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THE BIG NIGHT : From Tuxes to Limos, the Prom Also Serves as a Retailers' Bonanza

May 18, 1987|MARY ANN GALANTE | Times Staff Writer

There will be a lot of empty shelf space in Orange County's formal wear shops this month.

It's prom time, and that means not only a run on the local tux and fancy dress shops but also a merchandising bonanza for retailers riding the crest of a new wave of popularity for formal affairs for teen-agers.

For formal wear shops and limousine services--plus beauticians, restaurants and even a few harbor cruise operators--the 12-week period that begins in early April means big business.

In affluent Orange County, many retailers say, teen-agers headed to this year's prom--that adolescent rite of spring--will plunk down more money than ever before.

First of all, there is the prom ticket itself: Figure at least $40 per couple, but it is $75 at Irvine High School, where a pair of prom tickets includes dinner at the Irvine Hilton.

Then there are the accessories, formal wear, transportation and, in many parts of the county, a pre- or post-prom party--and sometimes both.

In the county's more affluent areas, the price of stepping out in style can climb to $500 or more per couple. It can really get expensive when each half of a couple attends a different high school.

With the exception of an occasional $3,000 yacht rental, most of those dollars are spent on formal wear.

While there are some notable exceptions--Goodwill's Classic Closet in San Clemente has sold about a dozen prom dresses for $16 to $32--retailers say that many fancy frocks sell from $100 to $200. The exclusive Amen Wardy boutique in Newport Beach's Fashion Island has sold a few in the $600-to-$1,000 range, store manager Louise Rodnick said.

Few Buy Tuxedos

It's a bit less expensive to get decked out in a tuxedo because few high school seniors buy them. After all, the purchase price of tux, plus pleated dress shirt, can run from $235 to $1,700 or more for a silk number. Instead, they are rented, at prices--depending on styles and the address of the store--ranging from $25 to $60 for the evening.

And most tux shops can't keep enough in stock this time of year.

"They're hanging from the rafters!" Jeanne Gibson, owner of Gingiss Formal Wear stores at Westminster Mall, Mission Viejo Mall and South Cost Plaza, said of tux-seekers. Gibson said the volume of prom business accounts for about 20% of her stores' annual revenue. And this year, she said, business at her stores has been running about 10% ahead of last year

Nationally, tuxedo rentals is a $600-million-a-year business that has been growing at more than 10% a year, according to the New York-based American Formalwear Assn. A lot of that growth is due to the resurgent popularity of proms.

Some credit the increased emphasis on formality to Ronald and Nancy Reagan and the influence of TV shows such as Dynasty and Falcon Crest.

Rite of Passage

There is also social pressure. "It's something of a rite of passage in Southern California--just like a driver's license," said Maura Eggan, mother of two teen-agers and marketing director for South Coast Plaza shopping center in Costa Mesa.

"And kids are essentially rigid little creatures who want things done a certain way . . . their standards are high," Eggan said.

Sales have been boosted by a greater selection of fashions. "In the past, vendors didn't hit on proms. Now, they realize how important it is to younger girls," said Desiree Ehmoke, a buyer for Nordstrom's in Los Angeles. The Seattle-based chain this year filled its racks with about 3O% more prom wear than it stocked last year.

At Saks Fifth Avenue in South Coast Plaza, a prom shop set up for the first time this spring has increased formal wear sales by almost 40% from 1986, said Lynn Goughler, Saks' general manager.

Penelope of California has also been "swamped," said Penny Griebel, the owner, who added three or four part-timers to her four-person staff to handle eager buyers at the formal wear shop in Orange. Griebel estimated that prom wear sales are up 50% from 1986 and will contribute about 25% of the store's $140,000 gross sales this year.

Next Come Accessories

For girls, once the dress is bought, the next stop is for accessories. Tabs can range from $50 to $350 for shoes, $30 for hair bows and $75 to $100 for bags. Many hairdressing salons report brisk prom business, as well, for stylings ($15-$115), manicures (about $15), professionally applied makeup ($30) and even eyebrow waxing ($12).

The list of necessities may be smaller for young men, but business is still brisk at stores that cater to them.

At Jim's Tuxedo Junction in Costa Mesa late last week, owner Jim Hines was frantically trying to fill his orders by "sub-renting" tuxes from other shop owners in New York, Miami, San Francisco and Little Rock.

Last weekend was the busiest of the season "and everyone is sold out" of the most popular styles and sizes, explained Hines, who said about 35% of his business comes from proms.

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