Two-tone Azzedine Alaia ballet flats and a 15-year-old black Marni slip are hardly typical trappings for prom. But for 17-year-old Lily Waronker, who raided her mom’s closet for the goods, they created the perfect look.

“It’s just my personal style,” explains the junior at Crossroads High School in sunny Santa Monica, Calif. Her friend Saree Kayne also passed on traditional prom fare and wore a short, breezy flesh-toned chiffon dress custom-made by her sister, Los Angeles-based designer Jenni Kayne. Other girls opted for Balenciagas and Miu Mius. Despite all the stereotypes of what a prom dress should be (over-the-top and to-the-floor), that night, nary a hemline fell far below the knee.

No doubt, times have changed from that debutante-esque mood once emblematic of the event. Nowadays, prom designers and retailers have to contend with a number of factors weighing on their typically self-contained industry — competition from ready-to-wear designers and the sway of Tinseltown, to name a couple. Then there’s that step into the cocktail arena — which some prom specialists espouse and others decry — where it’s no longer taboo among students to wear a decidedly less formal frock.

“Prom is more party today,” says Mike Denton, president of the National Prom Association and owner of Formal Approach boutique in Jefferson City, Tenn., of the shifts occurring on the industry landscape. “There was a point when prom was a romantic event. Now it’s turned into more of a party, more celebration than romantic outing.”

“We think of prom not so much as a rite of passage, but a fun event where you can get dressed up,” Saree Kayne says. “It’s a lot more fun and young to be in a party-ish dress.”

Or as Denton puts it, “The bells-and-whistle gown has probably already seen its better days.”

If the traditional take on prom has gone out to fashion’s pasture, what, then, is its current visual vocabulary? Rather than a change in direction — say, a 90-degree turn from Cinderella pouf to cocktail-casual — today’s prom attendee is willing and more open to experiment, paving the way for a motley lineup of styles that include full, lean, short, long, in-between and, yes, vintage. “We’re in a time now where anything goes and everybody’s encouraged to be her own person,” says Tracy Ratner, president of XOXO Dresses. To wit, just look at the six style categories on PromAdvice.com, which include princess, but also rockabilly, vintage and bohemian.

This story first appeared in the June 29, 2005 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

Ask Robert Bronstein, president of sales at BCBG, what percentage of business the company owes to prom, and he’s unable to give an answer due to the very reasons noted above. “The business has changed so much that traditional prom doesn’t exist anymore,” he says. “I ask stores [for figures] and they basically tell me that girls are buying so many different types of clothes for prom, rather than the traditional prom dress, that they’re finding it difficult to measure.”

Add to that the fact that those shopping the department store circuit have at their reach fashions beyond what’s labeled prom. While unable to quote the amount of crossover, Russell Orlando, fashion director of juniors and cosmetics for Macy’s East, acknowledges that “once [the customer] is in our store, she can shop the other brands.”

“Prom magazines are showing absolutely everything now,” says Betsey Johnson, long a popular name for prom season. “There’s the girl who’s going to wear a black strapless, above-the-knee sheath dress, there’s the girl who wants sparkle. Prom has been opened up to a lot of different looks. It goes with the times.”

There are those retailers, though, like Tom Buchanan of Bella Boutique in Knoxville, Tenn., who warn against this break from traditional prom fashion. “The industry as a whole has to be careful,” he says. “The prom dress should stay to-the-floor gowns, whether it be column, pouf, whatever. A little bit of fashion trend is fine, but when it comes to just a cocktail dress — not very acceptable. We can never let prom slip to being that informal.” Of concern is the effect on the special occasion industry and its command of the formal dress market. Currently, 59 percent of teens shop the specialty store for prom, according to NPA studies.

“Competition is more of a factor when the market gravitates toward short,” says Denton. “I think that’s the way to minimize the competition from ready-to-wear designers.”

Then there are the staunch traditionalists, like Sandra Hodges, owner of Frills ‘N Fancies in Statesboro, Ga. Mention a hemline like those seen at the Crossroads High prom and she’ll reply, without skipping a beat, “Nope. It may happen in California, but it’s not going to happen in the true Georgia South. Girls are expected to be really dressed. I mean, we’re the belle of the ball.”

The psychological benefit of getting dressed up — really dressed up — is one that Susan Kaplan of Teen Heaven in North Palm Beach, Fla., shares as well. “Everything is getting so casual, it seems to me that you’re setting a girl up for a big disappointment. She’s going to have no memories of having that big, beautiful gown,” Kaplan says. “Kids were coming in [to the store this year], wanting a short dress, and I told them, ‘Honey, you know what? I know you saw it in a magazine, but you’re going to be sorry.'”

