GOING TO THE PROM

Byline: Karen Parr

NEW YORK — For Prom ’97, think hello Academy Awards, bye-bye Sweet Valley High.
From prom specialty shops to department stores to vintage stores across the country, the word is out: Today’s prom-goers don’t want to look like a debutante circa 1957.
This time, it’s all about independence and sophistication. For that all-important dress, a girl may choose a vintage number or a sultry floor-length gown. Either way, the look is chic and slinky.
“I think this year a lot more girls are going to the prom than last year, for whatever reasons,” said Greta Elias, owner of Brava, a 1,000-square-foot special occasion shop in Forest Hills, N.Y. “A lot of them don’t have dates, and they’re still going, in groups of girls, which is very different.”
Elias said another big difference with these girls, who spend an average of $200 per dress, is that they are dressing “less trashy, more sexy” — and they’re shopping without mom.
“They come with their girlfriends,” Elias said.
Long gowns versus short gowns are the ticket this year at Brava, Elias said, with vibrant colors rather than the blacks and whites that were once so popular.
“Most are going with the straight, form-fitting gowns, more sophisticated,” she said.
Sophistication has been the big sell at retail across the country this season.
At Proffitt’s, the Alcoa, Tenn.-based chain, prom sales are up this year by 30 percent, according to Rick Thomas, divisional merchandise manager of juniors and moderate sportswear.
Strong business began in February and continued through March and April, Thomas noted, calling prom “one of the key driving forces of dresses for first quarter.”
He said the dresses that sold were in keeping with the “true social dress-up look,” with details that a slightly older, more mature customer would go for, such as trimming and beads.
“Long dresses were by far and away the best,” Thomas said. “Short silhouettes did not do well.”
While spring 1996 seemed to trend toward ballgowns, Thomas said that did not happen this year.
Another important addition was the influx of sheers.
“Sheer midriffs and netting, sheer backs, sold well,” Thomas said. “That fits into the more traditional, social look. I think this business is much more sophisticated than it’s been in the past. It’s not as young in feeling.”
Thomas said teenagers today seem more advanced than those in past years: They look to the Academy Awards for style direction, they read the magazines, they shop for prom dresses earlier than ever, and they jump-start prom night by taking a stretch limo to a fancy restaurant.
“This has become such a big, special night,” he said. “They’re looking to make a bigger memory and a bigger to-do.”
At Terry Costa, a Dallas boutique, sales associate Oxie Leekam said prom fashions are still demographically dependent — small-town girls go for the “princess, ballgown look” while those in Dallas “see the styles in the magazines and go for it.”
“There is a big group of girls into the sexy look, the skimpy, tight look,” she said. “And the geometrical style is in, so there is a lot of skin showing.”
Leekam said with this geometrical style, triangular sections might be cut out in the back or in the front of the dress and covered with translucent material, like mesh. Ninety percent of the best-selling dresses have been long.
“They’re going for what the stars in Hollywood are wearing,” she said. “They’re not settling for what used to be the traditional-looking prom dress — they want to be sophisticated.”
To achieve that look, the average girl spends about $400 or $450, Leekam said.
Sue Bueche, owner of Rumours, a 3,500-square-foot prom and bridal boutique in Santa Barbara, Calif., said this year’s prom season has been slightly better than last year’s.
Contrary to reports from other boutiques, at Rumours, ballgowns are big, especially the Jessica McClintock versions with full skirts and corset tops.
“We also sell a lot of bias-cut slinky dresses,” Bueche said. Colors like lime green and silver have also been popular.
Beyond the traditional special occasion shops and department stores, other retailers are trying to get in on prom sales.
This year, the Contempo Casuals junior chain beckoned prom-goers with window signage for the “One Stop Prom Shop.” Fashion director Alex Bargerac of Wet Seal/Contempo Casuals said the shop fit in with the company’s goal of offering a “lifestyle” for their consumers.
“We made an issue this year of having representation for prom,” Bargerac said. “[The customer] could come buy her girly dress, her pearlized bag, her jewelry, her sparkling body glitter, a feather boa, her nail polish and her strappy sandals.”
Bargerac said the dresses that sold well were colorful, versus black and white, and were simple, long slipdress styles in a brushed sateen or dull satin, rather than short. Dresses ranged in price from $39 to $65.
“We almost gave a fashion twist to it,” Bargerac said.
At She, a 1,330-square-foot streetwear boutique in Johnson City, Tenn., owner Belinda Bledsoe prides herself on bringing edgy lines like Lip Service and Serious to that sleepy college town near East Tennessee State University.
This season, she also wanted to introduce some alternative prom choices, like the tulle skirts from the Blue Plate junior line in New York.
“I was just trying to pick up a few pieces that I thought would be different,” Bledsoe said. “I get a lot of customers in that are looking for something that will be unique, like at the prom they didn’t like stuff that everyone else would have on.
“Right now, among young people, it’s like death socially to be like everyone else,” she said. “Whereas in the Eighties it was death to not be like everyone else. That’s true everywhere, especially for prom, not just the small towns.”
At Locals Only, a vintage boutique in Laguna Beach, Calif., some girls are stopping in to pick up retro prom looks, according to owner Larry Craig.
“This year they want the Seventies Halston look,” he said. “They want something form-fitting, long, either in polyester or silk jersey, very sexy.”
Craig said girls come to a vintage shop for the uniqueness and originality of the dress. “No one’s going to show up at the prom with their dress on,” Craig said.
Since the shop is just south of Los Angeles, Craig said all the movie star dressing at the awards shows has become a big influence.
“What were the stars wearing?” Craig asked. “That’s a lot of influence on these young women. They see that and they’ll come to our store with that in their mind.”
And even at this vintage shop in a beach town, the answer for what girls want is the same as in the other shops.
“They want a real sexy look, they don’t want to look like the bridesmaid,” he said. “It’s their night, so it’s a big deal.”

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