Stores and Party Planners Profiting on Proms

MTA shop assistant at a Vendi store showing off a prom dress. Most of the dresses sell for around 5,000 rubles.
This spring, the high-end department store TsUM promoted its prom dress sale as a "VIP" event, playing on the Russian for prom, vypusknoi bal.

In a feature in the store's magazine, headlined "The Wind of Change," models pose in cocktail dresses from Dolce & Gabbana and Zac Posen. The most expensive item, a sequined gold Valentino dress, costs 224,500 rubles ($9,485).

The school prom tradition dates to the Soviet era, but at that time they consisted of a simple ceremony in the school hall, followed by a closely supervised dance. Students would wear carefully assembled, often homemade, outfits.

Today, however, this rite of passage is becoming increasingly commercial.

Elite schools turn to professional party planners to organize themed proms at restaurants or beach parties with fireworks and hip-hop on the turntables. This year, one Moscow party even promises a linkup with the international space station.

And the pressure is on for students to dress to impress.

At the Cara & Co concept store, the most expensive prom dress so far this year sold for 96,000 rubles ($4,071), said Alexei Oleshov, the store's creative director. It was a floor-length silk gown by Japanese-born designer Akira Isogawa.

"Recently, interest in proms as a ceremony has grown very quickly," Oleshov said.

"Before, of course, everything was simpler. In schools, they used to pay more attention to keeping people equal. Everything was more or less democratic," he said.

Now, however, "the richer the parents, the richer their children have to look," Oleshov said. "The competition is not so much between the children as between the parents."

At his school prom, Oleshov wore a cream suit imported from Yugoslavia. "In my time, there wasn't Dolce & Gabbana," he said. "People used to order dresses from a dressmaker, because there wasn't any choice in the stores."

"It's true that many people are prepared to ruin themselves buying designer dresses. Even if they can't afford one, they save up money as a family," said Irina Ilyina, editor of the teen magazine Yes! which is published by The Moscow Times' parent company, Independent Media Sanoma Magazines.

The magazine ran a cover story on proms in its May issue and offered readers a chance to win a dress from a pricey boutique.

For her own prom 17 years ago, Ilyina had a dress made by a local dressmaker. "Then it was practically impossible to buy stylish, fashionable clothes, and we always had to sew something," she said.

Ilyina stressed that designer dresses and the accompanying trimmings are still only a fantasy for most girls. "This only happens at elite schools. If we're talking about Russia as a whole, not Moscow and St. Petersburg, then it's more of a dream," she said.

In Moscow, girls on a budget can buy dresses at markets or less expensive boutiques.

At the Vendi store on Tishinskaya Ploshchad, racks featured sequined evening dresses, ball gowns with fluffy skirts and short strappy cocktail dresses.

Yelena Yefremycheva manages the chain of three prom dress stores, which has been in business six months. Despite the Italian name, the dresses are made locally.

She showed off some popular models: a light blue cocktail dress with pleats falling from a high waist — "this is very fashionable this year," she said — and a similar pink dress with black ribbon trim.

The prices aren't high at the store. Most of the dresses sell for around 5,000 rubles ($212), Yefremycheva said. "Seven thousand rubles is already considered quite expensive."

The prom dress business is still small in Moscow, she said, with only around five stores focusing on the market. "It's not very profitable to be open all year. Not many of our people go to evening parties yet. We don't have a culture of evening dresses."

At a prom fair at the All-Russia Exhibition Center, saleswoman Tatyana Salnikova held up a silver halter-neck dress with lace trim and a red dress with gold beading that looked like something from a ballroom dancing competition, both priced at around 9,500 rubles.

"Children used to wear what their parents gave them. Now they've become very picky," she said. "They say, 'I want that one,' and that's it. It's not the parents who dictate the fashion but the children. It's not a manageable generation any more."

At her eponymous stores, teenage designer Kira Plastinina offers a very different vision of prom dresses. Her silver, black and white trapeze dresses cost around 2,500 rubles and are accessorized with lacy leggings and gold heels. Paris Hilton posed in one of the dresses at last year's Moscow Fashion Week, appearing for a reported $2 million fee.

"I know how important it is for you to be the fairest of them all on this night," Plastinina writes in the store newsletter, The It-Girl News.

As the choice of dresses has expanded, so have the options for celebrating the last night of school.

"Before, everyone knew that the prom would be in the assembly hall at school, where everything would be set to a schedule," Yes! editor Ilyina said. "Now every school tries to plan ahead, write a party plan. Schools with money even invite popular artists."

Many schools opt for an "Oscar night" theme, said Inga Mudzhiri, a consulting manager at the Atrium agency. "People have become more developed, more able to pay. Naturally, they don't just want a few clowns."

Others hire a nightclub or take the class outside the city for a beach party on the banks of the Moscow River with a lighted marquee, a disco and a fireworks show, said Regina Bikkinina, an events manager at Agenttura agency.

Prom may seem quintessentially American, but some trends haven't crossed the Atlantic.

Choosing a prom queen or king isn't popular, Bikkinina said. "It's an old idea that our kids don't particularly like."

Yelena Klapkova, the art director of the Vesyolaya Kompania agency, agreed. "I think it's hurtful. It's not really our tradition," she said.

Her agency offers foam parties as well as beat-box and hip-hop acts and gets students to nominate each other for joke prizes. "We offer what kids find interesting," she said.

The American tradition of hiring a limo for prom night, however, is "very popular," said a spokesman for VIP Moscow Limousines. "People usually order big jeeps and limousines."

A spokesman for VIP Life car rental agency said people usually ordered the cheapest car on their books, a Ford Excursion. It starts at 1,900 rubles ($81) per hour and can hold 22 people.

While some schools organize their own individual proms, there is another option: huge balls with thousands of students from multiple schools.

The best-known one is organized for Moscow's gold and silver medal winners — students who graduate with only top grades on their report cards. The Moscow City Education Department finances the ball, held at Gostiny Dvor on June 26, and the 5,000 invited students don't have to pay for tickets.

Less exemplary Moscow students can pay for tickets to large balls on the night of June 23 at venues including the Kremlin Palace concert hall, where tickets cost up to 5,000 rubles.

But perhaps the city's most over-the-top event is the Korolevsky Ball at Olimpiisky Stadium.

The ball has an Internet theme, with a mock-up of a computer screen as the backdrop and hosts walking on a giant keyboard. The ball includes the crowning of a prom queen — chosen by Internet voters — who wins travel vouchers worth $5,000.

Tickets cost 5,500 rubles ($232), and 3,000 students are expected, said Sergei Novikov, art director of the Korolevskoye agency, which organizes the ball.

At 12:30 a.m., the organizers promise a satellite linkup with the international space station and a message of congratulations from the astronauts.

Asked how this is organized, Novikov was laconic. "We have such a possibility."