Byline: Georgia Lee

ATLANTA — Although it has enormous potential, mother of the bride is consistently one of the most difficult categories, according to specialty retailers.
Most say the industry has not kept pace with today’s women, who, although anywhere from 40 to 65, don’t want the stereotypical “little old lady” look associated with MOB.
“My customers don’t know they’re older,” said Betty Spradlin, divisional merchandise manager for Rosenblum’s, a Jacksonville, Fla., specialty store. “With exercise and plastic surgery, they’re in great shape and want to look hot. Anything too dowdy or mature doesn’t work.”
Spradlin’s biggest challenge is finding young, sophisticated dresses. “The category could be 25 percent of business, but I’ve had to pull back to 15 due to a void in the market,” she said.
With so much mature styling around, retailers, such as Spradlin, have resorted to lines that are considered cocktail or even prom for mothers.
For Spradlin, Rex Lester, a New York-based special occasion line works for both prom and MOB. Another great alternative, she said, is Zelda, a New York bridge-priced line of special occasion suiting, with special details, such as satin and fur collars and beaded touches. She has also had success with illusion and rhinestone-embellished dresses by Nicole Bakti, New York, and slimming fortuny-pleated styles by Jeanne Marc, San Francisco.
“Illusion is a godsend,” she said. “It allows coverage, but at the same time, it’s sexy.” Spradlin’s best price range is between $350 and $650, although some styles are as high as $1,000.
As many bridal shops have abandoned the MOB category, it has become one of the fastest-growing areas for Thomas Tolbert, owner of Legends, an Atlanta special occasion shop. Tolbert recently converted an entire room of pageant dressing to MOB.
Still, Tolbert laments the lack of good resources, in no uncertain terms. “Women have changed, while designers haven’t,” he said. “I can buy a store full of prom looks in five days, but searching for good MOB looks is like looking for pearls in chicken manure.”
In addition to young looks, women want versatility and sharp prices, between $200 and $400 retail, said Tolbert. He finds more frustrated mothers, willing to cross over into prom resources, such as Holiday, Alyce and Peak Evenings, New York resources that offer young styling.
B.J. Thomas, owner of B.J. Thomas, a Myrtle Beach, S.C., specialty store, does 25 percent of business with MOB, with 35 percent of total business directed to an over-35 customer.
“They want something under $300, simple, without allover sequins, sleeves to the elbow, no low necklines, and something that doesn’t look like MOB,” she said. “There are far too few resources, and the industry doesn’t understand our needs.” She called for more size 16, 18 and 20.
Thomas does 75 percent of MOB business with Rimini, a New York-based division of The Warren Apparel Group Ltd. A bestseller has been a long silk dress with a short jacket in periwinkle blue with four rows of sequins, priced around $300.
In addition to Rimini and Karen Lawrence, Thomas uses cocktail resources such as Cattiva, Patra and Karen Miller.
Thomas added that the MOB customer is a difficult one requiring as much special attention as the bride. She often takes special orders to fulfill a variety of color requests.
Despite retailers’ protests, manufacturers say they are changing directions, with younger styling for today’s mother of the bride.
“In the past, manufacturers viewed the mother of the bride as older than she was,” said Richard Warren, president, The Warren Apparel Group. “Women in their 40s don’t want to look like somebody’s mother.”
Around two years ago, The Warren Group began to update its Rimini division, adding more fashion elements, such as stretch and crocheted fabrics, mesh and beaded touches. As a direct result, said Warren, sales have increased 20 percent each year.
“There’s still plenty of dumb looks out there, and there’s still a market for it, but more people like us are having success with more contemporary styling.”

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