The Princess Promenade 

With help from the Princess Project, low-income girls get ready for prom.

Gabriela Martinez takes a quick, sweeping glance at the jewelry display before her. The card table on her right bears all variety of evening bags: beaded, tassled, big and roomy on the bottom, decorated with rhinestones or little bows, clasped shut or held by a long string. Some of them are chic and magazine-ready, others a little on the dowdy side. In front of them lies another table piled high with scarves, brooches, strands of pearls all clustered in a large bowl, Cookie Lee earrings, kid gloves, sterling silver bracelets, and dangly necklaces. To her left, more shawls, more scarves, and more bags. All around Martinez, girls are rifling through the displays, stretching the gloves over their sweatshirt sleeves, and pulling out compact mirrors. Martinez has a slinky purple dress draped over one arm. She'll wear it to the Dewey Academy prom this May, and hopes to get some extra mileage out of it in the months that follow. Martinez looks fixedly at the purses.

"How about this?" asks Michell McKnight, handing Martinez a black beaded bag that couldn't hold much more than a tube of lipstick. McKnight, the office manager at Dewey Academy, has 22 girls under her charge that day, and does what she can to speed the process along.

"Black?" asks Martinez.

"What kind of shoes are you gonna wear?" McKnight demands.

"Black," says Martinez, accepting the purse. Within five minutes she's back in the lobby with dress and purse in tow, plus a goodie bag with samples from Bare Minerals, Hard Candy perfume, Urban Decay bronzer, and American Beauty lipstick — all courtesy of the Princess Project, a Bay Area nonprofit that provides prom dresses and accessories to girls who couldn't otherwise afford them. This spring, hundreds of girls will come to the Princess Project dress giveaways — held in storefronts throughout Oakland, San Francisco, and San Jose — and leave with all their prom paraphernalia, free of charge.

Martinez got ahead of the game this year, snagging her dress at last Saturday's special "boutique" event in downtown Oakland. Held in a donated office space on Broadway and 22nd Street (courtesy of the real estate company Metrovation), the boutique served groups from various East Bay high schools, after-school programs, and churches. Upon arrival the girls signed in, presented their high school IDs, and got assigned a "personal shopper" to help each of them select one dress and one accessory from the organization's giant collection. After a brief run-down, the girls entered in groups of four and got half an hour to choose a dress, try it on, and find an accessory to go with it. The personal shoppers kept track of time, helped with sizes, and ran dresses from the racks to the fitting rooms. They complimented the girls' dresses but never offered suggestions as to style or fit. "One of the things we make sure the personal shopper doesn't do is impose their personal style on them," said Patricia Martinovic, who has volunteered at the Princess Project for two years. "It's very much about asking the girl how they feel, as opposed to saying, 'This looks good on you.'"

Now seven years old, the Princess Project has served more than 9,000 girls to date. It was the brainchild of Laney Whitcanack and Kristi Smith Knutson, who both used to teach leadership skills to high school girls, in conjunction with San Francisco's Coro Foundation. One day Whitcanack and Knutson asked two of their students what they were wearing to the high school prom. The girls replied that they couldn't afford prom dresses, and probably wouldn't go as a result. Whitcanack and Knuston were disheartened. They sent an e-mail out to a few friends, asking if anyone had a dress she could donate. "It became viral," said Princess Project board member Wanda Cole-Frieman, who has been with the organization since its inception. Within six or seven weeks, the founders had collected enough gowns to hold a huge dress giveaway in the Presidio.

Since then, it's become an institution. The Project's all-volunteer staff works from November to April each year, gathering hundreds of dresses to give away to high school girls in need. The dresses come from everywhere, says Cole-Frieman: kids in high school who don't need them anymore; moms with cocktail dresses or old bridesmaid gowns; small retailers in Rockridge; Macy's. During February the Princess Project holds several dress drives to beef up its collection for all the giveaways in March and April. These drives account for most of the organization's inventory, although the Princess Project also solicits money donations through it's web site — partly for overhead, partly to pay for harder-to-find zero and plus sizes that have to be special-ordered. A group of volunteer tailors and seamstresses help get the gowns in perfect shape, since the organization can't pay for repairs. Other volunteers spend hours organizing the dresses by color and size, hanging them on racks, and setting up the jewelry display.

Throughout March and April, the Princess Project will launch makeshift boutiques in Oakland, San Francisco, San Diego, and Silicon Valley. The one on Broadway is stunning. At last Saturday's event, girls got to choose from a collection of about 3,000 frocks — enough to rival any nearby department store. There were tulle skirts, lacy bodices, taffeta, bright pink and tangerine fabrics, rhinestones, sequins, and spangly tiaras. More than 35 groups of girls would come in that day. Volunteers scuttled between the dressing rooms, running back for more dresses and hanging up the rejects. Many were mothers; some worked in high schools; others came from the fashion world (board member Sarah Anderson also handles PR for the Gap). All seemed to enjoy living vicariously through their high school clientele. Grown women still like playing dress-up, after all.

And the girls' excitement was palpable. "I feel like a Cinderella in the '80s," said one girl in a puffy jacket and bandana, holding a long fuchsia gown with bead patterns winding along the bodice. Twelfth-grader Brittani Franklin came to volunteer with her stepmom, and decided to pick out a dress for herself. "It's not just like, you know, bad giveaway hand-me-down dresses," said Franklin, who attends high school in Yuba City. "They're actually really pretty."

One of the happiest customers that day was Dewey Academy senior Diona Hunt. "My mom's gonna like, probably take this overboard — she's making me go," said Hunt, who will be seven months pregnant by May 16, the day of her school prom. But once Hunt chose her dress — bright yellow and flared — from the Princess Project boutique, she understood the intoxication of prom-planning. "I know nobody at my prom's gonna have a dress like this," she said. "I'm gonna be the biggest, poofiest, pregnant one there."


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