and less formal weddings. Since customers have such specific, individualized needs, we love to find companies that will do special orders--for a skirt length, sleeve treatment and, of course, color. Good special order resources are David Joseph, with a wide color range, and Yolande Lorente, who does beautiful handpainted chiffons. Also, Gene Roye, a California line, and Miami-based Sylvie will do special treatments.
"M.O.B. is a special service, and that's what specialty stores do best."

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