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The Big, Weird Business of Prom

Inside the complex world of bedazzled dresses.

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Look at the edgy little spikes on her tatas!" proclaims eveningwear designer Johnathan Kayne. He's standing on a makeshift stage, in a room no bigger than a studio apartment, as a tanned model glides in front of him.

The girl — of indeterminable age, but certainly older than 16 and younger than 32 — is wearing a form-fitting green velvet gown, the bust sharply studded with mini barbs. Diagonal panels of nude stretch-tulle slice across her stomach and up her thigh. Kayne, his hair gelled up into little points, is wearing a headset, emceeing a presentation of his latest collection in a fashion akin to a local beauty pageant.

"We're going to put a little electric shock on those tatas!" Kayne continues, the audience of 15 or so store buyers roaring with laughter. "Let's revolutionize the industry and cut down on teen pregnancy!" Of course, Kayne (who you might remember from Project Runway, season 3) is being facetious. Anyway, his audience loves it.

Welcome to World of Prom, the trade show dressing America's youth for what many believe to be the seminal moment of high school.

For five days in early August, Kayne and more than 300 other designers hole up in showrooms in Atlanta's AmericasMart, a terraced trade center that has served as a Southeastern wholesale mecca since 1957. In all, there are four buildings spanning 7.2 million square feet. Some brands rent showrooms in AmericasMart year-round, often signing multi-year leases, but the organization also holds seasonal events that draw buyers from all over the world. There is a gift show. A home furnishings show. A bridal show. And every summer, a prom show.

At World of Prom, brands put on multiple runway shows a day within their showrooms. While Kayne's presentation approach might seem ridiculous, in some ways it is also traditional. What takes place at World of Prom looks a lot more like mid-century haute couture shows in Paris than anything one sees at New York Fashion Week.

For many years — far into the last century — fashion shows were quiet productions. Buyers and a few editors would sit in intimate salons while the designer or a liaison would announce and describe each look that came down the runway. Each model held a white card stamped with a number so that a buyer could jot it down on the paper order form if she wanted it for her store. (That's how the word "number" became fashion jargon for "dress." As in, Look at the cute little number she's wearing.) Some modern brands have revived the approach, mostly for resort and pre-fall, but for the majority of ready-to-wear designers, the time and attention this sort of format requires makes it an impossible feat.

What takes place at World of Prom looks a lot more like mid-century haute couture shows in Paris than anything one sees at New York Fashion Week.

However, at World of Prom, it's simply how things are done. At the Jovani showroom, there is no announcer, but smiling models, many of whom are also pageant girls, do hold up little white cards. Number 230, for instance, is an unembellished navy column gown with a single ruffle on the shoulder and a cut-out detail at the center of the rib cage. With nearly 300 looks, a runway show at Jovani can last longer than an hour. At NYFW, a show lasts no longer than 15 minutes.

Fortunately, you don't have to sit through the whole thing at World of Prom. Buyers can come and go as they please, although many do stick it out. At the Paparazzi showroom, where guests are treated to a full bar and an ever-revolving spread of food, a host describes each look, from the colors available — rose gold seems to be popular this season — to the fabric, to the detailing. Buyers continue to fill out xeroxed order forms, just as they did 20 years ago. Models of various ages and body types stand by the doors of the showrooms, beckoning passersby as if the dresses on their bodies are as valuable as a car on a rotating platform.

More than 15,000 people visited AmericasMart during last year's World of Prom, although that number also includes those who attended the venue's quarterly apparel show, which takes place just a few floors down during the same period each year. AmericasMart declined to break out World of Prom-specific figures, but is proud to boast that attendees travel from abroad — particularly the Middle East — to sit for hours in these salons, watching the shows and browsing the racks of bedazzled dresses and tulle skirts.

Heather Siegel, who co-owns the massive special-occasion retailer The Ultimate in Peabody, Massachusetts with her sister, never misses World of Prom. Siegel's mother opened the shop 46 years ago as a ready-to-wear boutique. Today, Siegel says it's the largest prom store in New England, with prom dresses accounting for approximately half of its sales. At The Ultimate, prom season starts in January and ends in May. The store no longer deals in daywear, but it sells plenty of mother-of-the-bride dresses (MOB, as the industry likes to call them). Siegel also sells bridesmaid, quinceañera, homecoming, and sweet 16 dresses. "They're really, really popular," Siegel says of the latter. "Back in fashion for the first time in a long time."

Still, prom is king — ahem, queen — at The Ultimate. "When I was a teenager, it wasn't like, you had to go to prom," says Siegel, who joined the family business in the early 1970s. "Now, they all want to go."

