Byline: Melanie Kletter

NEW YORK — Sexy or sweet?
That’s the dilemma many teens are facing this month as they rummage through stores in search of the perfect dress for the prom, that all-important rite of passage.
So far, sweet reigns, with prom-goers opting for long, Cinderella-inspired ballgowns and dressier looks with embellishments. Two-piece looks are also checking out, and color — especially pink — is selling robustly.
Many major retailers are reporting healthy sales in the prom arena as the season moves into its final thrust, and many stores said price is not as much of a factor as it has been in the past.
Retailers attributed the increase in part to favorable demographics as the teen population has surged significantly in recent years. In addition, some industry executives said the uniqueness of having prom in 2000, the dawn of the new millennium, is spurring shoppers to splurge a little extra to celebrate the big event.
Another reason for increased interest in the category is due to the enormous hoopla now surrounding events such as the Oscars, which contributes to the overall heightened fashion consciousness among today’s teens, retailers said.
At J.C. Penney, prom dresses are virtually flying off the shelves, and sales in the prom area are about 25 percent ahead of last year, according to Catalina Maddox, the buyer for special-occasion dresses at the 1,140-unit chain.
“We have had a tremendous prom so far,” Maddox said. “In fact, we expect this year to be the biggest prom event we have ever had.”
She said Penney’s has had little promotional activity thus far and is selling full-priced dresses in the $100 to $180 range. Among the best-selling resources are Zum Zum, Roberta and Jessica McClintock.
“Two-piece sets are selling well, but the more traditional cinderella ballgowns are doing much better for us,” she said. “Girls all want to look pretty and feminine.”
Along with other retailers, Penney’s noted that dresses in white have been surprise sellers this year.
“Every single white gown on the floor is selling above expectations,” Maddox noted. Saks Fifth Avenue has put more emphasis into the prom category this year by sponsoring special in-store events featuring runway shows and makeup sessions, according to Barbara Cavanagh, vice president and divisional merchandise manager for coats, suits, dresses and eveningwear.
“Last year, sort of late in the game, we realized that prom was an opportunity, and this year we made a concerted effort to be very focused and prepared,” she said. “In fact, this year marks the biggest prom effort Saks has ever done. We have done more outreach to local high schools and special events such as dress giveaways.
“Proms today are so much bigger than they were before,” she noted. “Kids now are really fashion conscious and really get into dressing up.”
Saks is having prom events in each of its 61 stores, including a large-scale event to be held this Saturday in its flagship New York store and other locations. In addition, Saks showed prom dresses in its April catalog for the first time, including gowns from Tadashi, David Meister, Kay Unger and Phoebe.
In line with the rest of its fashion offerings, Saks offers more upscale prom designs, with prices starting in the mid-$200 range, Cavanagh noted. Saks has been doing well with pinks, blues and reds. Best-selling looks at Saks are strapless ballgowns, long dresses, beaded separates and animal-print stretch separates from Bianca Nero, a California resource. Other top labels are Laundry by Shelli Segal, ABS by Allen Schwartz and Nicole Miller, she said.
Bloomingdale’s has seen strong sales of traditional ballgown dresses, as well as separates, according to Kal Ruttenstein, senior vice president and fashion director. Open-back handkerchief tops are being paired with long straight skirts or full skirts, and bias-cut spaghetti straps and strapless dresses are also selling well.
Among its best prom labels are ABS, Laundry, Phoebe, DeLaru and Gunne Sax.
“Color is pushing the category,” Ruttenstein said. “Also, we are doing well with a variety of fabrics, including python and animal prints.”
Ruttenstein also noted interest in an iridescent denim look from ABS.
At Nordstrom, embellishments such as beading, and long, sleeveless prom dresses are hot, according to a company spokeswoman.
In addition, “color is really selling,” and separates such as tops and skirts and even capri pants are adding excitement to the category. Top labels include Laundry and ABS, she said.
At Macy’s West, the top segment for prom has been ballgowns, according to Jennifer Meli, associate buyer for junior dresses.
“We are definitely seeing more interest in dressier looks,” Meli said. “Teens are liking the big, flowing romantic looks over separates and the long and slim looks.”
Fabrics such as chiffon, brocade and taffeta are leading the way at Macy’s, she said.
“Also, pink is huge, especially light pink, and white has been very big,” Meli said.
“I didn’t buy much black this year. Everyone loves color.”
Prom looks are also featured prominently in Macy’s new Thisit departments, which are renovated junior areas and are now in four of its stores, Meli said. In addition, Macy’s West this year teamed up with Seventeen magazine to hold special prom events in some of its stores, which have generated more interest in the category.
David’s Bridal, the 104-unit special-occasion chain based in Ardmore, Pa., has seen interest in sexier looks such as two-piece bare midriff pieces. Among prom resources selling well are Blondie Nights, Jump and Morgan & Co., said Ramona de la Rosa, vice president of non-bridal dresses at the chain.
“Prom is a growing business for us, and we are really expanding our offerings in this arena,” she said, adding that prom sales are up over last year.
Sexier looks are also finding buyer attention at some smaller stores.
Adam Shaffer, owner of Undercover, a high-end boutique in the Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica, Calif., said his customers are looking for slimmer and sexier looks.
“We have seen more interest in new styles such as asymmetrical looks and shorter dresses,” he said.
Pink and turquoise are top colors at Undercover, where fabrics such as matte jersey, Lycra spandex and knits are also popular, Shaffer said.