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Knockout Knockoffs for Proms : From Paltrow to Flockhart, Designs From Award Gowns Are on the Rack and on Teen Minds

April 16, 1999|BARBARA THOMAS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Just a month after Hollywood's big awards season--and in time for prom season--teenagers can look like Gwyneth Paltrow in her Ralph Lauren ice pink ball gown, upstage Christine Lahti in her Halston Signature by Kevan Hall, or mimic Calista Flockhart's icy cool in her Pamela Dennis gown.

For the last three years, the contemporary women's wear chain and clothing line A.B.S. has produced what the company calls "inspired" lines, what others simply call "knockoffs." The awards night inspiration is a no-brainer to Allen B. Schwartz, A.B.S. founder and designer.

"Hollywood is it, and it's been that way since the '30s," he says.

His company is offering gowns inspired by the Golden Globes and Oscars at more affordable prices ($270 to $550). Others are doing so too. J.C. Penney has knocked off the Ralph Lauren-Paltrow dress in pink acetate for $99. For the more adventurous looking for a different Hollywood spin: "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" prom dresses.

In an industry that continually copies itself, Schwartz makes no excuses for his designs. The first "inspiration" came with the wedding dress of Carolyn Bessette Kennedy, wife of John F. Kennedy Jr. After that, A.B.S. took on Oscar night and the Golden Globes. And now the inspiration line sells more than $10 million a year, according to Schwartz.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Monday April 19, 1999 Home Edition Southern California Living Part E Page 3 View Desk 1 inches; 22 words Type of Material: Correction
Dress designs--The caption for the A.B.S. Gwyneth Paltrow-inspired pink gown featured in Friday editions was incorrect. The dress costs $290, not $99.

"I think everybody wants to look the way Gwyneth Paltrow does. I know that I would like to look like Richard Gere when I go to buy a suit," says Schwartz, from his L.A. office. "Listen, they [the gowns] don't have to be handmade; enjoy them and pass them along. Who cares if they're in silk or rayon?"

What matters is a quick turnaround to produce the dresses.

"The Oscars were Sunday night [March 21]," Schwartz says. "The dresses were coming out of machines Monday afternoon. They were in New York showrooms Tuesday and Wednesday."

Last year, while other clothing lines were inspired by "Titanic," Schwartz was manufacturing the Oscar gowns worn by Minnie Driver and Ashley Judd. "Titanic" was too much of a period piece, he says. "This is about being modern."

And though the gowns can be worn as bridesmaids dresses or to black-tie events such as bar mitzvahs, the Paltrow-inspired Oscar gown is being released with the Golden Globe collection in time for prom night. The rest of the Oscar collection will be shipped to stores in May.

Formal wear designer Jessica McClintock has readily credited "Titanic" and "Shakespeare in Love" for her inspiration of ball gowns. McClintock plays with the silhouettes of clothes used in the movies. J.C. Penney changed its version of the Paltrow dress (no spaghetti straps). A.B.S., in contrast, is unabashedly proud about how close in design its inspirations are to the real thing, even putting a tag with a picture showing the actress and original dress on it.

A few designers are miffed about this, but Halston's Kevan Hall is somewhat bemused.

"One thing I will say, there are going to be a lot of women who are going to look great in some of these gowns," he says.

A.B.S. can hardly afford to copy his tailoring or fabric, Hall says.

"I'm sure it will just be the essence of design. . . . It's not going to be literal," he says. "It's for the masses, and it will be at a price point where a lot of people can afford it."

Seventeen magazine estimates that its readers spent more than $188 million on prom dresses last year.

And while last year there was quite a bit of tension between girls who wore short and sexy dress and those in florid ball gowns, this year, predicts Seventeen, the emphasis is on "formal," with influences from "Shakespeare in Love" and "anything Drew Barrymore."

And they're not talking the Target-shopping, vintage-dressed Drew.

Barrymore's current style, as described by West Los Angeles University High School senior Marisa Edwards, 18, is: "It's very girlie, very light colors, light pink and blue and yellow. It's going to be very fresh. That's her style now. It's actually very in."

Edwards, whose June 12 prom is so far away that no one is thinking about it yet, says teens are misrepresented as trend followers, especially in local schools.

"High school is very fashion oriented," she says. "It starts a lot of the trends."

In Pasadena, White Rose Bridal Salon is kicking into formal season, with summer weddings, debutante balls and proms all coming up.

Co-owner Caren Spitler says, "For the most part, [younger] girls are heavily influenced by what goes on in Hollywood. They see someone like Claire Danes. Probably they look up to the younger actresses than they would to, say, Jennifer Lopez."

The bridal crowd, says Spitler, likes the look of Paltrow in Calvin Klein.

"We've had a lot of people asking about Geena Davis" in her Bradley Bayou gown at the Oscars, she says. "That's not really a look that a debutante can pull off."

Teen girls can buy prom dresses off the rack in malls or have them specially made at bridal shops ($180 to $350). Spitler says many of her customers look to the runways for inspirations.

"They're asking for a ball gown and the sweater set," she says.

Instead of Hollywood, Spitler says, "they're looking to see what Vera Wang has done."

Times staff writer Barbara Thomas can be reached through e-mail at barbara.thomas@latimes.com.

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