Yes, it's true. Prom is a rite of passage for most American teens, and the average promgoer spent $919 on the event in 2014, according to Visa Inc.'s annual survey. While that's a lot of money, the sum has actually decreased a bit — 6 percent — from 2013's $978, and averages don't reveal much anyway. What's more telling is the breakdown of prom spending within socioeconomic groups.

Families with a total household income above $50,000 will spend an average of $799 on prom, and that number increases as income decreases. Families with a total household income below $50,000 spend $1,109, and families with a total household income below $25,000 will spend $1,393. The poorer you are, the more likely you are to pony up for a fancy gown. The cost varies by region as well. Northeastern families spend the most ($1,169), while Midwestern families spend the least ($733). In most circumstances, a significant fraction of a teenage girl's prom budget is likely dedicated to her dress.

The poorer you are, the more likely you are to pony up for a fancy gown.

If you're willing to spend more than $150 on that hero item — and many young women are — local boutiques are a top resource. These stores exist because they offer options that cater to regional tastes. While our connected culture encourages the quick dissemination of ideas and adoption of trends, proximity still wields power. That notion is more evident in formalwear than perhaps any other apparel category.

In New England, Siegel is finding that two-piece styles are gaining in popularity. Esmeralda Valle, owner of Glitz & Glamour in McAllen, Texas, a town close to the U.S.-Mexico border, says beadwork and floral-pattern styles are popular with girls traveling from Mexico to shop. "They are more fashion-forward," she says. "They want something different." At She Said Yes Bridal in Nashville, Tennessee, sparkly high-necked dresses with low backs are still winning, according to store owner Myka Lyles.

Who knew, right? This sort of local intelligence is difficult to replicate at a national chain like Macy's or David's Bridal.

More than anything though, a 17-year-old girl wants to be guaranteed that her dress is unique. It might have been funny when Brenda Walsh and Kelly Taylor showed up to prom in identical off-the-shoulder dresses on Beverly Hills, 90210, but the scenario terrifies teenagers who fear getting outshined both in person and on social media. Today, prom stores frequently keep a "who bought what" list, often guaranteeing that they will not sell the same dress to two girls attending the same prom.

That means formalwear stores need to secure as much product as possible at the beginning of each season. For instance, The Ultimate stocks 8,000 styles in sizes 0 to 32, with gown prices ranging from $199 to $799 and most falling between $350 and $500. Glitz & Glamour keeps 5,000 prom gowns on hand. Jovani alone has 4,700 unique styles that buyers can order.

And therein lies World of Prom's reason for existence. Here, buyers scan thousands of SKUs from hundreds of brands, most of which have little recognition outside of this strange little slice of the apparel market, yet generate 10 times more revenue than some of the most well-known names in the fashion business.

Here, buyers scan thousands of SKUs from hundreds of brands, most of which have little recognition outside of this strange little slice of the apparel market.

Take Jovani, which sold around $125 million worth of formal gowns in 2014, according to its vice president and co-owner Abraham Maslavi. Sherri Hill, a brand that dresses plenty of pageant girls and celebrities along with promgoers, is available at over 1,000 stores in more than 30 countries. Hill's showroom is certainly one of the busiest, with a constant crowd of two dozen or so buyers watching the endless runway show while others comb the nearby racks.

Beyond the the actual orders placed, there are events peppered throughout the weekend to keep attendees occupied — and to convince them to stick around for more than a day or two. On Thursday afternoon, a crowd of buyers huddle around tables of Georgetown mini cupcakes, queuing up to meet Lori Allen and Monte Durham. They're the stars of Say Yes to the Dress: Atlanta, a TLC reality show that documents the search for a wedding gown at Bridals by Lori, Allen's Atlanta boutique.

Allen plans on hitting up the World of Prom circuit with her buying team the next day. She and Durham, the store's fashion director, have arrived early to cull donations for Say Yes to the Prom, a program that provides high-achieving, low-income high school students with prom dresses and accessories that they might otherwise not be able to afford. "They get jacked up," says Allen, appropriating the series' signature phrase for accessorizing a client's look. Soon enough, she and Durham are back to posing for selfies with fans, hoping that some might hand over a dress or two.

The next day, another reality television star charms the crowds. Carson Kressley, best known for Bravo's Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, hosts an afternoon trend-forecasting session just before buyers are about to break for happy hour.

"I first fell in love with these individually placed feathers on Dancing With the Stars," he gushes, offering dress details between one-liners about his stint on the competition show. "This has a soft Parisian, sort of showgirl quality. I love the embellished bodice and I like that it's a little bit more contemporary because of the one-shoulder." Other insights? Jumpsuits are hot. So are two-pieces. Anything that looks like something Taylor Swift might wear is a guaranteed bestseller.

