A singular sensation at prom with custom-made dresses

May 11, 2015

BALTIMORE ó Myasia McGill knew she wanted to stand out from her classmates at prom.

The high school junior considered going to the mall or a boutique to find a designer outfit, but she couldnít risk another girl showing up to the big dance in the same dress. Only a custom dress would do.

"Nobody wants to look like someone else," the 16-year-old said. "People are trying to look better than the next person and win Ďbest dressed.í"

McGill enlisted the help of Natalie Graham, owner of Doll House Boutique, which specializes in one-of-a-kind pieces and custom orders. After a series of meetings during which the two discussed concepts and conducted fittings, McGill was ready to pick up her dress ó a fun and sophisticated fuchsia and mesh fit-and-flare number with a tulle skirt.

"Itís different," McGill said. "Itís unique. I love it."

As teens attempt to display their individuality, they are going to new and more expensive lengths. Custom dresses are a way to ensure that they are getting the look theyíve envisioned. And even though the dresses are more expensive than picking a garment from the rack of a department store or traditional boutique, getting a custom dress alleviates the worry of a classmate showing up in the same design. As a result, designers say, they are inundated with requests for custom dresses in the months and weeks preceding prom.

Prom spending is expected to average $919 per person this year ó with families in the Northeast spending more than the national average, at $1,169, according to research company GfK. Custom-dress designers are selling their creations from $400 to more than $1,000.

"Some of these kids are paying more for their prom dresses then I did for my wedding dress," said Judy McKinney, whose daughter, Summer, who will be going to prom in a $500 custom gown. "Itís the sign of the times, I guess."

High schoolers have been creating and altering their prom looks for a while but have really ramped up their efforts in the past five years, according to Zoey Washington, owner of Little Bird Style, a New York-based styling company geared toward teens.

"Girls who would traditionally go to the mall or to a specialty boutique have been bringing tear sheets to seamstresses and independent designers to create something unique," Washington said.

Itís an expected development for an age group that has welcomed DIY culture, Washington said.

"It is only natural that they would want the same level of control for special occasions," she said.

"The pool of accessible prom looks is becoming narrower and narrower as department stores like Macyís or even Bloomingdaleís are relying on ready-to-wear trends to create special-occasion wear," Washington said. "So if blue is the color of the season in ready-to-wear or the red carpet, then it is the only thing you will see in stores. That leaves very little room for originality for teens. So they make their own."

Hiring a designer to make a prom dress has pop culture roots in MTVís "My Super Sweet Sixteen."

"That put the idea of having a custom dress on the map," Washington said. "But the idea of making something from scratch ó or having it made ó combines the impact of having something original with the economic benefit of control over the quality of the material and ultimately how likely you are to wear it again."

At Doll House Boutique, Graham sells one-of-a-kind dresses right off the rack or made-to-order gowns, like McGillís, ranging in price from $250 to $900.

"This is the hardest Iíve had to work this past month," said Graham. Prom is Grahamís busiest season of the year.

"Theyíre saying they want something unique and extravagant," said Jasmine Nixon, senior stylist for Doll House. "They want the Doll House to put their signature stamp on it."

A signature look was exactly what McGill got with her dress.

"I knew no one else would have anything like it," she said.

McGillís aunt, Chianta Harris, looked on with admiration while McGill tried on her dress.

"I wish I could have done this when I was in high school," she said. "Three people had on my same dress. I didnít like it."

The peace of mind and the finished product more than make up for the price tag, she said. Harris, who is 30, said she paid about $200 for her prom dress. McGill spent $700 for hers. But Harris thinks itís worth it.

"Sheís beautiful," Harris said. "She looks like a model."

Michele Blanchard, a Baltimore-based designer who owns MB Design Gallery, has dressed celebrities including actress Nicole Ari Parker for events such as the 2010 Emmys. She said she made nine prom dresses this year.

"They are serious," she said, adding that her dresses range in price from about $400 to more than $1,000. "Itís like a wedding for them. If I do their junior prom dress, they already know what they want for senior year."

Blanchard recalled one girl approaching her this year with her "dream dress" in mind.

"It was sketched out and everything," she said. "I took it from there."

Summer McKinney wanted to express her self-described "alternative, dark" sense of style at her schoolís upcoming senior prom. But she knew she couldnít find a dress off the rack that would do that.

"I knew I wanted to find something unique," the Severn resident said.

So McKinney searched the Internet and found Blanchard.

"Michele was great. She told us what to expect. I thought she was reasonable. She did a great job," said McKinneyís mother, Judy.

Blanchard whipped together a black, corseted sweetheart-top gown accented by a red ribbon around the waist and black lace gloves.

"Itís gorgeous," McKinney said. "I think Iím one of the only ones at my school getting a custom gown, which is pretty cool."

Individuality is extremely important to McKinney.

"The teenage years are when you should be experimenting with style or figuring out what works best for you," she said.

Girls arenít the only ones jumping on the craze.

Baltimore-based Christopher Schafer Clothier received 30 requests from teenage boys this year who wanted custom suits for prom.

"Every spring, I get a bunch of calls about it. Most of them are too late," Schafer said, explaining that it takes six to eight weeks to complete a suit. "Some didnít do it after they heard the price."

Kentiff McCoy, a 17-year-old senior at Mount St. Joseph High School, decided to get his suit made by Schafer. The $1,500 ensemble includes black fitted pants, a pink gingham shirt with black buttons, a black bow tie and black velvet jacket adorned with a polka dot pattern.

McCoy said he wanted to "go out with a bang" for his senior prom.

In the past, McCoy has purchased suits off the rack at stores, but he said the fit was never right. He said he wasnít taking any chances this year.

"Itís my special time," he said. "Iím hoping to turn a couple heads."

McCoy said his dateís high-low pink gown will coordinate perfectly with his ensemble.

"She bought hers at the mall, but sheíll get it altered," he said.

"We want to have a unique look and a one-of-a-kind feel," he said. "Itís especially important for seniors."



Associated Press