Outlook bright for prom dress sales despite recession, retailers say

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When it comes to prom fashion in a recession, the trend goes something like this: Hems are up, prices are down and sales -- at least at upscale boutiques here -- remain constant.

Owners of evening and formalwear shops in the region, as well as national trend experts, say that shorter, cocktail-length styles are in fashion for this year's version of the prom, while pricier designers this season are expanding their offerings to accommodate pocketbooks of all sizes.

Slightly used and practical also are part of the prom dress code this year.

Still, in spite of the continuing economic slump - the jobless rate remains at 10 percent - owners of local shops said their sales remained strong last prom season and they're hoping for more of the same this year. Many have received first shipments of gowns and customers are already shopping.

"I don't yet see that there's much of a change," said Barbara Patterson, owner of the White Orchid in Baldwin Borough. Her shop has already set up its "prom room."

"If they want the dress, they seem to find a way [to pay]," she said.

But Margie Kuhns, owner of M'Kaysha's Bridal Lane in Greensburg, said she saw a slight dip in prom dress sales last year and noticed that mothers were more budget conscious. Still, it wasn't a substantial enough change to cause her to alter her inventory this year.

"It wasn't anything drastic," she said. "As people were coming in, the moms were budgeting the daughters more so than what I've seen in the past."

Over the past three months, she's seen a bump in sales of other dresses and is hoping that the trend will continue through the prom season.

"It seems to me that people are starting to spend money again," she said.

Pam Olivo, of Bridal Beginnings in Mt. Lebanon, said she actually saw a slight bump up last year, and this year she purchased inventory anticipating the same.

"We had one of our better prom seasons ... parents were spending every bit as much," she said.

Yes, the prom wear industry appears to be somewhat recession-proof, with girls and their parents sparing no expense to find the perfect dress for the special night.

"Parents who are hard-pressed to make ends meet these days will, nevertheless, want to provide their children with this important rite of passage," Paige Newman, a New York-based trend analyst, said in an e-mail.

Ms. Newman, who works for the consumer research firm, The Zandl Group, predicted that some will opt for more "low-key, casual" proms, choosing, for example, to eat dinner at home.

But others will still spend the big bucks in an attempt to create their own " 'It-girl' experience" modeled after their favorite celebrity party girls.

Ms. Olivo said this year she did notice that many of the designers she typically orders from offered more styles in lower price ranges.

"What happened this season because of the economy is ... [designers] came up with beautiful collections and they've ranged in prices," she said. "I was able to find price ranges and styles to suit every girl's style and every girl's price range."

According to a variety of sites on the Internet, each year in the United States, more than 8 million - mostly high school girls - attend proms, those end-of-the-school year chaperoned formals. Most are held in the nation's approximately 37,000 public and private secondary schools. The prom dress industry accounts for more than $1 billion in annual sales.

A night at the prom can cost anywhere from $150 to $3,000 for a couple's tickets, clothes, dinner, limousine and pre- and post-prom activities.

Help so everyone can attend

For Allegheny County students who need some help, there's Project Prom, a program run through the Department of Human Services that gives away dresses to any girl who has received social services through the county. The project sells the remainder of the dresses for $25 or less, with the proceeds going toward tuxedo rental vouchers for boys who qualify.

The Project Prom giveaway will run from 3 to 5 p.m March 23 through 26 at the Department of Human Services' storefront space on the third floor of Century III Mall in West Mifflin. The sale will be held from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. March 31.

Last year, anticipating that the need would be greater because of the economy, the eligibility requirements were expanded to include girls who qualified for free lunches and girls with a parent receiving unemployment. Some 240 dresses - 110 more than the previous year - were given away.

The number of shoppers looking for discount dresses has increased dramatically, said Samantha Baer-McVicker, a community resource coordinator for the Department of Human Services.

When it comes to style, Ms. Olivo and others noticed that many girls are opting for knee- or cocktail-length dresses. They're not necessarily cheaper, but they're more of a long-term investment because they're versatile enough to be worn at various events through a girl's college years.

"The investment becomes worthwhile, something they will wear again," she said. "The utility of the dress becomes more important."

For more information or to apply or donate to Project Prom, call 412-350-3428 and leave a message or visit www.alleghenycounty.us/dhs/projectprom.aspx.

Moriah Balingit can be reached at mbalingit@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2533. First Published January 14, 2010 5:00 AM


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