Families spending big bucks on big gowns as quinceañera parties return

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Quinceañera dresses dazzle in a crowded floor display

Quinceañera dresses dazzle in a crowded floor display at VIP Fashions at Philadelphia Mills mall. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

For Adila Merino, quarantine and virtual learning were rough, but not insurmountable challenges. Still, nothing prepared the Trenton teen for one of the biggest letdowns of 2020: postponing a long-awaited coming-of-age tradition for Latina girls.

Merino did not have a quinceañera when she turned 15 last November.

“You’re turning 15, meaning you’re going to adulthood,” explained Merino. “But we couldn’t do anything because of the pandemic, so it was really hard for me and my family.”

There is no doubt quinces, as they’re called for short, are great parties that combine Latin music the aunties love and the current tunes the kids are into. But for communities, it’s also a time to celebrate the fact the metaphorical village got another girl through her formative years. With religious undertones and father-daughter dances, there’s seldom a dry eye before everyone else hits the dance floor.

“It was such a special thing for our family culture,” said Merino.

Fifteen-year-old Trenton resident Adila Merino tries on a pre-made quince dress. She had to postpone her celebration because of the pandemic. (Courtesy of the Merino family)

However, once three COVID-19 vaccines were on the scene in the new year, Merino and her family wasted no time getting into party planning mode.

They rented out a local Mexican restaurant for the venue, assembled Merino’s “court” of damas and chambelanes, and, perhaps most importantly, selected a billowing tulle gown for her to wear that evening. Merino chose a baby blue dress that let her channel her inner Cinderella, with a facemask to match.

Merino finally had her party at the end of April and she is far from the only teen celebrating her quince months later than she would have liked.

People in the quinceañera industry in the Philadelphia region report a surge in families wanting to book everything from DJs to videographers — and fast — as vaccines have rolled out and even as some pandemic restrictions, like mask requirements, return.

“When we first opened back up, we were nervous because we’re like, we don’t know, you know? What are people going to do? Most people haven’t worked for a year or so, like, is their budget going to be deducted by half?” said Edward Zhelnovakov, general manager of VIP Fashion at the Philadelphia Mills mall. “But we’ve noticed they’re staying strong. Nobody’s really complaining too much [about costs].”

Businesses offering quince services in cities with large Latino populations, like Los Angeles, cite similar booms in what was already a thriving business before coronavirus restrictions went into place.

The details that make the evening magical add up for families.

There are the quince dresses, which rival wedding gowns in detail and complexity, start in the mid-hundreds and can exceed $2,500. And if the quinceañera wants to take part in a tradition where she gifts a special muñeca doll to a young relative, the doll has to have a replica of the birthday girl’s dress, which can cost another couple of hundred dollars.

For families opting for a religious ceremony before the big celebration, which has a strong Roman Catholic influence, the purchase of a special bible with a cover that matches the color scheme of the dress is also in order. Another tradition requires the quinceañera to enter the venue of the party in flats and then change into heels.

An ornately covered bible is an important accessory for the quinceañera celebration, which has its roots in the Catholic church. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Many families also choose to hire photographers and DJs for the night.

In 2019, Mi Padrino, a quinceañera and Latin wedding event planning platform, surveyed half a million quinceañeras. On average, the parties cost more than $21,000 — costs that are often split up among padrinos and madrinas, or godparents.

Stores like VIP Fashion report quinceañeras have only grown in popularity in recent years. Two years ago, increased demand prompted VIP to rent the retail space next door and dedicate it to gowns, thrones, and all other things quince.

Quince sales account for more than half of VIP’s business and these days, the store is selling three to four gowns a day, said Zhelnovakov.

Chris Vargas, store manager of Quince Dresses in Somerset, described a similar surge in sales since the vaccine rollout in New Jersey — as much as 20%.

“Many of [the girls] were not able to celebrate last year and instead of doing their 15s, now they’re doing their sweet 16s and so on,” explained Vargas. “And girls who are turning 15 or 16 this year are so much more excited that now they have the opportunity to open up their events, have a catering hall or banquet hall and celebrate, celebrate their special event with their friends and loved ones.”

While squeezing in two years’ worth of festivities sounds great for an industry of people who were left with less work for more than a year, it does pose a problem for some families.

Vargas said the pandemic disrupted the global supply chain for dressmakers and fabric shipments continue to lag. At the same time, seamstresses’ books are filling up with orders for 2022.

“Before, they used to make the gowns in approximately two, three, four months,” said Vargas. “Now they are taking four, five, sometimes six months to be able to make a quinceañera dress.”

With a rise in coronavirus cases driven by the delta variant, families are also finding venues are not ready to host large gatherings of more than 100 people.

“Before you could stay the whole day,” said 14-year-old Ashley Alexandra Gramajo, of Trenton, as she took a break from rehearsing the choreography she and her court will perform for guests for her upcoming quince — another tradition.

“Now they only give you like three or four hours. So that’s kind of a little bit stressing, knowing that we only have a little bit of time to set up everything. Like, we would start the party at 3 [p.m.] and it would probably end around 7 or so or 8 because we really don’t have enough time.”

Quinceañera dresses dazzle in a crowded floor display at VIP Fashions at Philadelphia Mills mall. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Still, people in the industry say quinceañeras like Merino and Gramajo are happy to have a celebration at all amid so much uncertainty.

For Gramajo, the party may not be as big or last as long as other quinces she’s attended, but the night won’t be any less special.

“You know that you had a moment where you had a huge celebration knowing your family is there, knowing all the people [who] care about you are there,” she said. “And having a great time, especially with the people you kind of really wish were there.”

More than anything, Gramajo likes that she can share this moment with her mother, who didn’t have a quince growing up, as well as family flying in from Ecuador and Guatemala.

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