Alison Doherty, a senior at Gaithersburg High in Rockville, Md., is of the same mind. “I wanted to go for the classic look,” she says of the yellow satin Jessica McClintock gown she wore to this year’s event. “I don’t want to be looking back at my prom pictures in 20 years saying, ‘What the heck was I thinking?'” The one dress-down concession she’s made an allowance for: socks. “In case my shoes are killing me real bad, I can change into them when I go dancing,” Doherty says.

Much, though, has to do with the inevitable geographic differences that come into play. Meg Walters, co-founder of Cool Book (a magalogue mailed directly to teens each year) and owner of Henri’s Cloud Nine located in the rural Ohio town of Minerva, says the Cinderella ballgown is still her number-one silhouette. Her partner in Cool Book, Kari Smith, owns Des Moines boutique Schaffer’s. “Growing up in a small school on a farm in central Iowa, we didn’t have that many events,” she says. “It’s possible prom is the only time in your life — with the exception of your wedding — you’re going to get to wear a ballgown.”

And though the casualization of prom is most evident on the coasts, it is hardly confined to those regions. Erin Gevik is a 2005 graduate of Washington High in Sioux Falls, S.D. “Over time, the poufy dresses have gotten less popular just because girls in the past have worn them,” she says. At her prom only a handful of girls — if she had to guess, 15 percent — went for the look this year. Gevik, for the record, wore a silk turquoise column gown from Caché, a “body-skimming” piece she first saw while on vacation in Hawaii.

From the other side of the fence, Betsey Johnson notes that “prom is major” for her collection of fun, kicky dresses. “It’s a huge, strong business for us,” she says. “Prom has done better than the regular line.”

“I’m floored at all the girls that come in with their mothers, with their girlfriends, during prom season,” she adds. “We’re noticing that there’s a real need for my kind of dresses.”

“Traditional prom designers are offering a certain look,” says Ratner of XOXO. “We’re offering an alternative and the customer is going for it.” Although billed as a “lifestyle resource for juniors,” prom accounts for roughly 60 percent of the company’s sales. “If [the special occasion designers] were to start making dresses that were a little different,” she continues, “we would probably have less of an impact on them.” Smith of Cool Book and Schaffer’s agrees. “Every store that’s coined a prom shop has the same designers,” she says. “The customer is forced to look elsewhere.”

Not all specialty industry players are worried, though. Jean Paul Hamm, president of Alyce Designs, a 35-year veteran of the prom market, is hardly even concerned. “There are two types of girls that buy the prom dress,” he explains. “The one who goes to the department stores and the one who wants something more elaborate. You will always have enough girls who go to the [specialty] store.”

Perhaps an apt mirror to all these changing currents for the prom market can be found in Hollywood and the miscellany of starlets — and styles — who inspire many a graduating teen. To those who worry about the informality of the event, no need; there will always be the ever-popular glamour gown like Kate Hudson’s canary yellow satin dress in 2003’s “How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days” — at least three students wore the look to Gevik’s prom this spring.

PROM STATS

  • Eighty-four percent of teens will spend $200 to $300 on their prom dresses.
  • The average teen will spend $50 to $200 on accessories, $30 to $75 on hair, $30 to $75 on makeup and $10 to $50 on nails.
  • Prom is a $4 billion dollar-per-year industry.
  • The average couple spends $1,300.
  • The average teen will try on 33 dresses before she finds the right one.
  • Fifty-six percent of teens will ask their parents for money to pay for prom.
  • Sixty-seven percent of teens will rent a limo for prom.
  • The favorite prom accessory for 85 percent of teens this year was a date.

AOL RED prom poll/PromSpot.com/Fairchild Bridal Group’s “Your Prom Reader Survey 2001”

MORE BESTSELLERS

  • Alyce Design‘s hot pink short taffeta ballgown with feathers, $369, at Sabra Bridal & Formal, Oklahoma City, Okla.
  • City Triangles‘ sage satin lamour ballgown, $158, at Macy’s East.
  • Entice‘s “Princess Diary” red strapless taffeta ballgown, $410, at Legends, Roswell Ga.
  • Tiffany‘s strapless pink taffeta gown with embossed bodice, $299, at First Impressions, Jacksonville, Ark.
  • XOXO‘s green layered ombre satin gown, $98, at xoxo.com and Macy’s East.
  • Zum Zum by Niki Livas‘ brown ruche V-front satin gown, $129.50, at Windsor stores nationwide, windsorstore.com
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