Beyond the heavy reality TV star presence, the best representation of World of Prom is its Thursday evening fashion show, where 38 brands flaunt their star pieces in an epic, 300-look runway event that takes nearly two hours to complete. Buyers sit in large staging space, blue curaçao martinis in hand, watching sequined crop tops, adventurous one-pieces, and an entire camouflage-themed collection glide by as Katy Perry songs blast in the background.

From the AmericasMart runways, it may look like we're witnessing a prom dress boom. Yet it all smells a little smoky. While World of Prom occupies plenty of real estate, the showrooms aren't always bustling. Some brand reps even describe the event to me as "slow-going."

Not only are there cheaper clothes on the market, there are also more of them.

In the past 20 years, the women's apparel business has transformed. Not only are there cheaper clothes on the market, there are also more of them. As a working-class kid growing up in Pittsburgh in the late 1990s, I had few prom dress options. There was the department store, where most gowns were priced between $100 and $200. There were pricier boutiques, where the fortunate few scored Betsey Johnson and Tocca on sale. There was vintage. But the contemporary market as we now know it didn't exist.

Today, brands like Erin Fetherston, Shoshanna, even BCBG and Tibi, sell dresses that can easily be accessorized in a way that makes them worthy of prom while offering a fashion edge that many more traditional formalwear brands do not. (In fact, Shoshanna rented a temporary booth at World of Prom for the first time ever this season.) There's also Rent the Runway, the Netflix of fashion that's renting $800 million worth of clothes each year and makes maybe the most sense when it comes to prom. Why buy a dress you're definitely going to wear only once? Prom gowns are even less recyclable than bridesmaid getups.

The strongest evidence of the prom dress industry's struggles, however, is the fall of Caché, once suburbia's premiere destination for pseudo-sophisticated gowns. A chain of small boutiques that originally made a name for itself in the ‘70s and ‘80s by carrying then-hard-to-find European designers like Versace and Giorgio Armani, Caché became best known for special-occasion clothes sold under its own label. By the late 1990s, it was doing $150 million in annual sales, outfitting girls who favored sequins and liquid gold lamé over the sleek, Old Hollywood dresses beloved by the red carpet contingent.

In February 2015, Caché filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. "Our team has been working tirelessly to implement a turnaround," CEO Jay Margolis said in a statement. Margolis spent two years at Caché trying to fix it: bringing in a chief merchant from Burberry to de-dazzle the goods, giving the e-commerce site a significant facelift, and closing stores that were not performing well. It wasn't enough. "The depressed brick and mortar retail market, the continued growth of online shopping, and rapidly changing consumer tastes and habits thwarted our efforts. Ultimately, we have not had the time or capital to realize all of the benefits of our hard work."

Changing consumer tastes. Whether they'd like to admit or not, the brands — and retailers — at World of Prom have to contend with new ideas about what makes a successful prom dress. "The biggest change is that women are more educated about fashion than they have ever been before," Maslavi tells me after the Jovani runway show.

"Did you see Beyoncé at the Grammys? She had a dress almost exactly like this, but with sleeves. Hers was $8,000. Ours is $225."

Celebrity plays a role in the new prom landscape. "Did you see Beyoncé at the Grammys? She had a dress almost exactly like this, but with sleeves," Kayne says while showing off one of his favorite gowns. "Hers was $8,000. Ours is $225. It's the exact same fabric. And style. Almost. But guys, seriously." Swift is mentioned in plenty of showrooms, her retro-inspired dresses copied by dozens of brands. Jovani, which has traditionally done most of its business through wholesaling, is developing a higher-priced collection that will be marketed directly to those after a more red carpet-style look, or those actually on the red carpet. (The company plans on opening standalone stores in Los Angeles by 2016.)

Offering customization, on-site alterations, and special sizes is important as well. For instance, if a client wants to buy a two-piece gown, but attends one of the many schools that have banned crop tops — and there are plenty that have — a store will sew in sheer tulle in order to make it wearable.

Social media, unsurprisingly, can also be used to drive sales. Small-town shops will seek out the popular kids with large social media followings and offer them a dress or a tux rental in exchange for promotion. The best tag line, apparently, is to be able to say that your store dressed the prom queen.

But the most savvy move may be going after other markets. At a mid-afternoon session, fashion consultant Mercedes Gonzalez speaks about quinceañeras, fifteenth birthday celebrations that are popular in Latin American cultures. "It's great to have somebody on your team who speaks Spanish," Gonzalez advises. "But remember, purple is not a strong color. In a lot of cultures, it's associated with death."

This is the sort of real talk stores need. As prom style evolves, gown designers — and the stores that rely on them — are going to have to become even savvier about their offerings. Studded "tatas" might make a dress unique, but it doesn't necessarily make it a runaway hit. What does? That's something the brands at World of Prom are still figuring out.

Editor: Julia Rubin


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