Modest, Style-Conscious and Frustrated No More

Times Staff Writer

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."

Darlene Bergeson, a high school junior, will travel from Lake Arrowhead to model in the show and, with any luck, buy a dress. "So many of my friends want tickets," Bergeson said. "They've been waiting for this day."

Many Mormon teens say their fight over what to wear is with the fashion industry, not their parents or faith. "Guys that are attracted to [revealing] clothes I don't want," said Anna Gordon, a senior at Huntington Beach High School. "Instead of being noticed for my skin, I want to be noticed for who I am."

At Thursday's fitting, Jillian Green, 17, beamed as she modeled a pink tulle dress with sequins and beading.

"It's so puffy," said the senior at Sonora High School in Fullerton. "I feel like a princess."

Unlike cutting-edge stores that cater to teens, Nordstrom, one of the country's leading retailers, is known for its huge variety of fashion--from designer classics to trendy clothes. And the Seattle-based chain allows employees the freedom to satisfy individual customers, which resulted in small "modesty" fashion shows for teens last year in Kansas and in Montclair.

Company officials said that if Saturday's fashion show generates in enough sales, additional conservative fashions for teens will be considered for their stores.

To keep the momentum going after the show, leaders of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints plan a public relations campaign to reach U.S. Mormons, other faith groups and anyone else interested in modest teen clothes.

"We'd be there in a second," said Sabiha Khan, 24, a Muslim woman who works at the Southern California chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. "A lot of Muslims, especially teenagers, would love it. All teenagers like to look good."

Muslim teens have had to adopt many of the same strategies as Mormons. They sew up slits on long dresses. They take fabric from shawls or decorative pieces of the dress to craft sleeves. And they've established an informal fashion grapevine to alert friends to rare finds of stylish but modest clothing.

Khan said Muslim fashion shows held at mosques and community centers often attract 200 interested shoppers.

The lobbying for a better selection of modest clothing can have results, in much the same way the market for plus-size fashion has developed. Retailers sometimes overlook markets that "are right there in front of you," said Barbara Fields, a Los Angeles-based consultant to large retailers.

Some wonder if this could be the start of something bigger.

"Maybe the whole feminine, softer look could become a style as the antithesis of the whole Britney Spears trend," said Metchek of the California Fashion Assn.

"The pendulum has to start swinging the other way," agreed Baker. "I just don't think you can bare any more."

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