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Modest, Style-Conscious and Frustrated No More


Getting fitted Thursday for a teen fashion show, Katie Sereno knew what she didn't want in a formal dress. Nothing slinky. Nothing slitted, backless or plunging. And, please, nothing bellybutton-baring.

In a teen fashion world ruled by the likes of Britney Spears, this eliminates just about any off-the-rack gown.

The Anaheim High School senior, like many of the 520,000 Mormon teenage girls across the country, usually would have to improvise: She would borrow a popular dress from a fellow church member or make something from scratch. For a recent school dance, a friend added sleeves to a store-bought dress using decorative ribbons of fabric cut from the back of the garment.

Now, thanks to the unlikely collaboration of two fashion-frustrated Mormon moms and Nordstrom, she has alternatives--more than 30 of them. On Saturday, Nordstrom in Costa Mesa's South Coast Plaza will host a sold-out fashion show featuring 33 Mormon teenage girls from Southern California wearing stylish dresses with not a spaghetti strap in sight.

"This is a gold mine for us," said Sereno, who will model in the show and hopes to buy a gown for her homecoming dance this month. "You can actually pick out a dress you like instead of just settling for something."

In a hint of the pent-up demand and a potential market niche for retailers, 900 free tickets were snapped up shortly after the show was announced, and more than 250 people are on the waiting list.

Organizers have had to turn away other fashion-conservative teens--including Roman Catholics, Jews, Protestants and Muslims--whose religion dictates modesty.

"All are thrilled with the idea," said Karen Baker, a Mormon mother from Rancho Santa Margarita who initially contacted Nordstrom about the show. "It's snowballed almost out of control."

Fashion experts say Mormons aren't the only families tired of having only provocative choices when shopping for dressy girls' clothes. This miniature cultural counterrevolution could lead retailers to recognize that there's a market for clothes that lean to the conservative side, not just in fancy dresses but in active-wear for teens as well.

"As a grandparent and viewer of society, I wish the entire culture had demanded that of the apparel industry over the past couple of years," said Ilse Metchek, executive director of the California Fashion Assn., a Los Angeles-based group that serves as an industry voice.

"It's gotten away from us, but in these particular [religious] cultures, it hasn't gotten away from them," Metchek said.

Baker, with the help of a second Mormon mom, Carol Starr, took up the cause in May after her 17-year-old daughter, Jana, couldn't find a dress for a formal dance that didn't look, in Jana's words, like "something a grandmother would wear."

Her mother had heard about a small "modesty" fashion show at Nordstrom's Montclair store in March for Mormon teens searching for prom dresses, an event that attracted about 300 people. So she approached Kim Cimino, manager of the South Coast Plaza store, with the idea.

"I told her this was the responsible thing to do," Baker said. "We've got to give teens a different message. Kim was really wonderful about it."

Because of the high profiles of Nordstrom and South Coast Plaza, Cimino says she gets hundreds of requests each year to hold fashion shows at her store. But Baker's proposal was an excellent match because the company could, with some effort, provide the teens with dress styles they wanted through increased orders from certain vendors and by bringing aboard two new designers.

"It really wasn't that tough to say, 'Yes,' " said Cimino, adding that for any teen, finding the right formal dress is never easy.

"You're not quite an adult women, but you don't want to look like a little girl."

Nordstrom was able to come up with eight formal dress styles, and Mormon families helped by enlisting two other designers. One, whose Utah business started with modest wedding gowns, produced 23 styles and 200 dresses. The other, from Orange County, custom-made two gowns.

"To be honest, I didn't want any part of it at the start," said Jeri Lee, a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints from Trabuco Canyon who was busy with her line of Jerdog tennis clothes. "But I decided it was an important thing to do. I have three boys, and I'm so uncomfortable with what teenage girls are wearing."

Lee said the real test will be whether the dresses are purchased after the fashion show.

"As long as there are orders for them," she said, "we'll go ahead and expand the line to prom dresses."

The demand for tickets has organizers hopeful. Even teens who couldn't buy tickets plan to arrive at Nordstrom at 10 a.m. Saturday, just after the fashion show, when the collection opens to the public.

"I wasn't surprised" at the crowd, Cimino said. "When something's really difficult to find and you can [suddenly] find it, you get that kind of response."

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