A girl models a gown at the Teen Party Expo in Culver City, which brought together… (Axel Koester / For The Times )
The country is still trying to crawl out of a deep recession, but some families still want to party like it's 1999.
That was evident from the crowds Sunday at the first Teen Party Expo at the Radisson hotel in Culver City, where dozens of companies hawking tiaras, frilly dresses, disc jockey services and giant sheet cakes tried to capture a piece of the multibillion-dollar teen party market.
Mothers planning quinceañeras, Sweet 16 parties, bar and bat mitzvahs and coming-out bashes barely batted an eye as teenagers modeled tiaras and chiffon dresses beneath a bright spotlight as an emcee uttered such phrases as "iridescent taffeta gown" and "sheer bodice."
Think they're worried about the recession? Try a $500 Renaissance taffeta gown.
"She's my only daughter," said Roberto Conte, who is throwing a big bash in February for his daughter's 15th birthday, even though he's on disability. The Culver City family has been saving for the event for years, he said as he watched a makeup artist selling her services apply sparkly green eye shadow on his daughter.
People may be cutting back on weddings, but they're still splurging on their teens, said Lisa Hurley, the editor of Special Events magazine.
"For many people, this is still a milestone event, and you want to give your child that important day," she said.
Of course, there's a little pride involved too. Have a 16-piece brass band and dancing ducks at your daughter's party? There will probably be all that plus penguins tap dancing on bass drums at the next one you attend.
"It's like the Olympics: Something that's a perfect 10 one year is nothing the next," said Rocky Whatule, entertainment specialist at Rock Star Event Entertainment. "It's a prestige thing."
It was all a little intimidating to Erica Avelar, who is planning a quinceañera for her daughter Jennifer next year. She remembers her quinceañera, a small affair in her backyard with a mariachi band and a few friends.
"It was simple. We came from Mexico and didn't know anyone," she said.
Her daughter, standing next to her texting, is hoping for something bigger, though.
These days, youths ages 13 to 21 spend $113 billion annually, a poll conducted by Harris Interactive found.
Latino families spend $15,000 to $20,000 on quinceañeras, which are coming-of-age parties typically held by Latino families on a girl's 15th birthday, said Oscar Urrutia, founder of GEC Events, which put on the expo.
But some families spend a lot more. Just ask viewers of MTV's "My Super Sweet 16," who can see extravagant teen parties on a weekly basis. It's not atypical for teens on the show to hire famous performers, receive expensive cars as gifts and even ride camels into their parties alongside pop stars.
Suzi Finer, cake decorator for Hansen's Cakes, said she has continued to see extravagant cakes during the recession: five-tiered Candyland treats covered with lollipops, "Alice in Wonderland"-themed confections, and, at one bar mitzvah, 14 cakes that could have fed 1,000 people.
Other goodies on display at the expo might seem more appropriate for a mall than a coming-of-age party. As men in the hotel lobby watched Congress debate healthcare, teenage girls and their mothers on the second level browsed through rows of garter belts, tiaras, crystal statues, Champagne glasses, tuxedos, belt buckles, floral arrangements, fake eyelashes, caricature artists and cakes.
"I haven't seen people cutting back," said Cathy Ortiz of Culver City, who is planning a big bash for her daughter, complete with DJ, flowers and a hotel ballroom. She and her husband have stable jobs, she said, so they don't feel guilty spending. Besides, she said, he's been saving for the party for a decade.
Amanda Heineman, also of Culver City, is having a Sweet 16 party in August. She has hired a DJ, ordered a cake and bought two dresses -- one long and frilly, the other for dancing. Like many of the girls at the expo, she wasn't shy about talking about her ideal party.
"I've always wanted one," she said. "I hope it's like the ones you see on TV."