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Designing a Night to Remember

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For most of the year, Mahogany dress shop on 35th street is a quiet place. The owner, Sharod Baker, might make a dress or two a day, if that.

But every spring, at around the same time every afternoon, the store starts to fill up. And fill up. And fill up.

(sound of Sharod talking to a few of the girls, he's asking them what they think about a particular piece of fabric. They say no.)

The rest of the evening, the shop's  big glass door will rarely close all the way…as  high school girl after girl arrives.

Each one is here for the same reason: a prom dress. And not just any prom dress, a dress made by Sharod exactly to her specifications.

(sound of Sharod continuing to talk about the fabric. There's a moment here where he interrupts the girls to ask one specific girl what she thinks of the fabric. )

Some are just starting their designs with Sharod. They're picking out fabric and agonizing over neck lines.. Some are back for a second fitting, talking about hems and lace and linings. A few are here for the last fitting….the time to see if the dress they have in their hands is as perfect as the one they have in their minds.

By 5 the small store has an attendance that most high school teachers would envy.

(Sharod begins to tell Ivory that the fabric is gone)

Ivory Copperidge is one of the first students to arrive this day, but she's not getting good news. Sharod tells her that the fabric she chose for her dress--a cantaloupe orange chiffon lace--has sold out at the fabric store. This means Ivory has to go all the way back to the beginning, to a huge book of fabric samples.

(Sound of book pages turning, Sharod narrates this part a little bit. He says ''Is this is it? Is this the one you wanted? Yeah, well , what about this one." He's talking directly to Ivory and she's gently being obstinate. She says " No. Um, I don't like that one. Where's the other one?")

There's a silky material called 'charmouse.' A pink taffeta that's so bright it's hard to imagine it spread out over a whole person. There's a bunch of satin patterns, too, but most have flowers and Ivory doesn't like that.

(More sound of Sharod talking with the Ivory. Sharod: "All right so you want that one. Alright. Alright. Alright. I can do that. I'll have to go back to the fabric store. --here he's sort of hoping that Ivory relents a little bit. She doesn't. Ivory: Ok.)

If you've never had a piece of clothing made just for you, you might think it's a luxurious process. It's not. It's grueling. Ivory stops on her way home from Phillips Acadamy everyday to talk with Sharod about her dress and to make small changes.

It's the kind of process you can complete only if you've got the sort of single-mindedness teenagers have about prom night. Sharod says it's hard to calculate how long it takes to finish a dress, but 12 hours is a pretty safe bet. The dresses cost between four hundred and eight hundred dollars, and a lot of the girls pay it all themselves.

Like Ivory, most have the details of their dresses memorized.

COOPERIDGE:  My dress is cut high in the front and then low in the back, it's orange and lace. I like to stand out. Everybody just wants to look good. It's like a fashion show."

Not all the girls at Mahogany are waiting for their dresses. Some are making the dresses. Sharod hired four high school students through a Chicago Public Schools program called Education to Careers. One of the students, Tamra Rinder, gets to the store most days around 4, and works until about 8. Today she's gluing dozens of rhinestones—one at a time…onto  purple satin. In her free moments, Tamra is making her own dress, too.

RINDER: My dress is idiamond cut, and it has a train. It's almost a turquoise color. I think people at my school are going to be pretty excited since, you know, my school is a uniform school and this their chance to show off their figure...basically to show a lot of skin.

Not that Tamra is  above wanting to look good herself:

RINDER: I think my dress will look good , but it's like, provocative like those dresses. I don't really want toiwant the attention."
  Me: "Oh, come on."
  "Well, maybe a little.")

That's why prom is so intense for the girls who are getting their dresses made at Mahogany. It's not just that they want to make an impression, it's that they want to make an exact kind of impression. Sexy, or Stylish, or Sophisticated---most times all three.  The girls want to make sure they look so good that people can't help but see them exactly as they want to be seen.

Fortunately Sharod, has been making women feel good about what they're wearing for most of his life.

BAKER: I grew up in a house of women..I have one sister who's fashionable...I used to go shopping with her every Saturday... and that's I how I got close to women...because my sister had this scheme... she loved to shop and she could never decide what she wanted ..'should i get the purple blouse or the gold pants...and now I'm 50 dollars away from my limit and what should I get...Sharod , which should I get...' by the time I was 11 I could discuss fashion on a real high level

Despite his early introduction to the fashion work, Sharod took a roundabout route to becoming a professional dressmaker.

He grew up in public housing not far from where he opened Mahogany three years ago.

He's worked around the world, once as a  fashion middleman.

When he couldn't get what his customers wanted, he hired a tailor to make the stuff.  One time when the tailor messed up an order, Sharod fixed it himself. 

Though he's never taken a sewing class…Sharod says he's better at making dresses than anything else.

And he understands the young women he works for. 

BAKER: you know, it's crazy, I can identify with teenage girls…I can identify them as an artist....because I go into a zone when I'm dealing with fashion...they can meet my intensity...they cry for the dresses, shout for the dresses, love the dresses.

Or: By 6:30 there are still 12 girls milling around….. Until prom season is over, Sharod will be in the shop until 10 every night. He's got more than 100 dresses to complete by the end of this month. Each one will be have to be cut-down, or taken-out, or hemmed-in three or four times before it's worn to a prom. It's worth mentioning that the average prom LASTS ONLY about four hours.  For the girls who come Mahogany, and for Sharod, prom is about a lot more than one night, though.

BAKER: I believe in it, I believe in's not a scam.... I believe you should go in there that day and you should go in there like you're on top of the world... and make it last it last as long as you can...and if ever you're in a space where you are down...take a look at yourself in this prom dress and remember that night when you were beautiful.

For Chicago Public Radio, I'm Chris Neary. 

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