By  on June 12, 2008

The after parties are over, but the memories will last forever. This year's prom goers went the less-is-more
route, snapping up skin-baring frocks (along with the usual pageant-worthy gowns).

Short is red hot; beads, spangles and all manner of sparkles are a hit, and skin — lots of it — is in.

With prom season just about over, retail fashion directors and regional boutique owners report that this year's prom-going girls took a less-is-more approach to the sartorial highlight of high school. "It's been very short and colorful on the floor this season," says Stephanie Solomon, vice president of fashion direction for women's ready-to-wear and accessories at Bloomingdale's, where prom dresses retail for $300 to $500 in the dress department. "We expected the maxidress to be a big winner, but that hasn't happened." Of course, floor-sweeping gowns remain a staple of the big night for many a prom-going girl, yet cocktail-style dresses did get snapped up in greater numbers this season. The varied hues of the spring collections — pink, yellow, blue — carried over to the prom market, with retailers and boutiques reporting a surge in sales of prints, from leopard to ikat, as well as solids. "It's not [about] the little black dress anymore," says Solomon.

At Saks Fifth Avenue, where contemporary dresses retail for between $300 and $450, girls went for skin-baring silhouettes, both long and short, according to vice president and women's fashion director Michael Fink. "The one-shoulder and strapless dresses are popular," Fink says. "[And] the jersey has been big, too. It's interesting because it's not forgiving, but it has great draping possibilities, and it takes color really well."

According to Ken Downing, senior vice president and fashion director at Neiman Marcus, ruffles and flounces — anything with a feminine sensibility — were hits. In fact, some of the wealthiest prom goers gravitated toward Notte by Marchesa, a lower-priced diffusion line, as well as 3.1 Phillip Lim. "It was a big year for referencing what was on the runways," he notes. Designers who are traditionally popular at prom time, including Betsey Johnson, Nicole Miller, A.B.S. by Allen Schwartz and BCBG, remained strong sellers for Saks and Bloomingdale's, while at Lord & Taylor, where racer and twist backs and, once again, short dresses, were popular, perennial prom designer Jessica McClintock did a brisk business, according to LaVelle Olexa, senior vice president of public relations.There have a been a few surprises, however. "We've sold a lot of House of Deréon," says Solomon, referring to the line of form-fitting eveningwear designed by Beyoncé and Tina Knowles. "The sexy shape that's not as voluminous has been surprisingly popular."

Of course, not everyone buys a prom dress at a major department store. And while those large retailers would not disclose sales for prom, independent formalwear stores (many of which are located in suburban and rural areas and typically carry prom-specific labels such as Jovani, Faviana Couture and Sherri Hill) felt the economic pinch this season. "A lot of people shopped later this year," says Carrie Thomas, manager of Geno's Formal Affair in Lexington, Ky., where the average price of a prom gown is about $350. "All in all, it ended up being a good season, but typically Martin Luther King Jr. Day in January is the kickoff for prom dress shopping, and we didn't see a spike until late March. I think people were just more careful."

"People have to spend more now, because the dresses are getting more expensive," says Florence Wang, a longtime employee of Bravura Fashions in Alpharetta, Ga., where prom gowns start at about $200.

In fact, even the old-fashioned payment plan that prom goers' grandmothers once used became a favored option for some teenage buyers. "We actually had an increase in business, but saw a huge increase in layaway shopping," says Danette Kennedy, owner of Kennedy's Bridal and Formal in Florence, Ala., echoing a practice employed by several other regional stores. "The average price of a dress runs from about $325 to about $450. The customer puts 20 percent down, and we give them 90 days to pay it off."

Finding ways to help girls finance their outfits wasn't the only concern on retailers' minds. Bobbi Ziffren, the owner of Bobbi's Just Prom boutique in Peoria, Ill., found herself a bit flummoxed by the sexiness of the season's most popular choices. "Really low-cut dresses, minidresses, dresses with no backs — they did really well," she says. "Frankly, I'm surprised at how many parents let their daughters out the door in them."PHOTOS BY PASHA ANTONOV; MODEL: SHANNON/NEW YORK MODELS; HAIR BY CHRIS NEWBURG and MAKEUP BY BRYAN LYNDE, both at RJ BENNETT REPRESENTS; FASHION ASSISTANT: KIYANNA STEWART; STYLED BY MAYTE ALLENDE

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