Mirror, Mirror: Affordable high fashion for the Ball

Teresa Nino tries out earrings with her Jovani gown with Christie Honigman. She got the dress at a local boutique.
Teresa Nino tries out earrings with her Jovani gown with Christie Honigman. She got the dress at a local boutique. (APRIL SAUL / Staff)

The Academy super soiree will see young women in rentals and do-overs - stylishly.

Posted: January 25, 2013

Whether it's combing through Grandmother's attic, recycling worn-before gowns, shopping at off-the-beaten-path boutiques, or hitting up the online luxury dress rental site Rent the Runway, young women attending Saturday night's Academy Ball will be changing up staid red-carpet rules.

"I'm renting my dress because I like the idea that I'm getting to wear a really nice designer gown without breaking the bank," said Andrea Lewis.

Lewis, 26, is a Rutgers University Ph.D. student whose gold beaded Nicole Miller will be arriving Thursday at her Center City apartment from Rent the Runway, where you can borrow from the latest special-occasion designer collections for a fraction of the price. Hers was about $200.

"I just wanted to go to the ball without experiencing the guilt that comes from buying an expensive dress."

Can you blame her?

The Academy's Anniversary Concert and Ball is the oldest white-tie event in Philadelphia. It's the city's most exclusive fund-raiser, a chance for distinguished Philadelphians to convene and laud the beloved Academy building.

For a long time, this event came with old-school rules: You wore real furs, heirloom jewelry, and, most important, classy gowns. Just because you had money didn't mean you should look like you spent it all on yourself that day.

Then Joanna McNeil Lewis took over as president of the Academy in 2006, and she upped the fashion ante. First, she raised the bar by unassumingly draping herself in sparkling seen-only-in-Hollywood gowns. Think Versace.

She also helped organize the Young Friends of the Academy of Music. Many of these members are both entrepreneurs and newlyweds, and that means they are on a bit of a budget. But they also are the city's next generation of movers and shakers (i.e., philanthropists), and public institutions are counting on them to carry out their mission. About 150 Young Friends will be attending Saturday's ball at a reduced $400 ticket (it's about $1,800 a person) - one way Lewis has tried to make the event more accessible.

What is Lewis wearing to the ball? Well, she won't divulge the designer, but she says it's similar to a look we've seen on her before. So I'm guessing it's going to be slinky and sparkling.

"You don't have to wear your grandmother's jewels anymore," she said.

The young members already know that, having grown up in a culture that praised all things cheap and chic. So expect to see paparazzi taking pics of sparkling Judith Leiber-like clutches just big enough for iPhones - for taking Instagram shots and texting Uber for rides home.

That still leaves room to follow red-carpet trends: bold red, black, and nude gowns, likely with lace overlays. And don't be surprised if we see a handful of the very fashion-forward long-sleeve dresses with deep cutouts in back.

At 25, Jessica Bass is about to be a first-timer at the 156th Academy Ball, where she also will wear a Rent the Runway item - a strapless black-to-white ombre Bibhu Mohapatra gown.

"Rent the Runway is great for women in my age group because our pictures live on Facebook forever," Bass said, "and we don't want to be in multiple events wearing the same dress."

Teresa Nino, a Young Friends of the Academy chair, will be sitting at a table with about a dozen single women, many of whom have skipped the expected appointments at showrooms at flagship New York department stores Saks Fifth Avenue and Bergdorf Goodman to shop local.

"I . . . just . . . love . . . my . . . dress," said Nino, describing the sparkling nude fishtail Jovani gown she picked at Marlene's Dress Shop in Collingswood.

"I mean it's perfect. I brought a few girlfriends there to buy their dresses because it's convenient and the dresses are beautiful and affordable . . . . She even threw in a free pair of earrings."

But recycling is acceptable, too. This year's ball will be 27-year-old Chelsea Irwin's fourth, and she's planning to don the ruffled red Valentino that made her a bold-faced name in local society pages two years ago.

"When I first wore the gown I wore my hair down, so you couldn't see the amazing ruffle on the side," said Irwin, a chair of the Young Friends group. "This time I'm focusing on hair and makeup and accessories. I know it's the same dress, but I'm going to update it."

And to wear again - thanks to first lady Michelle Obama - is pretty high-class.

Contact fashion writer Elizabeth Wellington at 215-854-2704 or e-mail her at ewellington@phillynews.com Follow her on Twitter @ewellingtonphl.

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