Prom loss breaks seniors’ hearts, some metro Atlanta businesses’ bank accounts

It’s one of the surest signs of spring in the South, right up there with blooming azaleas and the first clicks of the air conditioner.

Prom season, that sentimental high school sendoff, sweeps across metro Atlanta, leaving a trail of sequins and cherished (or cringeworthy) memories and boosting the bank accounts of dressmakers, florists, photographers, hair stylists and chauffeurs.

But in the age of the coronavirus, dance floors are deserted, limos are empty and gowns hang unworn in girls’ closets.

Instagram, usually jammed with posts of couples posing in scenic spots, is full of tributes to an abridged senior year cut short before the glitzy exclamation mark, the rite of passage that, cliched or not, ends every high school movie.

For the class of 2020, and the massive prom industry that makes money off those priceless moments, it’s a devastating loss.

“I think the seniors really want this just to say goodbye and just have one more night before we all leave,” said Giannys Roman, an 18-year-old senior who helped plan the canceled North Atlanta High School prom.

She spent the last year organizing the gala. The venue — a luxury Midtown hotel — was booked. The “carnival” theme — complete with stilt walkers, games, finger food and decorations — had been announced. They’d sold several hundred tickets, which will now be refunded for seniors or credited for juniors to cover next year’s prom.

“It was going to be big because North Atlanta is like ‘Go big or go home,’ ” she said.

Unfortunately, everyone has gone home.

The average family spent $919 on prom five years ago, the last time Visa published its annual prom survey. This year’s cancellations have left shops with racks of unsold frocks and dressmakers with sewing rooms full of custom-made, beaded and bedazzled gowns.

Tracy Hurd, owner of Girli Girl Boutique in Buford, estimates she’ll lose a couple hundred thousand dollars in sales. Customers who already purchased gowns have begged for refunds even though the store always has had a strict “all sales final” policy.

A cheeky sign posted at her cash register warns “no excuses, we have heard them all” and lists a few that won’t fly: losing or gaining weight, breaking up with a boyfriend, or a disapproving dad. Now, add a pandemic.

“We have been threatened. We have been cussed out,” she said. “I was told that I was the worst thing for our community.”

This spring’s shutdown threatens to disrupt an entire year of business.

Hurd begins ordering prom dresses in June and July. One of the industry’s biggest shows takes place in Atlanta in August, and designers and retailers fly in from all over to see the hottest trends.

The dresses she sells in January and February help pay for her inventory, and the usually busy months of March and April are crucial.

Dress retailers are wondering how they’ll afford to order homecoming dresses for fall shoppers. Girls typically pick longer gowns for prom and shorter dresses for homecoming dances. And store owners are concerned many of this year’s juniors will forgo buying a prom dress next year because they already have one they haven’t worn.

Hurd is sad for her customers, who agonize over the dress decision and sometimes drive hours to see her selection.

“This is such an emotional buy,” she said.

Sherlene Merritt, a self-taught Atlanta-based designer, left her Fulton County teaching job last year to devote herself to Forshe Boutique. She specializes in prom and bridal looks.

Last year, while still teaching, she made 55 dresses. This year, she was on track to nearly double that. In early April, after schools began canceling proms, she had 50 abandoned dresses at her house.

Her custom-made gowns cost between $750 and $2,000, and she requires a deposit up front that customers stand to lose if they cancel their orders.

While her clients are crushed to miss prom, some still plan to purchase their one-of-a-kind gowns because “this was a dress of a lifetime,” she said. Many girls skip prom when they’re younger so they can save up and go all out their senior year.

In Atlanta, prom is “over the top, especially in the black community,” Merritt said. Families gather for send-off parties and hire photographers and videographers to capture the perfect shots to post on social media.

“So many people don’t participate in that debutante experience. This is their opportunity to do that red carpet look,” she said.

Atlanta fashion designer Olivia Boykin creates gowns with opulent details like feathered shoulders, beaded bodices and slinky mermaid silhouettes. She hoped to dress about 30 girls this year, “and then boom, the coronavirus hit.”

Kimberly Dukes’ daughter, Janacia, had planned to wear one of Boykin’s gowns to the Maynard Jackson High School prom in late April at Zoo Atlanta. As a senior, Janacia was upset about missing the big event. So was her mom.

“I was a young mom, so I didn’t have a chance to go to the prom,” Dukes said. “This was a big moment that we all were looking forward to.”

With proms canceled, Boykin and her mother, Maxine, a longtime dressmaker, started sewing masks. Within hours of posting online about the masks under her No Instructions clothing brand, Boykin had sold several hundred dollars worth of the protective face coverings. She uses bold fabrics, like zebra stripes and colorful abstract prints.

“It’s better than nothing,” she said, adding she’s not sure how long masks will be in high demand. “I’m just going to ride it until the wheels fall off.”

Others who bank on prom season also are finding unique ways to pivot.

About 99% of Alimena Limousine & Worldwide Transportation’s business disappeared amid virus shutdowns. The luxury car service located near the airport serves many corporate customers.

Eric Alimena said springtime usually brings trips for golf fans to the Masters Tournament in Augusta and reservations from prom revelers, who want to ride around in a decked-out Mercedes-Benz Sprinter van with room for multiple couples, big-screen TVs, wood floors and leather seats.

As Georgia began to relax its restrictions, one of his clients planned a special prom alternative for their son, his date and another couple. The group of four teens dressed up for a photo scavenger hunt. They stopped at Chick-fil-A, took photos at Stone Mountain and at the Ferris wheel in downtown Atlanta and capped the night with dinner.

All told, it was an 11-hour experience— much longer than the short stop many couples make when they drop in and then quickly leave their traditional proms. Alimena is looking to offer the creative option to others who lost their proms.

And then, there’s Ricardo Moss. The Marietta-based DJ typically spins tunes at about 10 proms a year. When it became clear that students couldn’t safely gather to celebrate together, he and the Marietta High School principal dreamed up a way to bring the prom to students’ homes.

On a Saturday evening last month, DJ Ricky Moss donned a white jacket and set up his equipment on the school’s theater stage as cameras rolled. Students, teachers and others watched online as he played music for two hours, all while urging those at home to dance along to the virtual prom.

He was worried. Would anyone tune in? Could he keep up the energy when his live audience consisted of just the principal, cameraman and someone running the lights?

Moss stressed over what song to play first, knowing it would set the tone for the night. He chose right with OutKast’s “The Way You Move” and was soon flooded with about 600 requests, so many that his Instagram account crashed.

“Once I got finished being nervous about the first song, I just looked out and imagined a thousand people in front of me,” he said.