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Shamya Mitchell approached the mirror to see her prom dress. At a fitting this week, she examined the dress’ shape as designer Monica Monique applied pins. Custom gowns like Mitchell’s make up 70 percent of Monique’s business. Plenty of girls in the city still shop off the rack for proms, but custom dresses are all the rage these days.
Not that they weren’t popular before. For her prom at West Catholic in 2007, Monique actually made her own dress, a red number with white appliques. After that, she started getting requests. She launched an online business selling custom gowns while still in college at the Art Institute. Almost two years ago, she opened a brick-and-mortar location on Fabric Row. She has an urban fashion line called Oxymoron, also the name of her store, and regularly designs wedding gowns too. Her formal label is just her name, Monica Monique. In an email, she explained her pricing: “My gowns range from $300-$1,200 depending on the style, fabric and amount of hand detailing.”
A Monica Monique creation is best ordered at least a month in advance, provided she has openings. Prom season is her busiest time of the year.
Mitchell’s prom is in June. She attends Mastery on its Shoemaker campus in West Philly. She plays lacrosse and plans to attend Community College of Philadelphia next year to save money before transferring elsewhere.
For prom, she’s shooting for the ultimate slayage, and of course, that takes careful planning. She got inspiration from a picture of Kendall Jenner’s 21st birthday dress, itself a crystal chainmail homage to Paris Hilton. Mitchell wanted that look, but long, and she felt so moved she drew a design herself. A friend then found a good reference photo that looked close, and her mother recommended Monique.
“Monica made it come to life,” Mitchell said.
Monique remembers being in the minority of girls at her school, wearing something custom, and she felt like an outcast for making her own dress. But the trend is way more intense these days, she said.
“It has a lot to do with social media,” said Alyssa Jola, a visual merchandiser at the design shop, while working on a dress. Monique chimed in: “And celebrities, and people wanting to look like celebrities.”
Mitchell mentioned hearing about how someone older than her borrowed their prom dress. She can’t imagine that.
“I feel like with this generation, everything has to be red carpet everything,” she said.
The most sought-after prom look in Philly right now, the designer explained, is a form-fitting mermaid dress with a train. Customer after customer insists they can’t look like anyone else on that day, and then asks for that same silhouette.
“They all want the same thing, but want to look different,” said Monique. So a big part of her job is figuring out how to deliver on that.
The mermaid obsession
What do teens think the popular prom styles are these days? Including Mitchell, Billy Penn asked eight teens, and true to the rumor, each described that hourglass shape. Sheer, sequined, leather(-esque), metallic, lace, sparkly are all exceedingly common fabric choices; feathers are regularly added too.
“They get what they like, and then think that they the bomb, but then they just be like everyone else.” said Te’Corey Anderson, a sophomore at Mercy at 29th and Allegheny.
“A lot of people do copy off each other,” said Keimonne Robinson, a senior at George Washington in Somerton. Teens might start out seeking something standapart, but often share reference images through social media and wind up biting, or imitating the style. Robinson’s already found her prom dress. “It’s fitted, like mermaid style,” she said with a laugh.
Everyone agreed that social media amplifies the competition. They described fashion shaming-accounts on Twitter and Instagram that put locals on blast for subpar looks, and prom-themed accounts that post praises if you hit it out the park. “You want to make it on a prom page,” said Joselyn Sumpter, also a senior at George Washington. “You want to be the one that everyone says ‘Look at her! Her dress is cute! I want that dress.’”
Monique claimed some girls will even pay for those prom account reposts. “It goes so much further than the gown. Yes, the dress looks good on you, and it’s perfectly made, but did it get 1,000 likes?”
Hitting those #goals
Monique’s clients most often show her photos of Beyonce, Kim Kardashian and Jennifer Lopez. Through those ladies, the gowns draw much inspiration from Balmain, the French fashion house led by celeb darling Olivier Rousteing.
Working on custom prom dresses becomes more than the design. When a client wonders what to do with eye makeup, they discuss shadows. When a girl is concerned about her figure, Monique tells her not to mind that. She’ll help them work through shades, accessories, doubts and anxieties.
“I turn into a full-on stylist,” she said of the job. “They take my advice seriously because as a designer, they think I have a better sense of color. Not that I don’t, but I feel like: What looks on good on you? What makes you happy? I try to encourage them to wear what makes them feel comfortable.”
At Mitchell’s fitting, the teen was managing her expectations as Monique made adjustments to her the top of her dress.
“Just trying to imagine how it’s going to droop on me,” she said.
“This is really a reality check,” Mitchell added, seeing her body in the mirror. Half-heartedly, she reacted, “I have work to get done.”
“What are you talking about?” the designer responded immediately, dismissing Mitchell’s worries.
Mitchell decided to nix the choker they had originally talked about. Later, she explained that she’s hoping to distinguish herself with the shoes. A lot of teens want red bottoms. She’s shopping for Cinderella heels that look like glass, but with a peep-toe. Makeup is her passion, so she’s got that all planned. The hair she’s planning for the day is 34 inches long: “I don’t know where that goes, though.”
“That’s down to your knee,” Monique answered. She grabbed a measuring tape to demonstrate. “Here. That’s what Nicki Minaj and Cardi B are wearing.” Mitchell did a light, gleeful dance.
“I’m going to be snatching edges!” Mitchell said.
“Snatching edges? Is that what people say?” asked Monique.
“Yes,” Mitchell confirmed. “I’m really happy.”