Byline: Melanie Kletter / With contributions from Julee Greenberg

NEW YORK — For some, the prom conjures up images of uncomfortable corset gowns and overly concerned parents.
Many of today’s teens, however, have come to associate the big event with marquee designer names, stretch limos and a chance to indulge. Reflecting the economic boom times of recent years, proms have returned back to the glitzy high-profile appeal the big night for high schoolers had in the Fifties.
In turn, many companies have turned the prom into a significant business opportunity and a season that has been starting earlier in recent years. Although the bulk of prom selling will be generated in the March-to-June time period, stores across the country have started a variety of prom promotions and a plethora of in-store events to drum up sales.
Companies are also getting more innovative in marketing the prom season by offering events such as prom modeling searches and even prom logo contests.
“Prom has evolved into something bigger than we ever anticipated,” said Ike Zekaria, vice president of Windsor, a 30-store, special-occasion retailer based in Los Angeles. “The ready-to-wear market and the sportswear market have had a greater influence than ever before, so dresses are more fun and girls are really enthusiastic about it.”
David’s Bridal, the wedding and prom dress retailer that was bought last year by The May Department Stores Co., has experienced similar growth.
“Prom was initially an offshoot for us, but now it has emerged into a separate business,” said a company spokeswoman.
Vendors and retailers give a variety of reasons for the heightened emphasis on prom. With the strong economy, there has been less resistance to higher-price dresses and more opportunities for add-on sales in other categories, retailers and vendors said.
In addition to good economics, celebrities and the influence of award shows like the Grammys and the Oscars have influenced dressing, and today’s media-driven, celebrity culture has encouraged many teens to get more interested in the fashions of the stars. Many teens keep up with what is happening in the higher ranks of fashion by religiously reading magazines such as Vogue and Elle, as well as more teen-focused books like Seventeen.
“Prom has become more fashionable,” said Zekaria. “A lot of kids look at the awards shows and want to emulate their favorite celebrities. We have girls coming in and say things like: “Give me the dress Hilary Swank wore.”‘
Prom has also turned into a more significant opportunity for higher-end companies who don’t traditionally target the teen market.
Andrea Scoli, executive vice president of dresses and sportswear at Laundry by Shelli Segal, said prom has become an important category for the company. Scoli said Laundry now assists retailers when they hold in-store events and also sends company employees to stores to offer fashion advice.
Jessica McClintock, who started her business 31 years ago, is still among the most well-known names in the prom field and has built on her origins as a prom company to become a dress powerhouse targeting many price tiers. McClintock also now has a number of licensing deals. Her product staple includes jewelry, eyewear, dolls and handbags, and the company also operates 40 signature stores.
Meanwhile, retailers are taking new directions in marketing the season. Last year, Windsor started a national prom registry over the Internet that allows users to list any dress and what high school they attend to avoid duplication of dresses, a definite faux pas at prom time.
This year, Windsor has started a “model search” to find a teen who will be featured in the firm’s advertising campaign next year. Teens can register on the Windsor Web site, and in its stores.
“We wanted to do this because we want to brand ourselves and put our stake in the special-occasion market,” said Zekaria. “Also, we wanted to draw attention to our Web site.”
David’s Bridal has even added a public-service aspect to its prom business. The company has partnered with Mothers Against Drunk Driving to sponsor a logo contest around the theme “Keep it safe for prom.”
David’s also has created a special Web site just for prom selling at
Even high-end retailer Henri Bendel is touching on the prom season by offering a great variety of eveningwear to their young customer.
“Our prom customer comes here for something she wouldn’t find in a large department store, something different,” said Michelle DuPuis, a buyer for the store. “And she has the money to spend on the dress she wants.”
DuPuis said that the Henri Bendel prom customer will most likely choose a dress from a designer like Robert Danes, Paco Rabanne or Christina Perrin.
While Henri Bendel does not hold a specific promotion for prom customers, DuPuis said that on May 3, the store will hold their annual “Girl’s Night Out” for brides and bridesmaids. The event will feature a variety of services for brides-to-be, which promgoers can take advantage of as well.
On the publishing front, prom also represents a major business opportunity. Seventeen magazine has gone outside of the publishing world to build on the season.
This year, it is holding about 45 live events showcasing prom and spring fashions. Some of the events include free makeovers for hair and makeup, as well as appearances from young celebrities. Its March prom issue covers every imaginable aspect of prom, from “The Party Workout,” or how to best get in shape for the big event to “Midparty repairs.”
“This year, we started having events in January,” said Jennifer Maguire, a Seventeen spokeswoman who is instrumental in planning the prom events. “I was a little concerned that it was too early, but we had a lot of demand from retailers.”
Other teen magazines are aggressively going after this business with special prom issues, including YM and Teen. Kennedy from David’s Bridal said “all the magazines have approached us and want to partner with us.”
“Usually, we don’t think about prom until February, but this year, we have been blown away by how early people are starting to think about prom,” she said.
On the fashion front, many looks this season are body conscious and sexy, reflecting trends in sportswear and from young celebrities such as Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera. Wilder looks such as zebra prints and Bohemian prints have also emerged as early top-selling items.
McClintock said top-booking looks at her company this season include organza styles with an apron front, strapless looks and styles with corset tops.
“Ballgowns are always popular,” she added.
Other best-selling styles include a Bohemian-print dress, a black-and-white zebra-print style, and body-conscious silhouettes with sparkle trim.
Deb Shops has invested this season in dressier and more glamorous looks, especially big ballgowns and “girly” fashions, a spokeswoman said.
Blanca Farber, a social dress buyer at Windsor, said her company has invested heavily in dresses with flocking — a type of embellished treatment — as well as one-shoulder looks.
Farber added: “Girls are definitely opting for more of a sexier look.”