It is always prom season at The Ultimate and even more so now that sisters and business partners Heather Siegel and Fawn Merlino have opened their brand new dress store on Route 1 South in Peabody.
Months ahead of the first prom of the season, East Boston high school girls, accompanied by their parents, have been traveling to the elegant new store at 160 Newbury St. in Peabody.
“We are now the largest prom store in New England and one of the five largest stores in the country,” Siegel says proudly.
It took a lot of work and a lot of vision for the sisters and their store to reach that level of, pardon the pun, prom-inence.
The Ultimate’s history dates back to 1969 when Heather and Fawn’s mother, Frances Merlino, opened the business in the basement of the family home on Winthrop Parkway in Revere.
Heather Siegel, 63, joined the business in 1971 and had ambitious plans to expand the store’s reach, doing shows in Boston, New York City, Los Angeles, and Las Vegas.
“The business began to grow and grow,” said Siegel. “We were basically sportswear and bathing suits. We were Revere girls and bathing suits were a very big part of our business. All the girls from the area came to buy their bathing suits and designer jeans at our store. We were the place.”
In 1995 with their business bursting at the seams, the sisters opened The Ultimate store in Saugus.
“We wanted a real store with windows so we moved to the property where Caruso’s Diplomat was on Route 1 and we were there for ten years,” recalled Siegel.
During the store’s existence in Saugus, it evolved into more of an evening wear and prom dress shop. The sisters expanded the business once again and moved their store to a 6,400-square foot space on Route 1 South in Peabody.
Earlier this month the sisters moved just up the road to their new store.
“People love our new store,” said Siegel. “We have plenty of space and a great lobby where the guys can watch television while waiting for their special lady to shop. My sister Fawn and I are really proud of the store. We have beautiful dressing rooms and 150 designated parking spaces. My mother actually found this location. She was an unbelievable businesswoman. Everyone loved her. She’s been a big influence to my sister and myself.”
The two women have the process of prom dress selection down pat so that no two students will purchase the same dress to wear the same prom.
“We register the dresses so nobody from the same school can buy the same dress for a prom,” said Siegel. “By the end of the season we fill four huge binders with high schools. We have a huge following from all of the Massachusetts counties and southern New Hampshire. We also have customers from Rhode Island, Connecticut, and even Canada.”
And the prom goers will be amazed by the wide selection available at the new store.
“We have 8,000 dresses in all sizes on our racks,” said Siegel. “We carry every single prom dress manufacturer that’s being made. I’d say the top five dress manufacturers are JSZ Couture, La Femme, Sherri Hill, Tony Bowls, and Paparazzi. There is a dress for every budget.”
The sisters pride themselves on individualized service and attention to detail.
“ We’ll help girls find the dress they want. We’ll give each girl one-on-one, personalized service. When the girls come in, they all have a dress in mind that they want. Ninety nine percent of the time, we have the dress and 99 percent of the time, they leave with a dress they like better.”
The prom dress selection process is well underway.
“We get busier and busier earlier every year,” said Siegel. “By January it really starts to break open. It’s just busy throughout the season.”
Siegel feels that prom night has grown in significance on the special occasion meter.
“Next to a girl’s wedding, it is the most important dress-up event of her life – it really is,” said Siegel. “It’s just a special occasion, such a special night that they want the dress that they love.”
Though prom dresses are the Ultimate’s main focus, the store also sells mother-of-the-bride-and-groom dresses, bridesmaids’ dresses, and dresses for special occasions such as Sweet 16 parties, Quinceneros, and bar mitzvahs. The store also has all kinds of accessories: jewelry, shoes, pocketbooks, and scarves.
Fawn Merlino, 49, said the new store is “a dream come true” for the two sisters.
“Our customers love our new store,” said Merlino. “There is a lot more space and dressing rooms. I think it’s a more enjoyable shopping experience. When you walk in, it’s just such a happy, upbeat look and I love to watch the girls’ faces when they walk through the door. You can see the expression of ‘Wow’ on their faces.”
Merlino said she’s happy to enjoy the success of the business with her sister.
“We get along well. We’re two different people but we blend well.”